In Translation: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

by HRM on October 12, 2012

In Discussion at Shakespeare & Company

Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are the translating dream team. Husband and wife, American and Russian, tall and short – together, they have translated twenty-one classic Russian texts into English, working their way from Anton to Zhivago.

We joined them on Monday, October 1st at Shakespeare & Company bookshop. There, with the proceedings smoothed along by Professor Dan Gunn of the American University of Paris, Pevear and Volokhonsky gave performative readings of several of their translations and answered questions on the nature and art of literary translation.

Discussed: inventing proverbs, a Russian Winnie the Pooh, Beckett’s self-translations, and whether the translation can ever be better than the original.

war-and-peaceQ: I was wondering—obviously a lot of the books you translate date from decades or centuries ago, and I imagine that, much like the English language, the Russian language has evolved in that time—and I was just wondering how you deal with, for example, an expression that might have been very current at the time of Dostoyevsky but which has fallen out of use now. Would you look for an equivalent English expression from the time or would you try to find something which fit more with current language?

RP: I would try to find something that would work in current language but maybe had something of an old fashioned sound, if it should do. But certainly I wouldn’t use something which had fallen out of use or become markedly antiquated. I would never try to use antiquated language. I think that that’s a wrong—I mean, part of translation is in time, as you said. And in a way, the translation should be brought forward. On the other hand, we try not to use words that didn’t exist in the time of the original. I use this Oxford dictionary that gives you this historical date of when a word entered the language. And almost always I try to follow that. I sometimes break my own rule, but if it’s a saying or something like that I would try to find, first of all, an effective saying—I sometimes invent them. I’ve invented several proverbs in English. (He laughs.) There’s one in Gogol: “Neither Jack of the hill nor Tom of the mill.”

LV: (she recites it in Russian) It’s a good one. But even in this text that we last read, she uses rhymed—

RP: —And so does he—

LV: —rhymed sentences, and we try to do that. But we never do what’s called ‘a version for a modern reader.’ We don’t do that.

Q: Thank you. Now, I don’t know if you translate poetry, but translating poetry it must be almost impossible to achieve rhyme—words that rhyme at the end of each line.

RP: Yes, we did translate the poems of Zhivago at the end of Dr. Zhivago, which rhyme consistently. I didn’t rhyme them. Russians believe that any translation of rhyming verse has to, first of all, rhyme. Russian is very rich in rhymes while English is rather rhyme-poor. And so you get forced into saying things the poet never would have said just to achieve a rhyme. Which, I think, is the height of foolishness. Besides, we have a long tradition in English of unrhymed verse. For 150 years or so. Rhythm is important, though — [Boris] Pasternak has one poem in the form of a tchastouchka (an absurd dance form with rollicking rhyming verse) and he keeps the whole thing going in this rhythmic way. I tried to capture that rhythm without the rhymes. It’s a complicated question. Yves Bonnefoy has written very well about that. When they produced the entire Pushkin all in rhymes—dreadful!—but it all was in rhyme, in French. This was done also in America, under the influence of Brodsky, who also believed that every translation had to rhyme if the poem rhymed. They produced a whole collection of the Golden Age of Russian poetry, all of it trash. But it did rhyme! But it so distorts the poetry. Poetry doesn’t depend on rhyme—it depends on much broader rhythmic and compositional things.

LV: A Russian would disagree with you.

RP: (He laughs) But you are not ‘a Russian.’

LV: But Russian poetry is on a different stage, so to speak. Not in terms of progressiveness, but it’s simply at a different stage of its life.

RP: Larissa’s going to prove me wrong by pointing out that my translation of Pushkin rhymed. No, but it’s a children’s poem—children’s verse that doesn’t rhyme is just ridiculous.

Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

Q: I read certain books in two and, recently, in three languages and sometimes I find myself thinking that the translation is better than the original. Do you think it’s possible? And if it’s possible do you think the translator took some artistic liberties [with the source text]?

RP: In principle, I think that the idea that the translation is better than the original is nonsensical. Because the original is the original. And the translation wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the original, so the original has a prior claim. But then there’re all kinds of freedoms. Every time you say something about translation, it turns out the opposite is also true. You know, I loved, when I was a young student, The Golden Ass translated by Robert Graves. Now Robert Graves translates it into very simple narrative English. But it turns out Apuleius wrote extremely ornate, difficult Latin prose. If [Graves] tried to translate that into English, nobody would read it. But he made a wonderfully readable, hilarious book, out of The Golden Ass, which has something essential of The Golden Ass, but it’s completely different, stylistically. I’ve heard people say that Scott Moncrieff’s translation of Proust was better than the original. I have heard people say that. But they no longer say that, now that there are three more translations.

LV: There was a translation of Winnie the Pooh into Russian, which we all read when we were little. And it was an excellent and very inventive, brilliant translation. And some people—in fact Boris Zhakhoder [the translator] himself—said that it’s even better than the original.

RP: He made the mistake of saying that at my dinner table! With a whole group of Russians. And he said, “Some say it’s even better than the original,” and then he looked at me! (He laughs)

LV: It’s a good translation. But it’s very different from the original. Milne is never sentimental, for instance, and Zhakhoder is. He added a little bit of syrup. It was inventive. I mean it was a wonderful book and well-loved, but I cannot say it was a case of improving upon the original. It’s just something else.

Dan Gunn: Perhaps I could just add one word, being a person who works on Beckett: That might be a particular case, him being someone who translated his own work, changed it enormously sometimes. Cut a third of his novels out, even. And, in his case, I do think there’s translations, which I think—or which I, at least, prefer to the originals. That, in some cases, add to the original. If I just give one example, from Premier Amour, by Beckett. Just an example of how he can change it, with artistic liberty, as you said, if you’re the author himself. He says, “Personnellement je n’ai rien contre les cimetières.” So you imagine a straight translation to be, “Personally, I have nothing against cemeteries.” But the translation twenty-five years later by Beckett is, “Personally, I have no bone to pick with cemeteries.” I think one could say that that’s sort of an improvement, or at least there’s a better yield.

RP: Beckett could do it.

doctor-zhivagoQ: I’m curious about the nature of your collaboration. How do you iron out differences and how you end up coming to a final decision when you maybe disagree—if you disagree?

LV: We always agree!

RP: After a while. (pause) But that’s not an answer. That’s an avoidance!

LV: No we discuss things. Endlessly. And, for instance, I write the first draft, and I give it to Richard and he works with it and then he gives me the result. And I look at it against the original and I say, “Why on earth did you say that!”

RP: “You must have looked in the dictionary!” That’s what she says.

LV: And then we discuss it, and I say, “No, you can’t say that, that’s not it.” It’s an endless process of going back and forth until we reach a version that we both are pleased with. (To Peaver) Is this right?

RP: Yeah, that’s right.

shakespeare-coQ7: Have you ever come across particular passages that talk about things that are unique to the Russian consciousness that maybe we don’t understand as much, or just cultural differences that have presented difficulties for you?

RP: We may be running into that now with the Gogol play we’re currently translating, because it’s extremely Russian in mentality. It’s hilariously Russian but I don’t know if an American—but then the French translation is very good. Everybody laughed, anyway. This play was so extraordinary that when it was first produced the Emperor came, Nicholas I came, and was laughing his head off. And at the end of it he said, “We’re all in it! We’re all in it! Me, first of all!” So there was this immediate identification of the audience with this play. And they even said that the characters and the audience were on both sides of the lights. They were laughing at each other. So I don’t know if we’ll be able to catch that in English.

LV: In Liskov, there are some places which are very hard to deal with, because they do speak to us [the Russian people]. We do use footnotes in our translations.

RP: There’re whole kinds of experiences that are very deeply Russian that we don’t have, we never had. So it’s very hard to read yourself into it.
Q: Going back to the question of—well with English, it’s a complex language  where it has some lexical characteristics from the Romance languages and lexical characteristics from the Germanic languages, and I wonder if that plays a role in your translations? If you find yourself using a lot of Germanic equivalents versus Romance equivalents? Does that change? Do you find yourself doing more Romance derived words with Tolstoy, for example, who’s somewhat more French inflected than, for example, with Gogol? Do you feel a difference and does that play out in your translations?

demonsLV: I don’t think we can establish any distinctions from writer to writer, it’s rather we have to consider each particular case. Because in Russian there are also words with Latin roots then there are simple Russian words so then we decide depending on that. If Dostoyevski’s hero uses some complicated, sophisticated word, we might use words with a Latin root.

RP: I do think about it. The texture and the sounds of the words. How they feel. How Latinate they should be.

DG: I spoke a lot with a man who’s translating The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume I into French and he was amazed how Beckett almost always goes for the Latinate word, rather than something with a strongly Saxon feel to it. So I think it is possible with writers with an English push one way or another.

RP: And Tolstoy, you’re right, very often uses French syntax in Russian. And I think it’s important to try to keep that.

LV: Dostoyevski also, very often uses Gallicisms. We also try to keep it whenever possible, just to give it a little different rhythm.

Pevear, an American translator and writer, and the Russian-born Volokhonsky, met in 1976. Their collaborative translations have won the Efim Etkind Translation Prize, twice won the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize, and been noted worldwide. While largely translating from Russian to English, they have produced translations from Greek, Italian, and French.

Daniel Gunn, most known for his work on the Letters of Samuel Beckett, is a Professor of Comparative Literature, English, and European and Mediterranean Cultures at the American University of Paris as well as the Director of the Center for Writers and Translators.

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