My collection of Pevear / Volokhonsky translations.

When I began these For Love of Books posts, I began them with a specific purpose.  Because I love books.  Not just the words inside, but books themselves.  And I hate the Kindle.  I don’t hate all E-readers, and I can understand why people flock to them on some level.  But for me, they will never replace books.  My specific hatred of the Kindle stems partially from the concept, but mostly from the fact that Amazon has replaced Microsoft in my Holy Trinity of Wrong (it now sits alongside Walmart and the Yankees).

I bring this all up here, because this specific post deals with books that you can buy as opposed to e-books that you can get for free.  My guess is that it is relatively easy to get the great Russian novels – the works of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov – for free.  They were almost all written in the nineteenth century and even the English language translations have long since passed out of copyright protection.

But, those free novels that you’re getting aren’t the whole piece of the puzzle.  Certainly they are worthy of reading and you will experience, through one literary vision, the great Russian works.  My guess is that that vision is the vision of Constance Garnett.  Garnett translated 71 Russian works over the course of her career and we should be thankful for how much we can read in English thanks to her.

But, they are no longer the last word.  They are no longer the best translations out there, as is made obvious with every new release.  Granted, I have no knowledge of the Russian language.  But I know the English language and I know literature.  And there’s a magical world available to us now, thanks to the work in the last 25 years of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  They are the husband and wife team that has brought out new translations of the best works in Russian literature (excepting Fathers and Sons).

Here is what they have brought to us since 1990:

Works by Fyodor Dostoevsky:

  • The Brothers Karamazov  (1990)
  • Crime and Punishment  (1992)
  • Notes from Underground  (1993)
  • The Demons  (1994)
  • The Eternal Husband and Other Stories  (1997)
  • The Idiot  (2002)
  • The Adolescent  (2003)
  • The Double  (2005)
  • The Gambler  (2005)

Works by Leo Tolstoy:

Works by Anton Chekhov:

  • The Stories  (2000)
  • The Complete Short Novels  (2000)

Works by Nikolai Gogol:

  • Dead Souls  (1996)
  • The Collected Tales  (1998)

Other Russian Works:

They are currently working on the stories of Nikola Leskov.  I can only hope that they’ll get around to Fathers and Sons and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Here, by the way are some examples of their work, as compared to past translations:

from The Idiot

(Garnett):

“The portrait was indeed that of a wonderfully beautiful woman.  She had been photographed in a black silk dress of an extremely simple and elegant cut; her hair, which looked as though it were dark brown, was arranged in a simply homely style; her eyes were dark and deep, her brow was pensive; her expression was passionate, and, as it were, disdainful.  She was rather thin in the face and perhaps pale.”

(Pevear / Volokhonsky):

“The portrait showed a woman of extraordinary beauty indeed.  She had been photographed in a black silk dress of a very simply and graceful cut; her hair, apparently dark blond, was done simply, informally; her eyes were dark and deep, her forehead pensive; the expression of her face was passionate as if haughty.  Her face was somewhat thin, perhaps also pale.”

the last line of Brothers Karamazov

(Andrew H. MacAndrew):

” ‘And let’s always go like this, hand in hand, throughout our lives, and three cheers for Karamazov!’ Kolya shouted ecstatically, and again the boys cheered Alyosha.”

(Garnett):

” ‘And always so, all our lives hand in hand!  Hurrah for Karamazov!’ Kolya cried once more rapturously and once more the boys took up his exclamation: ‘Hurrah for Karamazov!’ ”

(Pevear / Volohonsky):

” ‘And eternally so, all our lives hand in hand!  Hurrah for Karamazov!’ Koyla cried once more ecstatically, and once more all the boys joined in his exclamation.”

and, of course, the famous first line of Anna Karenina:

(Joel Carmichael):

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

(Garnett):

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

(Pevear / Volokhonsky):

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

and that brutal climax of the same:

(Carmichael):

“A little peasant was working at the rails muttering something to himself.  And the candle by which she had been reading that book that is filled with anxiety, deceit, sorrow, and evil flared up with a brighter flame than ever before, lighted up everything for her that had previously been in darkness, flickered, dimmed, and went out forever.”

(Garnett):

“A peasant muttering something was working above the iron.  And the light of the candle by which she had read the book filled with troubles, falsehoods, sorrow, and evil flared up more brightly than ever before, lighted up for her all that had been shrouded in darkness, flickered, began to grow dim, and was quenched forever.”

(Pevear / Volokhonsky):

“A little muzhik, muttering to himself, was working over some iron.  And the candle by the light of which she had been reading that book filled with anxieties, deceptions, grief and evil, flared up brighter than ever, lit up for her all that had once been in darkness, sputtered, grew dim, and went out for ever.”

I often get asked what the point is of owning different copies of the same books.  Well, with translations, this is the reason.  Because every time you go back to it, you can back to a different one, like exploring it anew once more.  And with these wonderful translations, we continue to get vibrant new realizations of those great works of literature.  I’m not the only one who thinks so.  The Everyman’s Library, with those great hardcover copies of great literature (that’s an Everyman version of Crime and Punishment in the picture above) has been using the Pevear / Volokhonsky translations in their newest editions.

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