Two weeks ago, Kat responded to my frustration about struggling through the first part of the new translation of Doctor Zhivago by pointing me to an article written by Paternak's niece who is less than pleased with Pevear's and Volokhonsky's treatment of the classic. What I found was an affirmation of what I had seen suggested elsewhere - that perhaps the failing of this translation lies in one of the greatest strengths of other Pevear and Volokhonsky work. It stayed close to the text of the original, resisted the temptation to offer syntax and vocabulary in a manner characteristic of English rather than Russian.
Ann Pasternak Slater suggests that the earlier translation by Max Hayward is actually superior to the new translation, resisting the impulse "to drift unconsciously into the linguistic aura of his original – in this case, to write a kind of Russified English. This is the danger besetting Volokhonsky and Pevear."
On a first reading, one is distracted by locutions that are somehow not quite right – often not strikingly, but continuously and insidiously so. They just don't sound English. The terrorist "was serving at hard labor". "Pavel had gone to bathe in the river and had taken the horses with him for a bath." (Hayward-Harari have "Pavel had gone off to bathe in the river and had taken the horses with him.") He "fell to thinking" ("stood thoughtfully"). "The spouses went rolling off" ("The couple drove off").
Sustained, low-level unease is intensified by un-English word-order. "Yura was pleased that he would again meet Nika." Inversions (ubiquitous in early Conrad) are natural to foreigners speaking English and a mistake in translators. The inversion of subject and verb, aggravated by an invasive parenthesis, is an elementary translator's error. "At the turn there would appear, and after a moment vanish, the seven-mile panorama of Kologrivovo." It is quickly apparent that Volokhonsky-Pevear follow the Russian very closely, without attempting to reconfigure its syntax or vocabulary into a more English form.
This misguided literalism is disastrous in dialogue. "Yes, yes, it's vexing in the highest degree that we didn't see each other yesterday" ("Oh, I wish I'd seen you yesterday").
But then she goes on to question what constitutes a superior translation - literal fidelity or capturing more subtle nuances in the text.
Volokhonsky-Pevear are ruled by the principle of literal fidelity, Hayward-Harari by the imperatives of clarity, elegance and euphony. Take Pasternak's description of a moonlit night rich with suppressed passion. In Hayward-Harari's version it begins:
"An enormous crimson moon rose behind the rooks' nests in the Countess's garden. At first it was the colour of the new brick mill in Zybushino; then it turned yellow like the water-tower at Biryuchi."
The unauthorised, italicised words clarify the implicit chromatic scale of the brightening moon.
"Beyond the crows' nests of the countess's garden appeared a blackish purple moon of monstrous dimensions. At first it looked like the brick steam mill in Zybushino; then it turned yellow like the Biriuchi railway pump house."
One may be more literally correct but that is not the one I necessarily want to read. Bellezza suggested I read the older translation but I did not have the opportunity to pick it up. Wish I had. Because ultimately this was not a novel about politics but a portrait of a simple man, a simple love that presented themselves in difficult times. There is something universally appealing about that, but the language of the new translation did not convey that simplicity. It clunked along in a labored way, dragging its orthopedic shoes through a story that should have danced like the effortless movements of nature that became my favorite parts of the novel.
So what is most important in a translation for you - literal fidelity or the more subtle, less faithful capturing of nuance even if that requires a slight act of infidelity to the original language? Or a little bit of both if that is possible? What are your favorite translations and what made them work for you?
Many thanks to all who agreed to read with me, and my apologies for being the moaning, complaining host. I struggled mightily. Described the reading as "painful." But made it through. Later on Tuesday, I will add links to other posts, most likely happier and better constructed views of a novel I hope at least a few enjoyed.