Some Thoughts on Translating Tolstoy and Others

Alongside Larissa Volokhonsky, Richard Pevear has translated numerous Russian novels, including The Master and Margarita and War and Peace. He writes here of the complexity of interpretation. (This article first appeared in the March 2014 issue of the Folio Magazine).
[caption id="attachment_3666" align="aligncenter" width="700"]Leo Tolstoy Leo Tolstoy[/caption] In 1868 Tolstoy published a brief essay entitled ‘A Few Words Apropos of the Book War and Peace’ in which he made a deliberately provocative assertion: ‘What is War and Peace? It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it was expressed.’ What interests me is Tolstoy’s claim that the matter he was writing about called up a specific form of expression, an ‘event’ in language, from which it was inseparable, and which could not be defined in generic terms. Tolstoy implies something essential here that goes beyond (or beneath) the ‘unity of form and content’, which we accept without thinking. It is something that is generally forgotten in discussions of literary translation. In every translator a debate goes on between the inimitable and the so-called ‘norms’ of his own language, as they have developed over the centuries. One acquires the sense of those norms unconsciously for the most part, which gives them a peculiar power. They assert themselves without our intending it. In a recent article on translation entitled ‘Reading It Wrong’ (New York Review of Books, 9 May 2013), Tim Parks begins by asking: ‘How far is language really able to communicate something new, something that runs contrary to my expectations? Or rather, how far will I allow it to do so?’ And he goes on to examine the problem of ‘automatic correction’, in which even an experienced translator, faced with the unexpected, ‘will end up reducing the text to something more conventional’. Imagine the translator’s dilemma when the unexpected takes the form of Tristram Shandy, or Tom Jones, or Pride and Prejudice, or Great Expectations, or Moby-Dick, or The Sound and the Fury, or Ulysses, or At Swim–Two–Birds. And of course the list could go on and on. Each of these works is ‘what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed’. Each is an ‘event’. No universal norms can take their measure, and no general rules of translation can be applied to them. The translator must silence his inner censor and follow where the author leads him. Even from that simple list of titles, one can feel the energy of the originals; the same is true if we recite Russian titles: The Captain’s Daughter, War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, Dead Souls, The Master and Margarita, The Foundation Pit. That energy is the ongoing presence of the works among us, their continuous happening. And that is what the translator must be faithful to. The Russian poet and translator Olga Sedakova has said: ‘The translator’s task is to find the zones of the Present, open and alive in the original – and to make them sound in a new language’ ('The Art of Translation. Some Remarks’, a talk given in English at the British Library, April 1997). This paradoxical task requires both the closest attention to the words of the original and a sense of ‘the whole of an author’s imaginaire (as they now call it), which transfigures the parts of common language’. And she adds: ‘The only instrument we can use to grasp the whole is, unfortunately, intuition and not theoretical premises and statements … The key to the whole – if it exists – is hidden in a strange place.’ The Brothers Karamazov, like all of Dostoevsky’s work, is composed in voices, including the voice of the author-narrator, who is demoted from being omniscient and is above all not Dostoevsky. He is one voice in the multi-voiced whole of Dostoevsky’s play with the poetics of fiction. We hear that clearly in the opening note ‘From the Author’, where he makes such statements as ‘One thing, perhaps, is rather doubtless,’ or ‘Being at a loss to resolve these questions, I am resolved to leave them without any resolution.’ It was customary for critics, Vladimir Nabokov vociferous among them, to say that Dostoevsky simply wrote badly, and English translators have helpfully corrected his ‘faults of style’, not realising that by doing so they were removing a whole dimension from the novel. [caption id="attachment_3667" align="aligncenter" width="700"]War and Peace illustration Igor Karash Illustration © Igor Karash from War and Peace[/caption] Tolstoy, on the other hand, everywhere asserts the omniscient authority of his narrator, who is clearly himself, analysing the events he narrates and telling us what to think about them. But Tolstoy’s sensibility – the ‘whole’ of his work – is so vast, so inclusive, and so self-contradictory, that it overrides the narrator’s authority. And that whole, again, is expressed through words, through style, from the most extended formal rhetorical structures to the absolute simplicity of a sentence like ‘Drops dripped.’ Tolstoy was proud of his judgements, as he was of his rhetorical devices; the tenderness, the openness of his sensibility expresses itself with a delicacy we don’t expect from him, and that he seems almost not to expect from himself – but all the more effectively for that. Interestingly, Dostoevsky’s first published work was a translation of Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet (1844), and Tolstoy’s first experiments with style were in a translation of Laurence Stern’s, which he began while accompanying his brother on duty in the Caucasus in 1851. Each was twenty-three at the time. Every translation is, of course, an interpretation, like the performance of a play. Interpretations may vary greatly, while the play remains the same. What I’ve been describing here is our way of interpreting. We try to hear what happens in the original, how it speaks, the ‘event’ of its language, and to catch that same way of happening in English. We feel free to ignore the nagging of the inner censor, to make English say things it hadn’t thought of saying before it was faced with the Russian; that is, to expand the possibilities of English, just as the Russian translators of eighteenth-century French and English literature expanded the possibilities of Russian and prepared the way for the great prose of Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.
War and Peace is now available in a two-volume set featuring illustrations by Igor Karash.