Saturday, May 4, 2013

The A-Team of Russian Literary Translation

The Russian Classics

An article, by  Kevin Mahnken, in Humanities looks into the lives of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the most notable and famous translation team of the Russian classics. If you desire an exceptional faithful rendering in English of the Russian classics, you would be hard-pressed not to select their translation. I have many of their translated work in my library.

Mahnken writes:
But there is nothing simple about the ongoing Pevear-Volokhonsky partnership (known widely in literary circles as PV). Their output, spilling over tens of thousands of pages and encompassing the hundred-fifty-year golden age of Russian literature, rivals even their most prolific forerunners in both quality and quantity. It is easier to list the canonical prose authors they have neglected (only Turgenev and Nabokov, though Larissa has lobbied her husband to turn their attentions to the former) than all of those they have translated. From the Patriotic War against Napoléon to the era of nineteenth-century radicalism and reform, and then on to the October Revolution, the Communist terror, and the postwar period, the Pevear-Volokhonsky project now surveys a cultural expanse as broad as the Siberian frontier.
Even their unconventional division of labor sets them apart from their contemporaries. Occupying separate rooms, husband and wife execute a two-step process that begins with Larissa’s word-for-word English rendition from the original. Richard, who speaks only basic Russian, then shapes Larissa’s special proof into literary English while rejecting anachronistic vocabulary and constructions. After hundreds of chapters, revisions, and personal consultations, the method has resulted in two prestigious PEN Translation Prizes and—as a mark of their uncommon public acceptance—a much-coveted selection to Oprah Winfrey’s juggernaut book club.
Now they have passed another important milestone. In putting their stamp on Lev Tolstoy’s final novel, Hadji Murat, they have at last reached the end of the great author's major writings. But if translating the life’s work of Russian fiction’s foremost master were cause for a certain amount of triumphalism, you wouldn’t know it from talking to P and V.
Asked if he believes they have delivered dispositive English versions of the great works of Russian literature, Richard responds flatly, “I don’t believe in definitive translations.” Larissa similarly demurs: “The thing is that, we cannot set ourselves such a goal. We set ourselves a goal to make a faithful translation that conveys the style, the voice, the spirit of the original. . . . Some translations live for a very long time—but that does not mean that there should not be new translations. In fact, if there are no new translations, that means something’s wrong. The work is dead.”
Such is the making of good translations, as faithful as is possible to the original work, but in another language.  Their first major translation was Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, improving on the translation by David Magarshack. The couple, married since 1981, now reside in Paris. Kudos and much aprecaition to the team of Pevear-Volokhonsky for almost three decades of outstanding work; they have been collaborating since 1986.

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You can read the rest of the article at [Humanities]

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