Sunday, January 22, 2006

Books: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volohonsky

Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are best known for their translation of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina - which was selected by Oprah Winfrey for her Book Club. They are my default translators for Russian literature. You could say they were the ones who introduced me to Dostoevsky, through their translation of Crime and Punishment.

Apparently one fine day many years ago, Volokhonsky happened to scan through a translation of The Brothers Karamazov that Pevear had been reading. She was dismayed at the unworthy effort. Later the husband and wife team decided to try a little translation of their own. Small beginnings, as they say.

I dug up this article on them. A little on their relationship and how they go about their work. I like the idea of them coming together because of a shared love of Russian literature, and coming together to share this love in their translations. Their translations feel intimate because of this.
... it was a love of Russian literature that brought Pevear and Volokhonsky together. Volokhonsky, who was born and raised in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), first visited the United States in the early 1970s and happened across Pevear's Hudson Review article about the Soviet dissident author Andrei Sinyavsky. (A part-time academic, Pevear teaches courses in Dostoevsky and 19th and 20th century Russian writers at the American University of Paris.)

"Larissa had just helped Sinyavsky leave Russia," Pevear recalls. "And she let me know that, while I'd said he was still in prison, he was actually in Paris. I was glad to know it." Married 22 years ago, Pevear and Volokhonsky have raised two trilingual children and now live across the street from Samuel Beckett's old apartment. But if the couple's personal and private lives have always been intertwined, the thing they seem to have in common with the writers they've translated is a long-standing love affair with the Russian language itself.

In Russia, literary translation is viewed as an art unto itself. In English-speaking countries, it tends to be seen as a specialized, second-order occupation -as a result, good translations into English can be hard to come by and tough for even the best translators to sell. But Pevear and Volokhonsky put more care into their translations than many authors put into their own work.

First, Volokhonsky produces a rough, literal translation. Then Pevear - a Boston native who admits that his "Russian is not great" - produces a more idiomatic draft. Next, he says, "Larissa goes over it, raising questions. And then we go over it again. I produce another version, which she reads against the original. We go over it one more time, and then we read it twice more in proof."

With Anna Karenina, the process took about a year and a half. In the case of Tolstoy's War and Peace, which Knopf is due to publish in the fall of 2007, it will take much longer -"it's four novels in one," Pevear explains. Other upcoming projects include translations of Bulgakov's White Guard, Alexander Pushkin's collected prose, and, Pevear and Volkhonsky hope, a book or two by Chekhov's mentor, Nikolai Leskov - "A great writer," they say, "who keeps going out of print."

List of Their Translations:
Anton Chekhov
  • The Complete Short Novels
  • Stories

    Mikhail Bulgakov
  • The Master and Margarita

    Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • The Eternal Husband and Other Stories
  • Crime and Punishment
  • The Brothers Karamazov
  • The Idiot
  • Demons
  • Notes from Underground
  • The Adolescent
  • The Double and The Gambler

    Nikolai Gogol
  • Dead Souls
  • The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol

    Leo Tolstoy
  • What Is Art?
  • Anna Karenina
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