MLA: being true to the Russian master

December 15, 2000

Richard Pevear explains why the first new translation into English in 40 years of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina was necessary

Why is there a need for a new translation of Anna Karenina ? The version by Louise and Aylmer Maude, first published in 1918, is excellent and still in print. The Maudes knew Tolstoy and belonged to Tolstoyan circles; they also knew Russian well; and their English has the "flavour of the period". Eighty-two years is a remarkably long life for a translation. There have been at least three more versions published during that time, but none of such distinction. And yet we have ventured to appear with a new one. Two opposite explanations immediately suggest themselves: either we wanted to recast the book into contemporary English, making it more "friendly" to new generations of readers; or we wanted to make a more literal rendering, perhaps clumsier than the Maude version but closer to Tolstoy's Russian. Both are wrong.

A translation "issues from the original - not so much from its life as from its afterlife", as the German critic and occasional translator Walter Benjamin wrote in his now classic essay, The Task of the Translator . The afterlife of the original is the period of its fame, expressed in a constant process of reading and re-reading, evaluation and re-evaluation, interpretation and reinterpretation and also, though at a slower pace, of translation and re-translation. The art of translation stands somewhere between creation and criticism, in dialogue both with the original and with its own language. Ultimately, as Benjamin says, it "serves the purpose of expressing the central reciprocal relationship between languages". The key word here is "reciprocal".

It is often said that new translations are needed because language changes quickly, and while the original successfully resists change, translations become dated and must be replaced. The fact is, however, that language changes far more slowly than we, in our rapidly changing world, are so ready to believe. The Maude version of Anna Karenina is evidence of that. There are very few words in it that have gone out of use or have acquired a different meaning (like "gay"); the syntax is also more or less today's, only slightly stiffer. Nothing here really needs updating.

But the nature of the dialogue between translator and original - that is, the idea of the art of translation itself - has changed significantly since the Maudes' time. In the reciprocal relationship between languages, the translator is pulled two ways at once: towards assimilation of the original to the stylistic standards of the new language, and towards a shaping of the new language to the "foreignness" of the original. The Maudes still belonged to the period when it was assumed that translations into English should be wholly assimilated to the perceived standards of good English prose. Our practice is to listen more attentively to the original, to allow our language to be strongly affected not only by the Russian but, in this case, by Tolstoy's Russian. This is by no means a matter of mere literalism; it is a constant balancing act involving the minds and sensibilities of two translators, one a native speaker of Russian, the other a native speaker of English. We have no interest in putting Anna Karenina into contemporary "reader-friendly" English; in fact, one of our principles has been to use no English words that were not current in Tolstoy's time. On the other hand, we would not write anything that we could not actually say. Our only aim as translators has been to bring into English as much as possible of this 19th-century Russian novel, meaning also its rhythms, tone and temperament.

Tolstoy did not write "good Russian prose". Like every great writer, he created a language of his own, shaped to his own ways of seeing and feeling, marked by his own peculiarities and even tics (Russian readers know, for instance, that Tolstoy's characters never simply "feel" but always "experience a feeling"). Konstantin Levin, the second protagonist of Anna Karenina , is Tolstoy's fullest self-portrait. If you imagine the linguistic equivalent of Levin's character, you will have a good idea of Tolstoy's Russian style. It is often deliberately clumsy, sometimes aggressive, full of verbal and syntactic repetitions. Tolstoy cultivated these rough qualities; he called writers overly concerned with fine style "hairdressers". For his translators, however, he poses a peculiar problem. There is a risk that the roughness will be attributed to their lack of skill rather than to Tolstoy's artistic intention: a smoothly assimilated translation may also seem "better". And if the Russianless reader begins to doubt the translator, the game is up. There is a fine line to be drawn here, and some "correcting" of the original is inevitable, though I believe our translation is less "corrected" than any of the others.

But there are cases when Tolstoy's intention is clear, and then the translator must follow it or lose the character of the original. An example is the description of the merchant Ryabinin's little gig standing at Levin's porch:

"A little gig was already standing by the porch, tightly bound in iron and leather, with a sleek horse tightly harnessed in broad tugs. In the little gig, tightly filled with blood and tightly girdled, sat Ryabinin's clerk, who was also his driver."

Tolstoy makes it obvious to the reader that both he and Levin despise Ryabinin and therefore his image reflected in his little gig and his clerk. The Maudes, who sometimes suffer from the professional malady of "translator's timidity" (a fear that the boldness of their author will look odd in English), reduce the repetitions by one and soften the syntax considerably:

"At the porch stood a little cart strongly bound with leather and iron, and to the cart was harnessed a well-fed horse with broad, tightly-stretched straps. In the cart sat Ryabinin's clerk (who also performed a coachman's duties), his skin tightly stretched over his full-blooded face and his belt drawn tight."

The point is not lost, but it is certainly blunted.

There are other things to be gained by listening attentively to the original. For instance, there is the problem of the continuous tense, which is used more extensively in Russian than in English. The translator cannot always keep it, but sometimes it is essential. Early in the novel, Vronksy meets Anna at a social gathering. The Maudes translate:

"Steps were heard at the entrance, and Princess Betsy, knowing that it was Anna, glanced at Vronsky. He was looking at the door with a strange new expression on his face. He gazed joyfully, intently, and yet timidly at the lady who was entering, and slowly rose from his seat. Anna entered the room holding herself, as usual, very erect, and without changing the direction of her eyes, approached her hostess, walking with that quick, firm yet light step which distinguished her from other Society women. She shook hands, smilingly, and with the same smile looked around at Vronsky."

Our version follows Tolstoy more closely:

"Steps were heard at the door, and Princess Betsy, knowing that it was Anna, glanced at Vronsky. He was looking at the door, and his face had a strange new expression. He was looking joyfully, intently, and at the same time timidly at the entering woman and slowly getting up from his seat. Anna was entering the drawing room. Holding herself extremely straight as always, with her quick, firm and light step, which distinguished her from other society women, and not changing the direction of her gaze, she took the few steps that separated her from the hostess, pressed her hand, smiled, and with that smile turned round to Vronsky."

The simultaneous movement of the two characters in relation to each other is beautifully expressed in Russian by the sequence of continuous verbs. Of course, Tolstoy was not striving for any special stylistic effect; he simply saw it that way, and so did we when we translated it; only afterwards did we recognise the rightness of it. The differences these two brief examples point to may seem slight, but they should be imagined stretching over the 800 pages of the novel.

The interest of translation as an art of the word lies not in the dissolving of one language into another, but in the freedom of movement between two languages: this paradoxical "between" is the translator's natural terrain.

Richard Pevear translated Anna Karenina with Larissa Volokhonsky. It is published by Penguin, price £20.00.



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