Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The rightness is all

Anna Clark has a great interview with translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky at The Millions:
TM: Together, you’ve worked your way through some of the greatest fiction ever written. What are the unique pressures you have as translators of fiction that is both beloved and so highly regarded?

RP and LV: The pressure comes more from the quality of the writing itself. There are two questions that it might seem quite proper for a translator to keep in mind, but that in fact will spoil the translation. The first is, “What will the reader think?” And the second is, “How do we say that in English?” A good writer does what he or she has to do in the writing so that it “goes right,” as Robert Frost put it. There is at least as much intuition as intention in the process. A good translator has to follow that process far more consciously than the writer and yet come as close as possible in the new language to the instinctive “rightness” of the original. The greater the writer, the closer you want to come. That is both the challenge and the joy of it. But exactly what that “rightness” is remains undefinable, which is why there is no such thing as a definitive translation.
I would love to dabble in some translation myself. French is the language I read reasonably well, but I (for reasons mysterious even to myself - desire to write spy novels, or perhaps to read Dostoevsky in the original?) took several years of Russian in college, and have periodically said that with a dictionary and an infinite amount of time I could read anything - it is more accessible to me as a literary language than as a conversational one...


  1. Think Pevear/Volokhonsky are somewhat overrated because of the prevailing taste for translations that are rough-edged and awkward and as far as possible from Garnett. E.g. in their version of Chekhov's Steppe people's eyes keep growing "unctuous" whatever that even means.

    I tried translating Latin verse at college and the basic problem was that one always ended up with a completely different poem and usually not a good one. Remember feeling that the right relation of a translation to the original ought to be like that of an umbrella to the dome of St. Paul's: they should be roughly the same shape and almost have a purpose in common.

  2. classic P/V. I worked with them at Knopf and they're very funny in person.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.