Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Ruined by a passion for the Russians

From P.J. Kavanagh, The Perfect Stranger:
Whatever my self-dissatisfaction I knew I had one gift for sure, an ability to recognise the best when my nose was rubbed into it. Indeed it was sometimes more like a curse, accounting for my restless disappointment with almost everything. But the best I was willing to give my life to, and it needs that kind of service. It is true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it needs recognition to be fully itself; appreciation gives it a patina, helps it to bloom.
Another aside that snagged my attention: "(It was about this time that I realised my greatest single literary influence had been Constance Garnett. Any chance of a decent style I'd ever had, ruined by my passion for the Russians.)"

I liked David Remnick's piece some years ago on translation:
As a literary achievement, Garnett’s may have been of the second order, but it was vast. With her pale, watery eyes, her gray hair in a chignon, she was the genteel face of tireless industry. She translated seventy volumes of Russian prose for commercial publication, including all of Dostoyevsky’s novels; hundreds of Chekhov’s stories and two volumes of his plays; all of Turgenev’s principal works and nearly all of Tolstoy’s; and selected texts by Herzen, Goncharov, and Ostrovsky. A friend of Garnett’s, D. H. Lawrence, was in awe of her matter-of-fact endurance, recalling her “sitting out in the garden turning out reams of her marvelous translations from the Russian. She would finish a page, and throw it off on a pile on the floor without looking up, and start a new page. That pile would be this high—really, almost up to her knees, and all magical.”
But I want to read someone's more ruminative essay on Garnett, Moncrieff and the other incredibly productive and influential translators of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (James Strachey's Freud should be in there too?). Andre Aciman prefers the Moncrieff translation to Lydia Davis et al.


  1. I have some fogeyish impulses in this matter: Moncrieff (pruned by Enright) is delightful -- to say nothing of the advantages of reading all seven volumes in the same prose. And I was distracted/annoyed by the new Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of Chekhov's "Steppe," which repeatedly described someone's eyes as growing "unctuous"; it is the sort of error no Victorian would have fallen into... (But on the other hand there is nothing as awful as William Morris's translations of Icelandic sagas.)

  2. I think there is a new book out about Kafka's early translators that seems pertinent here.