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"Ya ne govo'ryu po russki"
July 18, 2006 9:40 PM   Subscribe

Can anyone recommend an English translation of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina?

I've almost completed Anthony Brigg's new translation of War and Peace and while decent, it wasn't all I was hoping it would be. I prefer more antiquated language while still remaining readable and engaging. A few idioms in the Briggs translation seemed too contemporary and disrupted the 19 century world I envisioned. This previous AskMe for W&P mentions the Maude and -of course- the "Oprah" Editions of Anna Karenina. Someone also recommended to me the Magarshack translation by Signet.

I like to chew on words, so maybe even the Edwardian period version by Garnett would be best. Can anyone suggest one over another?
posted by yeti to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
I have read both the Garnett and Pevear & Volokhonsky translations and vastly preferred the latter. I think Pevear & Volokhonsky stuck to the original, more "antiquated" language -- nothing contemporary-sounding or jarring -- while also letting the text breathe a bit more than Garnett, and allowing more of Tolsty's humor to come through.

But certainly YMMV. My suggestion would be to read the first page or two of each translation and from that initial impression see which one appeals to you more.
posted by hazelshade at 10:18 PM on July 18, 2006


The Pevear and Volokhonsky edition has been pretty universally acclaimed. There was an incredibly long NYer article a few months ago about it and the history of Russian literature in English. The take is that PV are the first to combine Russian and English skills and they were willing to preserve the brusque sloppy reality of Tolstoy's prose.

Constance Garnett is a fairly awful writer.

For more unhelpfulness.
posted by kensanway at 10:19 PM on July 18, 2006


For more unhelpfulness
posted by kensanway at 10:19 PM on July 18, 2006


At the 92nd St Y, Erica Jong said she liked the P+V translations of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.
posted by brujita at 10:42 PM on July 18, 2006


Snowman, it might help you to see a direct comparison of different versions. First, Garnett (1917):
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Everything was in confusion in the Oblonskys' house. The wife had discovered that the husband was carrying on an intrigue with a French girl, who had been a governess in their family, and she had announced to her husband that she could not go on living in the same house with him. This position of affairs had now lasted three days, and not only the husband and wife themselves, but all the members of their family and household, were painfully conscious of it. Every person in the house felt that there was no sense in their living together, and that the stray people brought together by chance in any inn had more in common with one another than they, the members of the family and household of the Oblonskys. The wife did not leave her own room, the husband had not been at home for three days. The children ran wild all over the house; the English governess quarreled with the housekeeper, and wrote to a friend asking her to look out for a new situation for her; the man-cook had walked off the day before just at dinner-time; the kitchen-maid, and the coachman had given warning.

Now, Pevear and Volokhonsky (2000):
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

All was confusion in the Oblonskys' house. The wife had found out that the husband was having an affair with their former French governess, and had announced to the husband that she could not live in the same house with him. This situation had continued for three days now, and was painfully felt by the couple themselves, as well as by all the members of the family and household. They felt that there was no sense in their living together and that people who meet accidentally any any inn have more connection with each other than they, the members of the family and household of the Oblonskys. The wife would not leave her rooms, the husband was away for the third day. The children were running all over the house as if lost; the English governess quarrelled with the housekeeper and wrote a note to a friend, asking her to find her a new place; the cook had already left the premises the day before, at dinner-time; the kitchen-maid and coachman had given notice.
Finally, let's hear from Vladimir Nabokov, who greatly esteemed both Tolstoy and "Anna Karenin" (as he translated the title). This is not a translation from scratch, but a correction of Garnett's version, which his U.S. college students used — and which he termed "a complete disaster." Here is VN, as taken from his Lectures on Russian Literature:
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

All was confusion in the Oblonski house. The wife had discovered that the husband had an affair with a French girl, who had been a governess in their house, and she had declared to her husband that she could not go on living in the same house with him. This situation was now in its third day, and not only husband and wife, but all the members of the family and the household, were conscious of it. Every person in the house felt that there was no sense in their living together, and that the stray people brought together by chance in any inn had more in common with one another than they, the members of the family and household of the Oblonskis. The wife did not leave her own rooms, the husband had not been in the house for three days. The children ran wild all over the house; the English governess had quarreled with the housekeeper, and wrote to a friend asking her to find a new place for her; the chef had walked off the day before just at dinner-time; the woman who cooked for the servants and the coachman had given notice.
For this reader, the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation is the more fluent and more "modern," but only the third approaches art. Alas, that is the version that never was.
posted by rob511 at 11:51 PM on July 18, 2006 [1 favorite]


Pevear and Volokhonskaya (to use my own preferred rendering of her Russian name) are pretty bad; their critical success is due to the fact that English-language critics can't read Russian (and perhaps don't actually read the translations very carefully). There's a LH thread on the New Yorker article kensanway mentions, in which someone who actually knows Russian says of the P&V versions:
When you compare the English to the Russian, you find mistranslations; inconsistencies of approach (sometimes idioms are translated literally -- even if they make no sense; sometimes not); stylistic errors; literalism; mixed styles; and just plain old bad English. As far as I recall (true, I've lived in Moscow for many years), you can't say "he drank up his pants" in English. And does anyone whose native language is not Russian know what "unclean powers" might be? Or do you think a 19th century Russian peasant could say, "Well, I declare!" My colleague, who has been doing the lion's share of analysis, has been entertaining and horrifying me with examples for months now. Sometimes I accuse him of making them up because they sound like parodies of bad translation, not something that won the PEN Club Translation Prize...

We started this because I'd been reading so many rave reviews of the P/V translations, I was curious. I expected to find them rather good. I cannot understand how reviewers can write about translations without knowing the original language and/or checking the translation against the original.
I personally think Garnett is not nearly so bad as she's made out to be (particularly by Nabokov, who—it should be borne in mind—also despised Dostoevsky); if you like her "voice," I don't see why you shouldn't read her version.
posted by languagehat at 5:50 AM on July 19, 2006


I can vouch for Pevear-Volokhonsky's translation of Chekhov's short stories over Garnett and a couple of others I compared. I started with Garnett and then began looking around, and hazelshade has it right in the first comment above - Pevear and Volokhonsky let the text breathe without unnecessary modernization.
posted by mediareport at 5:51 AM on July 19, 2006


"Anna Karenin" (as he translated the title)

This is one of Nabokov's ridiculous affectations (like his preference for "so literal it hurts" translations) that no one else should imitate; if you do, be sure you say "Martina Navratil" rather than Navratilova, because it's exactly the same principle.
posted by languagehat at 5:52 AM on July 19, 2006


Another excerpt from the LH thread:
...the PV method as described in this story struck me as pretty odd... Considered logically the steps don't make sense: (a) Mrs., not being an English stylist, does a straight literal translation which doesn't necessarily result in all the right meanings coming across, (b) Mr., not fluent in Russian, does what amounts to a rewrite to make it sound better (but how does that preserve or get back to the author's sense?), (c) then Mr. reads it back to Mrs. while Mrs. reads along in the original text, and they doctor it up some more depending on how it strikes her. Translation is hard enough for one person to do, but this sounds like a pretty schizoid two-person process.
posted by languagehat at 5:55 AM on July 19, 2006


Wow, languagehat, that's an eye-opening thread, thanks. I should clarify that I know nothing of the Russian language, and liked Garnett well enough (she got me excited to read more Chekhov, after all), but P-V's translations simply felt more alive. It wasn't a question of easy-to-read so much as not-so-darn-emotionally-stiff.
posted by mediareport at 6:02 AM on July 19, 2006


Thanks everyone. This is very insightful.
posted by yeti at 6:47 AM on July 19, 2006


Wow, this is cool. I just picked up a copy of the Pevear & Volokhonsky translation at BooksAMillion a couple weeks ago for $5. Yes, its the dreaded "Oprah Edition".

I wonder if Tolstoy would suffer from Franzen Syndrome if he were alive today.
posted by hwestiii at 8:48 AM on July 19, 2006


This makes me want to read a Nabokov translation of the whole book.
posted by alms at 9:00 AM on July 19, 2006


I read the Garnett translation and didn't find it offensive; haven't compared it to the P&V, though. I did read the P&V translation of The Master and Margarita, and found it a little annoying: the language seemed a little simplified in places. They tend to choose more short words over fewer long words, which to me made it feel like Time magazine or something.

Also, I don't know if they do this in their Anna Karenina, but they had a whole crapload of endnotes, and most of them were like "10. a doorbell -- this device alerts the resident to the presence of visitors."

Anyway, I was really surprised at their quality, considering all the rave reviews. I definitely felt like I was missing something, which I've never felt with Garnett. (Maybe I'd feel differently if I knew Russian and could read the originals, who knows.)
posted by equalpants at 11:05 AM on July 19, 2006


Maybe I'd feel differently if I knew Russian and could read the originals, who knows

No, you'd feel even more so. See my comments upthread.
posted by languagehat at 11:43 AM on July 19, 2006


Yup, I read 'em; very interesting thread. Just didn't want to assume that I'd necessarily feel the same way--opinions differ, and all that...
posted by equalpants at 3:25 PM on July 19, 2006


I prefer the Aylmer Maude translations of Tolstoy. Garnett is stilted. The P&V overrated.
posted by vronsky at 4:41 PM on July 19, 2006


I am way late to this thread, but I just finished reading the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation and I loved, loved, loved it. When I first tried with Garnett translation a long time ago, it was so bad that I just skipped to the [spoiler].
posted by footnote at 4:24 PM on January 17, 2007


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