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“Why, It’s I!”

By (February 1, 2015) 6 Comments

Anna Karenina
By Leo Tolstoy
Translated by Marian Schwartz
Yale University Press, 2015

YUPAnnaKareninaIt’s an understatement to say that there is a burden of expectation on any new translation of Anna Karenina. We are speaking, after all, of one of the handful of genuine contenders for the title of Greatest Novel, no qualifier necessary. Whereas Tolstoy’s earlier masterpiece, War and Peace, was an endlessly sprawling chronicle that broke every novelistic rule in order to encompass the whole of Russian society, Anna Karenina succeeds thoroughly within the boundaries of the novel as a form. All of the elements of the 19th-century domestic novel are here — marriage prospects, endangered estates, family inheritance, and, of course, plenty of adultery — but executed with such perfect narrative structure and psychological intimacy as to approach a kind of platonic ideal.

Any translator plucky or egotistical enough to take up such a daunting challenge must have, at least in the translator’s own mind, an unimpeachably good reason for doing so. So it’s not surprising to see Marian Schwartz lead off her new version of Anna Karenina with a firm but polite declaration of war: “Tolstoy’s work, considered one of the supreme novels, is especially beloved for its psychological and spiritual insight into the human condition,” she writes in an opening translator’s note. And she continues, “What English translations have yet to address effectively, however, is Tolstoy’s literary style, which can be both unconventional and unsettling. Beginning with [Constance] Garnett, English translators have tended to view Tolstoy’s sometimes radical choices as ‘mistakes’ to be corrected, as if Tolstoy, had he known better, or cared more, would not have broken basic rules of literary language.”

These are bold statements, and rather a damning indictment of Schwartz’s predecessors if true. The implication here is that the Tolstoy, known to English-language readers up to the present, has been, whether deliberately or not, somehow toned down for our delicate tastes. The real Tolstoy, asserts Schwartz,” put repetitions, stripped-down vocabulary, and long sentences to brilliant effect to meet his higher literary and philosophical ends.” Her new translation, therefore, asserts itself as the first truly faithful expression of this superficially clumsy voice.

And yet, here is Richard Pevear writing of his own and Larissa Volokhonsky’s much-ballyhooed (and Oprah-approved) translation fourteen years ago:

Tolstoy’s narrative voice poses a particular challenge to the translator. To apply general notions of natural, idiomatic English and good prose style to Tolstoy’s writing is to risk blunting the sharpness of its internal dialogization.

volokhonskyAnnaKareninaObfuscating academic terms aside (the casual use of “dialogization” is as clear a defense against “natural, idiomatic English” as Pevear could summon here), this sounds suspiciously similar to the very mission statement Schwartz proposes. We might be forgiven for wondering whether Schwartz’s new rendition is quite the bold new revelation it claims to be.

But Schwartz is a talented translator, with an impressive track record when it comes to the Russian masters: her crisp, vivid version of Bulgakov’s White Guard retroactively made a classic out of an obscure early effort. At the very least, her claim to have achieved a more authentic Tolstoyan prose deserves to be put to the test against its rivals. And so, inevitably, we turn to the tried-and-true tactic of the monoglot book critic: the random spot-check comparison.

For Schwartz’s rivals, let’s first take the bete noir of modern-day Tolstoy translators: stolid, unshakeable Constance Garnett, whose 1901 translation simply was Tolstoy to at least a generation of anglophone readers. Surely, Garnett’s ubiquitous Edwardian voice is the one against which Schwartz and her colleagues most viscerally react. It is the one that, even today, echoes loudest across the Tolstoyan landscape.

Here is Garnett’s rendering of the novel’s first full paragraph, a passage specifically cited by Schwartz in her introduction as an example of Tolstoy’s difficult style. Garnett’s Tolstoy writes:

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 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.

And here is the same paragraph as rendered by Pevear and Volokhonsky:

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 at any inn have more connection with each other than they, the members of the family and household of the Oblonskys.

ConstanceGarnettAnnaKareninaThere are some decided differences in style here. Garnett does indeed exhibit some of that prim, blushing reserve for which she’s taken so much drubbing (telling us only, for example, that Oblonsky had been “carrying on an intrigue with a French girl”), and sometimes choosing formulations that keep Tolstoy’s sentences at a distance (“this position of affairs” versus P&V’s more direct “this situation”) Pevear and Volokhonsky’s version is, by comparison, a trimmer and more straightforward rendition. Oblonsky’s “affair” (here given no vague side-stepping) with the French governess is condensed from two sentence clauses to one, and the paragraph as a whole moves at a brisk clip entirely lacking in the somewhat plodding earlier version. It’s a decided improvement all around — but is it the “real” Tolstoy that Marian Schwarz wants to bring out?

Here is Schwartz’s version:

The Oblonsky home was all confusion. The wife had found out about her husband’s affair with the French governess formerly in her home and had informed her husband that she could not go on living in the same house with him. This had been the state of affairs for three days now, and it was keenly felt not only by the spouses themselves but by all the members of the family and the servants as well. All the members of the family and the servants felt that there was no sense in their living together and that travelers chancing to meet in any inn had more in common than they, the Oblonsky family members and servants.

To some extent, we can say that Schwartz is living up to her promise, The reversed order of the first line is certainly surprising, as is the jarring repetition of “family members and servants,” which hammers more rhythmically and forcefully than either of the two earlier translations. But at least when compared to Pevear and Volokhonsky, the differences seem largely clinical in their precision: arguments over the minute particularities of the Russian lexicon, rather than anything genuinely essential to the substance of the text.

The same effect holds in another passage, much later in the novel. Here, Tolstoy puts us inside Anna’s own head as she waits desperately, and increasingly hopelessly, for her lover Vronsky to return. Garnett renders it this way:

“…But what if he doesn’t come? No, that cannot be. He mustn’t see me with tear-stained eyes. I’ll go and wash. Yes, yes; did I do my hair or not?” she asked herself. And she could not remember. She felt her head with her hand. “Yes, my hair has been done, but when I did it I can’t in the least remember.” She could not believe the evidence of her hand, and went up to the pier-glass to see whether she had really done her hair. She certainly had, but she could not think when she had done it. “Who’s that?” she thought, looking in the looking-glass at the swollen face with strangely glittering eyes, that looked in a scared way at her. “Why, it’s I!”

Now Pevear and Volokhonsky:

“…But what if he doesn’t come? No, that can’t be. He mustn’t see me with tearful eyes. I’ll go and wash. Ah, and did I do my hair or not?” she asked herself. And could not remember. She felt her head with her hand. “Yes, my hair’s been done, but I certainly don’t remember when.” She did not even believe her hand and went to pier-glass to see whether her hair had indeed been done or not. It had been, but she could not remember when she had done it. “Who is that?” she thought, looking in the mirror at the inflamed face with strangely shining eyes fearfully looking at her. “Ah, it’s me…”

And Schwartz:

“…But what if he doesn’t come? No, that can’t be. He mustn’t see me with tear-stained eyes. I’ll go wash my face. Yes, yes, did I comb my hair or not?” she asked herself. And she couldn’t remember. She felt her head with her hand. “Yes, I combed my hair, but when, I absolutely don’t remember. She didn’t even believe her own hand and walked over the pier glass to see whether or not she was in fact combed. She was combed and could not recall when she had done it. “Who is this” she thought, looking in the mirror at the inflamed face with the strangely glittering eyes that looked at her in fright. “Yes, it’s me…”

Again, there are stylistic variations here, (particularly in Garnett’s dated, and slightly histrionic, “Why, it’s I!” against the more subdued modern takes), but for the most part, we are dealing with fairly negligible variations on the same recognizable theme. All three versions, even the maligned Garnett, preserve Tolstoy’s repetitions and stream-of-consciousness structure. All three adequately capture the confused tone of the novel’s climax, as Anna spins headlong into confused, suicidal despair. By Schwartz’s own standards, it’s hard to count this as a win for the new version.

firstedAll of this raises the question of what, ultimately, a translator like Schwartz is hoping to accomplish with this endeavor. Even if we grant her a certain superiority in precision when it comes to Tolstoy’s word choice, to what intended audience does she imagine this will appeal? Russian readers shopping for crib notes to tuck inside their cyrillic texts? Or English readers clamoring for an ever-so-slightly different variation on a book they already own in half a dozen editions?

Be that as it may, it seems that the debate between readability and authenticity in translation is, though by no means permanently resolved at least tabled when it comes to the Russian masters. In the wake of Pevear and Volokhonsky, the translation business has thrown its weight behind strict literalism and word-for-word equivalences, and we must take the publishing zeitgeist as it comes to us. Still, I can’t help but wonder if we stand to lose more than we gain when we forswear the more distinctive styles of translators past. Joseph Brodsky famously dismissed Garnett’s translations on the grounds that her own voice too often interfered with the voices of her Russian authors. “The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky,” he wrote, “is because they aren’t reading either one. They’re reading Constance Garnett.”

That’s a valid point, to be sure. But the act of translation is fundamentally a compromise between the source text and the receiving language, the voice of the translator must, somehow, be heard. And at their best, those mediating voices have given us some of the greatest and most enduring works in any language. Yes, we’re reading Constance Garnett’s Tolstoy, just as we’re reading Edith Grosmman’s Garcia Marquez, or Dryden’s Homer, or the King James committee’s Bible. To pretend otherwise — to perpetuate the fiction that a translated work can ever be received in its pure, unmediated form — is to reject the manifest reality that a translation can be a work of art in its own right.

Perhaps Marian Schwartz’s Anna Karenina is what the modern era demands. Certainly, it’s what publishers and critics have come to expect. But it remains to be imagined what a more daring translator — one with as confident a sense of their own voice as of Tolstoy’s — might have done with the same time-tested material. In the end, all literal Tolstoy translations resemble one another. Readers will still have to wait for the daring one that will be daring in its own way.
Zach Rabiroff lives in Brooklyn and works for a consulting firm during his daytime hours. This is his first review for Open Letters Monthly.