Russianness, Distilled

Review: Alexander Pushkin, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (trans.), 'Novels, Tales, Journeys: The Complete Prose of Alexander Pushkin

December 18, 2016

"Excluding those whose concern is poetry, there is no one for whom the Russian language can hold sufficient attraction—we have as yet neither literature nor books; from childhood we have gleaned all our knowledge, all our ideas from foreign books, we have grown used to thinking in a foreign language…learning, politics, and philosophy have not yet found expression in Russian…"

The man who wrote these words in 1824 would end up revolutionizing the written Russian language, unshackling it from clunky and medieval forms. Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin, a native Muscovite born in 1799, is to Russian what Shakespeare is to English. Russians love Pushkin because he can express a world in seven words. My mother, who immigrated from the Soviet Union in 1989, says that you can read Pushkin happy, sad, or drunk. Russian kids grow up reading and reciting his fairytales. All the great Russian writers that came after him or were his contemporaries—Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Nikolai Gogol, Anna Akhmatova—aren’t universal like he is. Each had their own particular flavor, and they were all inspired by him.

Novels, Tales, Journeys: The Complete Prose of Alexander Pushkin is somehow the first Pushkin translation from Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the famous and controversial duo who have translated dozens of other Russian works. It features a collection of his short stories, some unfinished, alongside ‘fragments’— loaded narratives that span a couple of pages.

It is inevitable that something will be lost when translating Pushkin; it took Vladimir Nabokov volumes to translate Pushkin’s famous novel in verse, Eugene Onegin. On the whole Pevear and Volkhonsky capture Pushkin's deceptive simplicity. Their translation is less literal than some of their predecessors, but much is gained because of the liberty that they take: their sentences are cleaner, words less clunky, and they capture a story’s psychological and emotional undertones in a way that others do not.

Characteristic of the quality of translation in the collection is The Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin. This "story" is presented as a collection of shorter stories, we are told in a short prefatory note penned by the late Ivan Belkin. Pushkin presents himself only as the publisher of these tales and the author of the prefatory note (signed A.P.). There, he tells readers that he has set out to publish the last earthly remnants of Belkin: his ragtag manuscripts. But tracking down a family member for a description of Belkin proves difficult. His closest living relative knows little about him, and his housekeeper took to papering her windows with his stories.

The reader is left with a letter from a stranger who calls himself Belkin’s friend, copied "without any changes or commentary." The tales to come, says Belkin's friend, are "mostly true," and heard by Belkin "from various persons."

The first story, The Shot, describes an army officer’s memories of Silvio, a mysterious, vengeful man who often hosted dinners in the unnamed village where the officers were stationed. In the following passage, Silvio recalls a tense moment during a duel that would shape the rest of his life:

Pevear and Volokhonsky:

"His life was finally in my hands; I looked at him greedily, trying to catch at least a trace of uneasiness. He stood facing my pistol, picking ripe cherries from his cap and spitting out the stones, which landed at my feet. His indifference infuriated me. What’s the use of taking his life, I thought, if he doesn't value it at all?"

Ronald Wilks, Penguin:
"At last his life was in my hands. I looked at him, eagerly trying to detect the faintest sign of nervousness…But he stood there facing my pistol, picking the ripe cherries from his cap and spitting out the stones, which flew to where I was standing. His nonchalance maddened me. What is the use of depriving him of life, I thought, when he holds it so cheap?"

Alan Myers, Oxford University Press:
"At last his life was in my hands; I gazed at him hungrily, trying to detect at least a trace of unease…He stood there under the pistol, selecting the ripe cherries from his hat, and spitting out the stones which came flying towards me. His indifference infuriated me. What was the point, I thought, of depriving him of life when he set no store by it at all."

My own:

"His life was at last in my hands; I peered at him greedily, trying to catch at least a shadow of unease. He stood under my gun, picking ripe cherries from his hat and spitting out the pits, which flew towards me. His apathy infuriated me. What use is it to me, I thought, to take his life, if he doesn’t treasure it at all?"

Original Russian:

"Жизнь его наконец была в моих руках; я глядел на него жадно, стараясь уловить хотя одну тень беспокойства... Он стоял под пистолетом, выбирая из фуражки спелые черешни и выплевывая косточки, которые долетали до меня. Его равнодушие взбесило меня. Что пользы мне, подумал я, лишить его жизни, когда он ею вовсе не дорожит?"

While Wilks and Myers are more literal, their translations are heavier and do not capture the intensity of the duel as Pevear and Volokhonsky do. Take the fragment "косточки, которые долетали до меня," which is translated by Myers as "stones which came flying towards me," by Wilkes as "stones, which flew to where I was standing," and by Pevear and Volokhonsky as "stones, which landed at my feet." In the Russian, there is no explicit mention of landing at one’s feet, but its invention shows just how close his partner is to his gun, and further underscores his calmness in the face of death.

The other parts of Pevear and Volokhonsky’s passage are also true to the Russian, but use a simpler sentence structure than the others. The new translation retains English colloquialisms, imitating Pushkin’s love of writing in Russian colloquialisms— Pevear and Volokhonsky use "finally" rather than "at last," for example, and "facing my pistol" rather than the more literal, "under the pistol."

Perhaps the duo waited so long to translate Pushkin because of his fundamental place in Russian life. By transforming the Russian language, Pushkin gave Russians the ability to express and develop their national identity. Translating him is like translating an extra-distilled form of Russianness. No simple feat.

Published under: Book reviews