Lines Written: Leo Tolstoy

languagelines writtenwriting

‘Not bad,’ he said, peeling the sloshy oysters from their pearly shells with a little silver fork and swallowing them one after another. ‘Not bad,’ he repeated, raising his moist and shining eyes now to Levin, now to the Tartar.

From Anna Karenina, as translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

This little paragraph doesn’t have any philosophy contained in it, no, the reason I’ve singled it out is its poetry. Read it again a couple more times. Read it aloud. This passage, usually forgettable in a 800-page book, jutted out at me and asked me to reread it several times before continuing on with the book. What I love about it is the resonance of the words. They all seem to run on the same frequency, building harmonically on one another into a shiny, glimmering little thing – a little pearl, if we want to keep with the oceanic theme.

This is a testament to the power of translation. It’s nearly impossible for me to know what the passage looks and sounds like in the original Russian. Does Tolstoy give the passage the same resonant harmonies? I’m sure he does elsewhere, but here? Or is the beauty of this passage found purely in translation, specifically, the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation? Translating is a daunting task, and the couple that translated this and other Russian novels have done more for Russian literature than anyone in the past hundred years, I think. It’s not enough simply to translate the words into another language. The poetry of the words must be kept alive, and it’s this that Pevear/Volokhonsky excel in. So often the trouble with translated works is that they’re just not readable. They are competently, even perfectly, translated, but they lack attention paid to what’s not written down. So they read stiffly, and make one find the original author dull. The energy, poetry, and vigor of the original works are lost to whole generations of English readers. Maybe it’s simply that this book is written with a more modern eye, and the Garnett translation (and her translations of other Russian masterpieces), the original master translation, is just too, well, old, trapped in the musty language of turn-of-the-century England.

Either way, this is an opportunity and an invitation: go and visit/revisit those Russians that have so daunted you for years, and find they’re not so hard to understand and love.

(I’ve added Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov to my Powell’s bookshelf)

Les Murray, “Bat’s Ultrasound”
  • If you want to know about the Russians and their deep nature, just talk to me….hello Russianist present…however, as to the poetry of the original text, I currently suck at Russian, however, I will ask my Russian prof when I go back to school…. by chance he is a Tolstoy expert

  • I’d be interested to hear about it. The problem with Russian as an American is that if you want to translate it you need to know the language AND the script. You can’t even read the thing! French, Spanish, at least they use Roman script and you can hack away at a translation. Maybe one of these days I’ll take up a study of Cyrillic 🙂

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