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Donald Rayfield

Lost in Translation

The Enchanted Wanderer & Other Stories
By Nikolai Leskov
(Translated by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky) (Vintage 573pp 25)

Nikolai Leskov, to those who have read him, is part of the pantheon of Russian prose fiction, as great a genius as his contemporaries Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. If he lacks recognition even in Russia, it is because he is ideologically elusive - enamoured of the clergy, tolerant of Jews, gypsies and foreigners, but suspicious of intellectuals and reluctant to adopt any political stance - and because his narrative technique is alarmingly discursive: his tales are often told by his heroes, in extraordinary language, inventive and well observed, mixing dialect, professional jargon, church Slavonic and standard Russian. Leskov himself was unsympathetic and provoked remarkable antagonism: he drove two wives insane, alienated his children and was difficult company, even with colleagues he worshipped (Tolstoy) or patronised (Chekhov). He managed to incur simultaneously the hostility of both radicals and the tsar.

Yet no author is so considerate a storyteller as Leskov. No writer was ever so well informed, either. Before taking up writing Leskov worked at his English uncle's firm, Scott and Wilkins (the equivalent of Pickford's), travelling all over Russia, after which he went on to work in provincial law courts. His practical experience of how things function - in the Church and other institutions, in provincial towns, on estates - made him a novelist like Trollope; his almost mystical sensitivity to nature and his ear for dialect made him akin to Thomas Hardy. But his range was greater than either of these, for he could write pastiches of Byzantine moral novellas, document real murders or record hallucinatory visions as easily as he could recount his heroes' conflicts.

Hitherto, translation (as Leskov himself admitted) has been an insurmountable barrier: a translator may find appropriate biblical language when needed, but finding the equivalent in English of Ukrainian or of Russian dialect forms, or inventing distortions of English to match the original Russian, makes Leskov's prose seem merely eccentric. The very few fully successful translations, such as Robert Chandler's 'Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk' (famous as the source of Shostakovich's opera), are of stories that are relatively conventional, at least in their narrative technique. Leskov's greatest works, the novel The Cathedral Clergy and the novella The Enchanted Wanderer, still await and deserve a translator of genius. The Cathedral Clergy gives a better understanding of the workings and ethos of the Russian Church than Dostoevsky, Tolstoy or any ecclesiastical historian; while The Enchanted Wanderer explains better than any anthropologist the Russian character as a composite of Byzantine, Tatar, gypsy and soldier, callousness and compassion.

With this generous selection of Leskov's prose, the mills of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky - he with little Russian, she with imperfect English - have now almost completed their grinding exceedingly small of all Russian classical literature. They are innovative only in a very reactionary way: they produce an English version so close to the Russian original that it seems either designed, like Nabokov's version of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, to prove that Russian literature is untranslatable, or to revert to the practice of fifth-century translators of the New Testament into newly literate languages, who felt it would be sacrilegious to alter one whit of the vocabulary or syntax of the original Greek when the sacred text appeared in Armenian, Georgian or Syriac. That was a valid principle for languages which had only just acquired an alphabet and needed foreign models to construct abstract vocabulary and compound sentences; it is a very bad principle when translating into a language such as English, which has developed its own norms over the last thousand years. Consequently, Pevear and Volokhonsky's howlers are notorious among those who have read the originals or not lost their sensitivity to good writing: in their version of Anna Karenina, where the Russian propil shtany means 'sold his trousers to buy drink', they write 'drank his trousers through'. One can forgive Oprah Winfrey, who often mistakes dross for gold, for lauding this version as the best ever, but how these bunglers won a PEN translation prize remains a mystery. Similarly, as insensitively literal as Google Translate, in Pasternak's Dr Zhivago they translate pliun'te vy na kovry (meaning 'don't bother about the carpets') as 'spit on the carpets'. Pevear and Volokhonsky themselves do not hesitate to denigrate far superior work by their rivals, past and present, just as Nabokov did. Nabokov's arrogance had to be accepted as an inalienable part of his genius, whereas Pevear and Volokhonsky's merely exposes them to severe critical backlash.

Oddly enough, when Pevear and Volokhonsky have translated verse, such as Samuil Marshak's children's poetry, they have produced perfectly acceptable versions. But let loose on Leskov, or any other Russian prose, they concoct translations that are worse even than the lacklustre versions of their predecessors, such as David Magarshack. Vintage Classics' blurb claims that this selection of Leskov is 'stunning': readers will certainly be stunned, but not pleasantly. Sometimes even the stories' titles make no sense: Chertogon (about a rich uncle, who could be a 'New Russian', cleansing his soul by prostration before an icon after a 17,000-rouble orgy) is rendered 'Devilchase', instead of 'Chasing out the Devil'; Plamennaia patriotka is, with unintended irony, called 'A Flaming Patriot', when it is just 'A Woman Who Loves Her Country Ardently'. The text itself is full of undigested idiom and crammed with misplaced adverbs: 'It's my understanding that anything else is even quite impossible for you.' The first choice given by a Russian-English dictionary is used, regardless of context: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk murders her husband 'indifferently' instead of 'cold-bloodedly'. Worse, Russian word order is left unchanged: we have 'the hurrying-to-class Ryabyka' instead of 'Ryabyka, who was in a hurry to get to his class'.

Pevear and Volokhonsky do, however, deserve occasional praise. Their selection from the many volumes of Leskov's collected works is interesting, and they reproduce the annotations that even a Russian reader needs. Unlike previous translators, they conscientiously, if wrong-headedly, account for every word of the original. Some of the stories in this selection appear for the first time in English. When outlandish invention is required, Pevear and Volokhonsky can show considerable ingenuity. In 'Lefty', the story of an illiterate Russian craftsman sent to amaze the English with his skill at fashioning nails for shoes for a mechanical flea, the translators come up with acceptable neologisms: 'meagrescope', 'odorlies' and 'dokyments' (microscope, orderlies, documents). Certain stories, notably 'The Enchanted Wanderer' itself, seem to overawe Pevear and Volokhonsky into refraining from their habitual vices. In any case, Leskov's hypnotic narrative skill is so strong that most of the stories remain readable despite the translators' idiomatic and grammatical eccentricities.

Nevertheless, the reader is urged to search out the fine translations of Leskov by Robert Chandler, Michael Shotton and James Muckle, even though they sometimes prefer Leskov's more marginal works for translation. For the first time in Great Britain there are at least half a dozen brilliant translators from Russian who also have the linguistic sensitivities of natural-born English writers. Surely some publisher has the enterprise to commission a substantial collection worthy of both Nikolai Leskov and of his potential readers.


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Donald Rayfield, Emeritus Professor of Russian and Georgian at Queen Mary, University of London, has recently translated two novels by the Georgian author Otar Chiladze.


John Murray


Royal Literary Fund