In 1829, at the age of twenty, Nikolai Gogol found his voice as ‘Rudi Panko, beekeeper’; just over a decade later, his genius was drowned by other voices in his head, convincing him that he was an instrument of God. Dead Souls, three fine comedies, and a score of stories, of which a dozen – such as The Nose, The Diary of a Madman and The Overcoat – begot the Russian novel and have left their mark on all Europe, were produced in ten years by one of the most unfathomable minds and most spellbinding narrators in literary history. Shrewd observer, Romantic dreamer, idiot savant, parodist, or a comic Dante, Gogol still eludes all categories. Of all classic Russian writers he is also the most challenging to translate. Not only does he garner vocabulary from the backwoods of his country and from his own Lewis Carroll-like fantasy, but he spins sentences so ingeniously that the most absurd imagery and fanciful chains of thought are tightly bound by impeccably controlled syntax. He had an intimate knowledge of such unliterary subjects as card games, tailoring and cuisine: his descriptions of clothes and food are as arousing as any pornographer’s descriptions of sex. Gogol’s breadth of register, from peasant abuse to panegyrics of nature and biblical prophesying, forces the translator either to underplay the original or to risk parody. Gogol’s secret, perhaps, lay in his actor’s ability to hypnotise an audience by improvisation: any translator capable of matching him might choose instead to be a writer in his or her own name.
If Dead Souls has been translated into English at least fourteen times, and many of Gogol’s stories five or six times, that only proves the severity of the challenge. Usually, successive translators improve on the accuracy and invention of their predecessors. A hundred years ago, Constance Garnett, working her way through Russian literature, had the advantage, especially in translating Tolstoy, Turgenev and Chekhov, of sharing the values and some of the culture of her writers. She was out of tune, however, with Gogol’s imaginary worlds and sheer physicality, just as she was uneasy with Dostoevsky’s whores and murderers in their attics and stairwells. Lacking good dictionaries or helpful Russian collaborators, Garnett made mistakes, but her narrative voice was superb. Since then translators, if less gifted, have been better prepared: Christopher English – who was first brought out by Moscow’s Progress Publishers – and, more recently, Penguin Books’s Ronald Wilks, if not impeccable, are professional and usually do Gogol justice.
English and Wilks, however, only translated the best known of Gogol’s stories. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (henceforth P & V, though it is tempting to call them Perverse and Wonky) claim their translation to be fuller, by calling it ‘collected’, but they leave out a great deal. One can excuse the omission of ‘Rome’, a late and unconscious self-parody, but to omit Gogol’s first published story, ‘The Fair at Sorochintsy’, is to overlook the finest piece of Romantic prose-poetry in Russian, the literary equivalent of Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending. P & V also omit, likewise without apology, a further three of the eight stories in Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, and they ignore Gogol’s longest story, ‘Taras Bulba’ – admittedly for today’s readers a nasty anti-Semitic historical farrago.
P & V have emulated Constance Garnett in their systematic and ongoing re-translation of Russian classical prose (this Collected Tales was first published in 1998). They have won PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club translation prizes and praise from Oprah Winfrey, but have provoked controversy and condemnation in professional circles. Their ‘Jack Sprat and his wife’ technique – Pevear knows no Russian, Volokhonsky, evidently, has a Russian academic’s command of English – has often succeeded with Russian poetry (for instance Frances Cornford’s and Esther Polianowsky Salaman’s translations of Tiutchev), but not with prose, where flow, readability and transparency are called for. The P & V approach – a literal crib by a native speaker of Russian reverentially reworked by a native speaker of English – has been advocated by many Russians, including Vladimir Nabokov, because it appears to respect the original Russian, and because it overrides both the constraints and freedoms of English. As a result, Russia and Russian prose seem much more exotic, obscure, even unreadable: readers who believe in ‘no gain without pain’ are persuaded that their experience is now more authentic. Fifteen hundred years ago, when Greek texts were translated into the languages of newly literate Christians and Muslims, this approach worked: Gothic, Old Bulgarian and Arabic were still flexible mediums that gratefully soaked up the vocabulary, idiom and syntax of the original, without offending a native speaker’s instincts; moreover, were the original ever lost, it could be reconstructed from a word-by-word translation. Today, however, English has 1,000 years of its own idioms and rhythms and will not easily bend to alien patterns; it requires a translator to translate fully, not just to do what would satisfy a crude electronic translation program.
P & V have taken us back to pre-Garnett days, when lonely Russian exiles or well-meaning British amateurs struggled to make sense of classic texts. In the P & V versions of Gogol’s Ukrainian stories every page has stumbling blocks for the reader: ‘my gentle’ (Garnett has ‘good lad’), ‘awful nonsense’ (for chepukha which, in the context of a watch’s components, means ‘lots of tiny bits’). When we come to the famous Petersburg Tales P & V, apart from their habitual literalness (tears ‘squeeze themselves out’ instead of rolling down), fall into all the traps that caught previous translators: when the Nose, in a general’s uniform, denies it belongs to Major Kovaliov, it says: ‘I am nothing to do with you’ (Ia sam po sebe), not ‘I am by myself’. When Major Kovaliov miraculously recovers his nose and thus his eligibility, he perversely decides: ‘But I won’t marry your daughter. Not that I’d mind just a relationship, par amour.’ P & V, like their predecessors, gloss over Kovaliov’s vileness by rendering the second sentence nonsensically as ‘Just like that – par amour, if you please!’
The cumulative effect of this self-confident bodging is to make Russian prose sound as choked as Katherine Mansfield’s hilarious pastiche Green Goggles: ‘as though the starch were permeating the skin and stiffening the throat muscles’. No publisher or critic would let translators get away with such travesty of Flaubert or Svevo or Kafka: what has Gogol done to deserve it? There is now a generation of brilliant and conscientious British translators: let justice be finally done to Gogol’s stories.