Interviews

Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, The Art of Translation No. 4

Interviewed by Susannah Hunnewell


Photo courtesy of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

Credited with starting a “quiet revolution,” Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear have joined the small club of major translators whose interpretation of a master­piece displaces the one read by generations before. Volokhonsky, who is Russian, and Pevear, who is American, have been married thirty-three years. In that time, they have translated much of Russian literature as we know it. Their thirty or so translations include The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, Demons, The Idiot, Notes from Underground, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Hadji Murat, The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, The Master and Margarita, Doctor Zhivago, Gogol’s Collected Tales, Dead Souls, The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories by Nikolai Leskov, and Chekhov’s Selected Stories.

Until their translation of The Brothers Karamazov was published in 1990, the English-speaking world got its Dostoevsky (their preferred spelling—with one y) from the great British translator Constance Garnett. Though her translations of Turgenev and Chekhov are generally considered virtuosic, her versions of Dostoevsky, Gogol, and Tolstoy have drawn criticism for Victorian elision. Her Gogol translations are “dry and flat, and always ­unbearably ­demure,” complained Nabokov. “The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of ­either one,” grumbled Joseph Brodsky. The critic Korney Chukovsky summed it up best and most brutally when he wrote, “Who does not feel the convulsions, the nervous trembling of Dostoevsky’s style? . . . But with Constance Garnett it becomes a safe bland script: not a volcano, but a smooth lawn mowed in the English manner—which is to say a complete distortion of the original.” For her part, Garnett once wrote, “Dostoievsky is so obscure and so careless a writer that one can scarcely help clarifying him.” 

Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translations have been lauded for restoring the idiosyncrasies of the originals—the page-long sentences and repetitions of Tolstoy, the cacophonous competing voices of Dostoevsky. Though ­almost unanimously praised by reviewers and Slavic scholars, they have a few critics who accuse them, in fierce blog posts, of being too literal or prone to unidiomatic turns of phrase. Pevear, who is sometimes drawn into the online jousting, never apologizes for erring on the side of the unfamiliar sounding over muting the original.

In 2004, the translators were propelled to commercial success when Oprah Winfrey chose their translation of Anna Karenina for her book club, making the 137-year-old book an instant best seller. (The Moscow Times called it “the greatest promotion of Russian literature since Omar Sharif cantered across the steppe in a fur hat as Doctor Zhivago.”)

Pevear and Volokhonsky have won the pen Translation Prize twice, for The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina. Pevear, who has also translated French and Italian works, is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at the American University of Paris. In addition to translating Russian contemporary poets, Volokhonsky, who attended Yale Divinity School, has translated theological texts into Russian. They have two trilingual children.

The interview took place in January over two long afternoons in their ground-floor apartment in the 15th arrondissement of Paris, where they have lived since 1998. Volokhonsky is warm and reserved. She has strong opinions, sometimes delivered bluntly. She doesn’t like facile answers. She accepts praise with sincere embarrassment and pleasure. She speaks with a thick Russian accent, which adds to her considerable charm. Pevear looks like a New England ship captain, bearded and with an excellent head of hair. He has a slow, easygoing manner which belies his precise tastes. He enjoys puns and repartee. In the beginning, the couple took turns speaking, listening respectfully in mortuary silence as the other spoke. But soon, they were interrupting each other, finishing the other’s sentence, prodding the other to speak, teasing or correcting each other, though they were always in general agreement. At the end of the interview, which, like a nine-hundred-page Russian novel, seemed to contain all subjects simultaneously, we opened a half bottle of champagne. Pevear had bought it to celebrate New Year’s Eve, but the two had fallen asleep before midnight. 

Susannah Hunnewell

 

INTERVIEWER 

How did you meet?  

PEVEAR

We actually met because of Russian literature. I had written an essay on the Soviet dissident and writer Andrei Sinyavsky. It was published in The Hudson Review in 1972. I remarked ironically that the poet Yevtushenko was giving readings in Madison Square Garden—among his translators were John Updike and Richard Wilbur—while Sinyavsky was in a Soviet labor camp. I received a letter from Irene Kirk, a professor at the University of Connecticut. She told me he wasn’t in prison, he had been released but also stripped of his citizenship and deported. She had helped him and his family leave for France.

VOLOKHONSKY

When I arrived in the United States, I stayed for a while with this professor, and she started matchmaking. Succeeded after a while. Not immediately. 

INTERVIEWER

Who was resistant?  

PEVEAR

Circumstances. Irene told me there was someone I should meet, and she invited me down to Connecticut. I was very surprised. I lived in Maine and worked in a boatyard as a woodworker—boats were still made of wood back then. I took a little time off and drove down. It happened that Larissa had to renew her visa, which meant she had left for England just as I arrived.

INTERVIEWER

You missed each other. 

PEVEAR

It took a few more years. By then we were in Manhattan, both of us. 

INTERVIEWER

You lived on West 107th Street.

PEVEAR

Yes. And by some miracle I found Larissa an apartment on the same street. 

VOLOKHONSKY

It was convenient. 

PEVEAR

Larissa always says that if it hadn’t been for 107th Street, we’d never have been married. When I moved to New York, I took up cabinetmaking. That’s how I earned a living. 

VOLOKHONSKY 

Yes. We were neighbors with a wonderful, crotchety woman, an old translator from Russian, Mirra Ginsburg. She was a very good translator. We liked her. When we started to try to translate The Brothers Karamazov, we showed her samples. By then, Richard had translated some Russian children’s poetry. Richard’s very good at jingles. 

PEVEAR

Who’s that knocking at my door? 
His badge is stamped with number four. 
His shoulder bag is big and fat. 
His coat is blue, so is his hat.

 

VOLOKHONSKY 

She read our samples and said, You can’t do it. Just stick to your cabinetry and these children’s poems. You’re so good at these children’s poems. And she said one phrase that sent me through the roof. She repeated it several times—she said, I adore the smell of wood shavings.

INTERVIEWER

Your first critic. 

VOLOKHONSKY

Yes. We had yet another critic, at the very beginning, an old Russian émigré lady. When we first told her we were translating The Brothers Karamazov, she said, Oh, Dostoevsky, I hope you correct his awful style. I said, No, that is precisely what we’re going to keep. 

INTERVIEWER

How did you come to translate The Brothers Karamazov?

PEVEAR

I had read it for a summer course I took at Harvard in Russian literature. I happened to have a wonderful professor, Vladimir Markov. The course transformed me. I loved these books. I read Constance Garnett’s translation. After we were married, I thought I’d try David Magarshack’s translation. I started reading it. Then Larissa got curious.

VOLOKHONSKY

I had my Russian edition of Dostoevsky, and I decided to read along. Dostoevsky had always really gripped me. Usually if you read in your native tongue, unless you’re either a scholar or an especially curious and attentive reader, you just read. You follow the plot, the characters, you hope maybe this time this one won’t murder that one! But now I started actually looking at the language. I said, How is Magarshack going to translate this? And lo and behold, he didn’t. It wasn’t there. The jokes, or the unusualness, just disappeared.  

INTERVIEWER

What was there instead? 

VOLOKHONSKY

Something very bland. Something tame, not right. The meaning is there, but the style, the tone, the humor are gone. For example, there is a character, Mr. Miusov. He’s a secondary character, but he’s important because this particular scene is seen through his eyes. Mr. Miusov has just come from abroad. He’s a liberal, he’s cultivated, he’s refined. Describing him, Dostoevsky adds this sarcastic touch—he says Miusov is “столичный, заграничный.” It has the same jingle as hoity-toity. English kindly gave us “metropolitan, cosmopolitan.” We were lucky. We’re not always so lucky. 

INTERVIEWER 

What had the other translators said? 

VOLOKHONSKY

“Who had been in capitals and abroad.” They would give the information but not the voice. This is the kind of thing I began to notice throughout the novel. Sometimes three times, five times on a page. 

PEVEAR

And I discovered during our work together on Dostoevsky that he was not a brooding, obsessed man, but a very playful, free spirit. You see it in his style. The style of Dostoevsky is extremely varied. He would practice writing pages in different voices. He shows characters through the voice, through the way they use or misuse language. Which meant a lot of people used to say that he didn’t write very well! For example, there is a little note at the beginning of Karamazov, “From the Author,” about how he came to write the book. The “author” is not Dostoevsky—he makes that perfectly clear—although everybody seems to think that Dostoevsky is the narrator. But the narrator isn’t a writer at all. He just happens to live in the town where the novel is set. He got interested in the story of the Karamazov brothers and the murder of their father and wanted to record it. The whole point of this preface is to introduce all possible voicings of this narrator, who writes absurd things like, “Being at a loss to resolve these questions, I am resolved to leave them without any resolution.” And of course all the translators vary the words, because Flaubert said you should never use the same word twice on the same page. Finally he says, “Well, that is the end of my introduction. I quite agree that it is superfluous, but since it is already written, let it stand.” Dostoevsky gets you into the entire question of whether this man is trustworthy. Does he know what he’s talking about? The uncertainty surrounding this narrator is very important, and all of that is introduced just by the way it’s written. So the light suddenly went on. 

VOLOKHONSKY

I said to Richard, You are reading a different book.  

PEVEAR 

It occurred to us that there was a whole other register to Dostoevsky, and the translators hadn’t translated it. There was something to be done there. 

INTERVIEWER

So what happened exactly?

VOLOKHONSKY

We had no names as translators. Richard had some kind of name as an essayist and as a poet. 

PEVEAR

I had published one book, a translation of the French philosopher Alain, with New Directions. 

VOLOKHONSKY

So we prepared four passages representative of four different kinds of narrative and dialogue. We sent these samples to five of the most prominent Dostoevsky scholars, and they all sent us very positive responses. 

PEVEAR 

We had this package of samples and letters, and I started mailing it out to major publishers, who all turned it down. 

INTERVIEWER 

What was their reason?  

PEVEAR

There was no need for a new translation. 

VOLOKHONSKY 

And then, finally, there was this wonderful small press.

PEVEAR

I sent it to Jack Shoemaker at North Point Press. His assistant called us on the phone from California. He said they wanted to publish it, and with regard to an advance, asked, How does a thousand dollars sound? I said, Very small. He said, I’ll get back to you. Which usually means you’ll never hear from them again. But he actually called the next day and said, How does six thousand sound? I said, Much better than one thousand. They put everything they had into it. They really did a beautiful job. They made a press kit—I wish I could show it to you. It was a double portfolio with samples and letters. They sent it all over. We got wonderful reviews in small-town newspapers because they didn’t have to read the book. They just read the press kit. My favorite one was from the Wichita Eagle, which did a full-page review, with a full-page photograph. The title was “Karamazov Still Leads Creative Way,” and the photograph was—Tolstoy! With his big beard and scowling face . . .

VOLOKHONSKY

And big eyebrows.

INTERVIEWER

You translated four Dostoevsky works in a row—The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, Notes from Underground, and Demons. What is it like living in a world of toxic narrators and tortured murderers for five years? Does it affect you personally?

VOLOKHONSKY

No. It’s a professional thing.  

PEVEAR

Oh, it does. I think it affects me, certainly. 

VOLOKHONSKY 

I never noticed. 

PEVEAR

You didn’t see me twitching? 

VOLOKHONSKY

We had two small children in a row. I had my blind old mother living with us. I had my own solid reality right there. 

PEVEAR

I do live in the book, in the voice or voices. If you don’t enter into it, you can’t really translate it. But there is also a certain detachment. You keep having to step back and think, How do I say that in English? Translation isn’t done by principle or by a machine. The only way you can judge what you’re doing is by how it feels to you. Is that the life of it? And for that there has to be a lot of identification—not with the characters but with the art of the book, the art that went into it. You have to have that in order to choose your words. They have to feel right. It’s impossible to define. Writers know this feeling. 

INTERVIEWER

You write poetry. Is it similar to writing your own work?

PEVEAR

Yes, it’s very close. Because there’s a kind of singing that goes on in your head. And you realize, That phrasing didn’t work. If I invert it, it would be better. Robert Frost used to say, “It goes right.” In a way, translating prose is closer to poetic writing than it is to real prose writing. Prose writers have a lot of dirty work to do. A good prose writer has to make a house, put furniture in it, open doors, bring people in, give them hair and eyes and clothes. They have to make a world and populate it. For a translator, that’s all been done. 

INTERVIEWER

Since you’ve started translating, have you written less poetry?

PEVEAR

Yes. When I got married, I stopped writing poetry. 

VOLOKHONSKY

Ah, I’m not inspiring. 

PEVEAR

Poets always write about longing. Dante is looking for Beatrice in heaven because he couldn’t have her on earth. 

INTERVIEWER

What was your original interest in writing? 

PEVEAR

I fell in love with poetry when I was about fourteen. I picked up a ­couple of the little paperback anthologies of English poetry edited by Oscar Williams and used to carry them around with me everywhere. A little later I acquired E. E. Cummings’s Poems 1923–1954, my first real book of poetry. Just recently I reread Cummings’s Eimi, the novelistic journal of his trip to Russia in 1931, and was struck not only by the liveliness of the writing, but also by his grasp of what was actually happening in the Soviet Union under Stalin, when so many enthusiasts failed to see it. I read Yeats con­stantly, and Blake and Pound and Frost and Donne and Hopkins and Chaucer and Shakespeare of course. And the other Elizabethans. And John Skelton, whom I learned about from Robert Graves’s Oxford lectures on poetry. I went on to write my senior thesis in college on Skelton. And I taught myself Italian in order to read Dante. Kafka, Laurence Sterne, and Flann O’Brien are among the prose writers I read and reread. And my teaching of Homer brought me to Simone Weil’s essay “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” and from that to all of her writings, which have been of the greatest importance to me. 

INTERVIEWER

When did you first start translating?

PEVEAR

In college, I was writing poetry, but pretty soon I started translating, too. My high school language was Spanish, and I’ve translated a lot of Spanish—Antonio Machado, Borges—just for my desk drawer. But the first thing I really seriously translated was “La jolie rousse” by Apollinaire. I loved the poem. I loved the liveliness of the poet—the freedom, the life, and the wit.  

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about your background, Richard. 

PEVEAR

My ancestors were Huguenots from Bordeaux who left France after the ­repeal of the Edict of Nantes, in 1685. They felt uncomfortable because they were Protestant. So they moved to the island of Guernsey, off the coast of Normandy, and then thought they weren’t far enough away, so they moved to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early eighteenth century, like Paul Revere’s father, Apollos Rivoire. He was a Huguenot in the same colony. My paternal grandfather worked in the family business, a coal company. My grandparents on my mother’s side were teachers. My grandmother taught Latin at the Boston Latin School. My grandfather taught high school science. My father studied art at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He was a great craftsman. He could paint and draw, but it was the Depression so he decided to be practical and study commercial art. He went to work as a designer for Lever Brothers in Cambridge. He became their packaging manager when they moved to the new Lever House in New York in 1952. I grew up in Albertson, on Long Island. 

INTERVIEWER

Now from Long Island to Leningrad! 

VOLOKHONSKY

Yes. I grew up in Leningrad. My family was Jewish. Not intellectual but there was some intellectual pretense. My mother was a housewife, but she read a lot and she wanted us to be educated. So she had us study languages. She invited private teachers to tutor us, my brother and me, at home. So I have known English since I was little. My father worked as an administrator in a factory.

INTERVIEWER

What kind of factory was it?

VOLOKHONSKY

Production to keep deaf and mute people occupied. My parents survived the thirties and Stalin somehow. They had a difficult and poor life. They never talked about it. They were very frightened people. They weren’t dissidents, but I remember my mother on the day Stalin died. I was very little. My mother and I went out and there were big red flags with broad black trimming everywhere. And I said, Mama, what are these flags? And my mother said, Stalin’s no more. Just very curtly. Nobody knew what was going to happen, who would come to power, what would be the new rules. 

I owe a lot to my older brother, Anri Volokhonsky. Very early, he educated himself at home in humanities and in classics, in history, literature, and philosophy. It was an eclectic kind of education, but it was much more than a normal Soviet school could provide. He was also trained in mathematics and chemistry. He’s an interesting man and a very good poet. I love him and have had a great respect for him all my life. So because of him I read a lot. We had a very lively literary life in Leningrad. Joseph Brodsky was slightly younger than my brother, but they knew each other. When I was in high school, we ran to a poet’s café to listen to Brodsky read his early poetry. I still remember how he read. In two notes. Dada-dada high, dada-dada low. People formed groups and fought with each other, wrote epigrams about each other, and read to each other. Everybody knew each other. This is what foreigners liked when they came to Russia. They would come and the next day they would know everybody.

PEVEAR

Also, you could actually live as a translator. 

VOLOKHONSKY

The poets and writers who could not publish their own things for ideological reasons could do translation either for money or simply as something else to do. So everybody translated. And that is why we had such good translators. Pasternak did several plays by Shakespeare. It was a really respectable occupation. 

INTERVIEWER

You have a degree in mathematical linguistics. What does that mean exactly? 

VOLOKHONSKY 

I wanted to study Greek and Latin, but my parents just were dead against it. Not practical. Mathematical linguistics was the beginning of computer ­science—mathematics as applied to language, programming. 

INTERVIEWER

Which is a form of translation. 

VOLOKHONSKY

Yes, it is a language. 

INTERVIEWER 

Has any of that come to your aid as a translator? 

VOLOKHONSKY

No. This is the first time that this has occurred to me, but I wrote my university thesis on machine translation. My professor asked me to analyze formally certain German constructions for the purposes of machine translation. It was before the digital age, so it was still very far from any practical realization, but it was then that I understood that machine translation is not possible. I can formalize all these syntactic connections and relationships until I’m blue and gray and dead in my grave, and still I will never convey the taste, the flavor, the rhythm, the smell, the music that I hear. It is really a matter of having a worldview.  

PEVEAR

Machines don’t have a worldview. 

VOLOKHONSKY

But I did somehow get this degree, and I never did anything with it.

INTERVIEWER

In fact, you went to work for an institute of marine biology.  

PEVEAR

Yes, evasion after evasion! 

VOLOKHONSKY 

In the Soviet Union, after university, you would be sent to certain institutions to work, and you had to go. They wanted to assign me to the so-called post-office boxes, which means military institutions—ship and aircraft building. My whole group went, but I refused to. I wasn’t particularly conscious of what I was doing, but something told me not to do it. So I found a job in marine biology. They needed someone to translate from English.

INTERVIEWER 

Your first translating job. What was the subject?

VOLOKHONSKY

The genetics of Pacific salmon. I went to Vladivostok, Sakhalin Island, and Kamchatka. I saw the most beautiful places in the world.

PEVEAR

They skinned bears.

VOLOKHONSKY

I didn’t skin bears. You imagined that.

PEVEAR

Your friends skinned bears.

VOLOKHONSKY

We were allowed to hunt, you see. They were very wild places. But I didn’t hunt. I could have told you I did, but I didn’t. 

INTERVIEWER

Then you emigrated to the United States, via Israel.

VOLOKHONSKY

It was the early seventies, Brezhnev just came to power. It felt bad. It stank. We weren’t dissidents in the sense that we would go to Red Square and protest, but we didn’t like it. 

I was in Israel for two years. It’s a very interesting country, but I never wanted to go to Israel. I knew very little about it. I went because my brother went. I wasn’t really happy there, because I liked to be in a big country. You know how it is—you feel good in some places. Emigration also is a very strange thing. You start from zero, you don’t know anybody, you don’t know the language. It’s very difficult.

INTERVIEWER

Once in the United States, you decided to go to divinity school.

VOLOKHONSKY 

I don’t know why. I decided—I think correctly, without knowing much about it—that the way we are is because of our religion. I studied the Bible, the Old Testament, the New Testament, the history of Christianity, the history of religions. I didn’t have any practical purpose in mind.

INTERVIEWER

Though it may have come in handy when you and Richard translated Dostoevsky. Tell me how your collaboration process works. 

VOLOKHONSKY

See this lamp and that ugly little board? I sit there and I write the first draft with a pencil. I try to be very close to the text, which is sometimes more possible, sometimes less possible. In the margins, I point out everything I see. For example, This is a Russian proverb that rhymes. Or, This is a cliché, totally banal. Or, This is a cliché, but not quite a cliché. Like, “to defend something to the last drop of his blood” would be a Russian cliché, but Dostoevsky just says, “To the last drop.” I will note if it is a repetition of the same word, if it’s almost the same word, or if it’s a parallel construction.

PEVEAR

Or a biblical quotation.  

VOLOKHONSKY

Or a distorted biblical quotation, quoted from memory. Or there is a four-foot trochaic meter, but it’s hidden. Is it important? A scholar would say yes—scholars are usually so happy to discover such things—but it may not be important. What is more important is to make a decent English sentence out of it. So these are the kind of things that emerge. This nineteenth-­century literature is filled with hidden quotations, references, allusions to poetry or songs which I must indicate. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you recognize it yourself, or is it noted in your Russian text?  

VOLOKHONSKY

A lot of it I recognize myself. I will get a feeling that something is there. But we also have very good Russian annotated editions, and that helps.  

PEVEAR

So Larissa produces this pile of manuscript. It’s a very good way to use old proofs. We take old page proofs and turn them over and there’s the next translation. It’s ecological. 

INTERVIEWER

You’re doing it by hand? 

PEVEAR

Right, Larissa does it by hand, and then I start going through it. I have the original, I have earlier translations, and I start listening to it.

INTERVIEWER

Richard, you once wrote that rumors of your ignorance of Russian are somewhat exaggerated. What is the actual state of your Russian? 

PEVEAR

I can’t really speak Russian. But I can hear it, and I understand quite a lot. I look at the text all the time as I translate. I don’t just use Larissa’s translated manuscript. She even sometimes gets very angry. She says, Where did you get that? You must have looked in the dictionary! 

VOLOKHONSKY

Richard has something better than the knowledge of Russian. He has intuition and literary style.

INTERVIEWER

When your first draft goes to Richard, what does it look like? Is it close to what it might become? 

VOLOKHONSKY

You mean, how bad is it? How bad is it, Richard? Tell me. 

PEVEAR

She makes it as bad as possible so that I have something to do.  

VOLOKHONSKY

I could produce something more literary, but I deliberately don’t do it, ­because this would eliminate possibilities. I want to give Richard as many possibilities as I can. And besides, how does one choose? For instance, you can say proud or haughty, arrogant, supercilious, down the nose, snooty . . . I ­cannot and don’t want to make these decisions, because first of all, it ­depends on previous choices and previous sentences. It is up to Richard to make these choices. 

INTERVIEWER

If Richard changes your suggested translation, is it hurtful? 

VOLOKHONSKY

No. I never wanted to be a writer.  

PEVEAR

But I sometimes get very firmly told to put something back that I changed.  

INTERVIEWER

So you sometimes have to control the poet . . .

PEVEAR

That’s the idea. This tandem work is very useful for us because I might start inventing and she can always bring me back. Each of us needs what the other one has.

VOLOKHONSKY

I have no ambition to be a writer. I have had occasions in my life when I needed to write some article or memoir, and I did it with great, great difficulty, very slowly and painfully. 

PEVEAR

Don’t you know that every writer does?

VOLOKHONSKY

Yes, but a real writer wants to do it again, and I never did. 

INTERVIEWER

Back to your process. 

VOLOKHONSKY 

I look at Richard’s version and read it very attentively, against the original, trying to respond to what he asks and asking my own questions about what he did. Then we sit down together, with reference books and dictionaries, and work on it, word by word, phrase by phrase.

PEVEAR

At that point, we can sometimes spend an hour on one word. Then I take this mass of paper and produce the third complete version. 

VOLOKHONSKY 

And then Richard reads it aloud in English, and I follow with the Russian text. We make some changes, but few. And then it goes to the publisher. 

INTERVIEWER

How quickly do you translate?

PEVEAR

In one day, I could do five pages of Dostoevsky. I discovered I could do nine or ten of Tolstoy. But two, maybe three of Gogol. 

VOLOKHONSKY

You were younger then. You’ve become slower and lazier. 

PEVEAR

Well, now that we’ve established that! We do shorter and shorter things, and we take longer and longer to do them. 

INTERVIEWER 

Richard, you have translated French and Italian authors. How is it different to translate by yourself?

PEVEAR

It’s a lot easier. 

VOLOKHONSKY

No one bothers you. 

INTERVIEWER

You translated Alexandre Dumas, another nineteenth-century giant.  

PEVEAR

Larissa was starting War and Peace and I had to give her a year’s start, so I had nothing to do. Dumas was fun to translate. I also discovered, as usual, that it’s not as obvious as you’d think. You think that it’s all sword fights, but there are hardly any. The book is ninety percent dialogue. Much more important is what they say than what they do. Dumas’s prose is very direct, very simple. I noticed that the translators into English tend to add rhetoric to it because they think there should be swashbuckling. But in fact, Dumas is very plain. He’s reporting what happened. It has to move quickly. It has to be alert.  

VOLOKHONSKY

And there is a story behind it. In Russia, The Three Musketeers is very popular, much better known than in the Anglophone world. And when we were first married, I discovered that Richard hadn’t read The Three Musketeers. And I said, What? I’m not going to be married to a man who has never read The Three Musketeers. I went to the French bookstore and bought a copy, and Richard read The Three Musketeers.  

PEVEAR

I loved it. This story has a very funny sequel to it, too, because at that time I was translating the French poet Yves Bonnefoy. So I went up to Yale, where he was teaching, to go over the translations with him. He was wonderful to work with, very restrained. 

INTERVIEWER

How’s his English?  

PEVEAR

Perfect. But he let me do what I wanted. He found a few things to say, but he gave me great freedom. Anyway, when we finished working, we had dinner and were talking. I said, By the way, I’ve just read The Three Musketeers, it’s a great book. He looked at me very sadly and said, I have never read it. 

INTERVIEWER

Back to your collaboration. How was it going from Dostoevsky to Gogol? Was it a relief?

PEVEAR

No, it was much harder. Gogol is quietly wild, I would say. People think he’s rhetorical, and some people say our translations are too simple. But we translate what he wrote, and he didn’t use rhetoric. He narrates, with a very flat voice, all kinds of extraordinary things. Everything he says is ­unexpected. And of course it’s wildly comic. Dostoevsky is funny, but not in that way. 

INTERVIEWER

And you’re getting this from Larissa’s first manuscript? Her translation and her commentary are giving you Gogol?

PEVEAR

That’s what’s going on. 

INTERVIEWER

A great responsibility for Larissa.

VOLOKHONSKY

I am beginning to tremble in my shoes. Belated trembling. I don’t know what to say.

PEVEAR

We’re two very simpleminded people.  

VOLOKHONSKY

I’m not a scholar. I just read the text as a reader, but a very attentive reader. But yes, it’s a great responsibility. Maybe someone else would read it differently. For instance, in Leskov’s short story whose title I translated as “A Flaming Patriot,” which is literally what it means in Russian, this very simple lady is a companion to a Russian princess abroad in Austria. They’re promenading in a park in a carriage. They see the emperor, Franz Joseph, leave his royal carriage to have a beer with the local workers. The princess wants to see him better, so she orders the driver to move the horses forward. The simple woman is terribly embarrassed, so much so that in the end she abandons her position as a companion. 

PEVEAR

She has her pride as a Russian. She is the flaming patriot.  

VOLOKHONSKY

Of course, it’s ironic. 

PEVEAR

But one critic said the title should have been “A Woman Who Loves Her Country Ardently.” I wrote and asked him, Are you serious? I even think Leskov may have borrowed it from the English cliché. He’d heard the phrase—it was used just around that time, in the mid-nineteenth century, in America and England. 

VOLOKHONSKY

But all that is to say that my responsibility is great. I have to decide, is it ironic or not? There is another wonderful story by Leskov, “The Man on Watch,” which all other translators have translated as “The Sentry,” which is nice as a title. In Russian, it’s “Человек на часах,” which means “The Man Who Stands Watch.” It’s about a sentry who has a heart, who has feelings. He is a human being, first of all. And he abandons his watch in order to save another human being, a drowning drunkard, and is punished for it. And so this is my choice. The title does mean “sentry,” but I think it’s better to say “The Man on Watch,” as Leskov did. He was perfectly capable of saying “Часовой,” “The Sentry,” but he didn’t.

INTERVIEWER

What do you do when you have a disagreement? 

PEVEAR

We don’t disagree.

VOLOKHONSKY

We’re boring. The thing is that our realms of competence overlap, but they don’t coincide fully. In English, Richard always has the final word because it’s his language. Let’s try an experiment. “Mortally in love.” Can you say that in English?

INTERVIEWER

It’s unusual. 

PEVEAR

Some readers would pause and be angry because they don’t want to pause. “Why do they say ‘mortally’? We don’t say that!”

INTERVIEWER

What is it from?

VOLOKHONSKY

It’s from a story called “The Blizzard,” by Pushkin. It’s one of the most charming stories in the world. There is a young girl who becomes delirious. Her parents figure out that she is “mortally in love.” In Russian, it is now a standard phrase. Yet when I asked my Russian friends, Do we say it or do we not? I got different answers. This is what happens when you start mulling things over in your head. But Pushkin was one of the first to use it in fiction, and it entered the language. Whether it was unusual before him is impossible to know. It is such a wonderful phrase that we decided to use it. And even if it makes you pause, it is immediately clear what it means.

INTERVIEWER

Fatal is often used with love.

PEVEAR

But that suggests fate, while mortally means “until death.”

VOLOKHONSKY

So this is the kind of discussion we have. How can we quarrel?

INTERVIEWER

The subject of translation can be very emotional.

PEVEAR

Yes, once people realize that there’s more than one translation. Very naive readers think you take the Russian and you put it in English, and then you’re done. Why would there be two translations? People still ask us that—hasn’t it been translated already? Some people feel very uneasy once they discover that there might be two or three different ways of translating something. How do I know which one to read? And that part is very emotional. 

VOLOKHONSKY

It’s like with editing. You are given a text to edit. Immediately the instinct would be, I would write it differently. It’s the same with the critique of translation. When I’m given a text to read and to comment on, I always say to myself, Just calm down, this is another person’s style, have some respect. 

There is also such a thing as the first translation you read. For instance, I read Proust in a very good Russian translation. For me, that was Proust. I never aspired to read Proust in French. And then, in the seventies, another translation began to appear. And the whole world just split in two. There were those who loved the first one and those who loved the second one. I preferred the first one but then I thought, There are very interesting things in the second one. There must be something in the original that he’s trying to convey. This is why I don’t like this phrase that publishers use to advertise a book, “the definitive translation.” They shouldn’t say that. It’s a little bit embarrassing. There is always something else to say. But I know from my own experience that you are comfortable with the first translation you read. I still think it is a great miracle that our translations were so well received, because it is very hard to introduce a new translation. 

PEVEAR

I understand when people say, I still prefer the Maude or the Garnett. I ­understand it completely. 

INTERVIEWER

I have to ask—what do you think of Constance Garnett?

VOLOKHONSKY

She’s a good translator. It’s just that we discovered she omitted certain registers of Dostoevsky’s work. But otherwise she was a very good translator. 

PEVEAR

Very often, when there are a number of translations, hers is the closest to the original. She translated an enormous amount. People say about us, Look at them, they pour it out! We’ve done about thirty translations. She did more than seventy. She did almost all of Chekhov—seventeen volumes. Almost all of Dostoevsky. Almost all of Tolstoy and Turgenev. And more besides.

INTERVIEWER

When you translate, how much do you consult other translations?

PEVEAR

I usually have at least one. If there’s one that I’m interested in, or if I want to control or check myself, I keep it open.

INTERVIEWER

There must be passages in the Russian that are very hard to understand for whatever reason. Is that also a moment when you look at other translations?

VOLOKHONSKY

Pasternak has a lot of that. His poetic flight takes him so high that you no longer know where you are, and some of it is deliberate, God knows. And we usually try to keep the same kind of difficulty. This gives, of course, a lot of material to people who would like to criticize. But if there is something that is simple but that I don’t understand, I will look at other translations. Or ask somebody. But it usually doesn’t help because you see that they also don’t understand.

INTERVIEWER

You once said Chekhov is especially hard to translate. 

VOLOKHONSKY

I say that about everything. The thing is that with Dostoevsky, it’s complex, it’s rich, it’s interesting, it’s rough. You have a bump, you translate a bump. You know what you’re doing. But with Chekhov, it’s an even road. It’s ­simple, direct. And yet it isn’t. There is no excess in his prose. When you’re on a vast, smooth plain, you have to find your way. It’s hard. 

PEVEAR

The words seem simple, but when you start looking, there’s enormous life underneath. And that’s what you have to try to catch. There’s a well-known Russian poet and translator named Olga Sedakova. The thing about translation, she says, is that it’s a matter of both the separate words and the whole, which struck me as absolutely true. There are these two things to consider simultaneously. You look at each word and you think about it, but there is also the whole. Otherwise it’s just piecemeal. There’s no movement, and movement is the hardest thing to define, but it’s the most important. In a review, critics have to quote something. And you can’t quote what Olga calls “the whole.” So you pick something and say, I think this is wrong. Or, Look at that compared to this. But in all these cases, you miss the overall quality, which makes all the difference. 

VOLOKHONSKY

Now really everybody has become an expert at translation. There is a lot of talk about foreignization, familiarization, domestication! All this incredible terminology that doesn’t help much. In the end, it’s a general impression. Sedakova says, How do you judge or define it? Alas, only by intuition. And that’s true—it’s very hard to define really what happens, why one translation achieves something that the other doesn’t. It’s not just the knowledge of one language and the knowledge of another. As we know, scholars are often not the best translators. It’s not anything specific. It’s partly your sensibility, your reading experience. 

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about your reading experience.

VOLOKHONSKY

As an adolescent, I read a lot of classic ancient authors. Homer had been translated by very great translators, the poets Gnedich and Zhukovsky, in the nineteenth century. This was my older brother’s influence. He also taught me to love Dante, whose Divine Comedy we read in an excellent translation by Mikhail Lozinsky. Russian classics, as a matter of course, the preferred ones being Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Leskov. English classics—Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen. I love them and reread them regularly. At the age of sixteen, I discovered Russian twentieth-century ­poetry—Gumilev, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Tsvetayeva, and many others. Mandelstam’s poetry still moves me as if I’m reading it for the first time. So does Akhmatova’s. Approximately at the same time, in the sixties, a lot of translations of Western writers became available in Russia—Kafka, Faulkner, Melville, Salinger. I later reread most of the English ones in the original. When already living in the U.S., I discovered Flannery O’Connor. I think she is a great writer, and her letters published by Sally Fitzgerald under the title The Habit of Being make up one of my favorite books. I enjoy tremendously everything written by Isak Dinesen. At some point after I emigrated, I read the memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelstam, the widow of the poet Osip Mandelstam. They had been translated by Max Hayward and published in English in two volumes, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned. If anyone wants to ­understand what the Soviet regime was like, they should read these books. I read everything written by the recently deceased Russian scholar, thinker, poet, and translator Sergei Averintsev. But I do not want to discuss living writers. I love some of Dorothy Sayers’s murder mysteries. But she did not write many, and those I prefer I know almost by heart.

When I was ten years old, my mother went to the flea market and bought a very beautiful old edition of the Bible. It contained the books of the Old and New Testament and was abundantly illustrated by Gustave Doré. My agnostic mother’s thinking was that an educated person should have read the Bible. That it was impossible to understand our world, its art and literature, without a knowledge of the Bible. This book impressed me very much, first as an object, and then, as I began to read it, by what it says. I have been reading it ever since, although the beautiful edition had to be left in Russia when we emigrated. 

I knew I would forget someone very important, and I did. When Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita was published in the late sixties, we all lost our minds over it. We did not know one could write like that in Soviet Russia. It was published in a magazine in two big installments, and somehow everybody managed to read it overnight. We knew it almost by heart and ­talked in quotations. Many think now that the book has been overrated, but I disagree and consider it one of the best Russian books of the twentieth century. 

INTERVIEWER

And you subsequently translated it.

PEVEAR 

Yes. It was our second translation for Penguin. We got a very nasty review in the Times Literary Supplement.

INTERVIEWER

What was the criticism?

PEVEAR

Rather blunt—that ours was the worst translation of the book. The reviewer is a scholar of Bulgakov. She studied with the man who did the first translation and finds his version still the best.

VOLOKHONSKY

Maybe she sincerely hated ours. She quoted only one sentence, one that we were particularly proud of, because it’s a very important sentence. It marks the change from one part of the book to another, from modern Moscow to biblical Jerusalem. And the style changes abruptly, becomes almost rhythmical prose, epic. There is this very spectacular entry of Pontius Pilate in the novel, and it was very important to end the phrase with the words “Pontius Pilate.” Because the phrase gets repeated three times in the novel and also it’s the last words of the novel. So we felt it was very, very important. 

PEVEAR

It’s a beautifully suspended sentence. “In a white cloak with blood-red lining, with the shuffling gait of a cavalryman, early in the morning of the fourteenth day of the spring month of Nisan, there came out to the ­covered colonnade between the two wings of the palace of Herod the Great the procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate.”

VOLOKHONSKY 

Our critic thought it was all wrong. Because there’s an inversion. People say it’s archaic. We think that sometimes inversions are very expressive and necessary. 

PEVEAR

When we were translating Anna Karenina, Penguin had an in-house reader who said, I want my Tolstoy to read smoothly. 

VOLOKHONSKY

To be smooth and reader friendly. 

PEVEAR

And I said, Smooth translations slide smoothly into oblivion. 

INTERVIEWER

I read you had trouble with the editing of the British Penguin edition of Anna Karenina.

VOLOKHONSKY

They hated what we did. 

PEVEAR

It was quite something. For example, Kitty meets Levin at the skating rink. She asks him, “Did you come recently?” And the copy editor wrote a comment which said, I’m not sure if you’re aware of it, but this word has now acquired different meanings. And there is a better example! Kitty is discussing the upcoming ball. Seventeen-year-old, completely innocent Kitty says, “I do like balls.” Again the copy editor wrote, I’m not sure if you’re aware . . . Then the editor had this other problem. I had written that Anna “got into the carriage.” And the editor said, This is the American usage of the word got. We can’t do this in a British edition. You should say Anna went into the carriage. I wrote back, I’m not sure if you’re aware of it, but this word has now acquired different meanings . . . 

VOLOKHONSKY

They blue-penciled everything. 

PEVEAR

Even the preface. There’s a famous story about a little fragment by Pushkin that got Tolstoy started on Anna Karenina. He read this little fragment and he loved it so much. I quoted the beginning of it in my preface—“The guests arrived at the summer house.” One of their in-house readers commented, I’m not sure if it’s “arrived” or “had arrived.” Perhaps it should be “were arriving.” I told them it was impossible to work this way. It’ll take thirty years! They finally gave up. They even agreed to pay us a hundred percent of the royalties for the paperback because they were so sure it wouldn’t sell.

INTERVIEWER

What happened?

PEVEAR

The British hardcover edition sold fewer than six hundred copies, but the American hardcover sold twenty thousand copies in the first three months. 

VOLOKHONSKY

We won the PEN Translation Prize.

INTERVIEWER

And four years later, Oprah Winfrey propelled you to international stardom by choosing Anna Karenina for her book club.

PEVEAR

I remember it very well. We were at our place in Burgundy, and I answered the phone. It was our American editor. She said, I want to ask you a question. Does the name Oprah Winfrey mean anything to you? And I said I thought she might be a country-and-western singer. And she laughed her head off.

VOLOKHONSKY

Because we left New York in the late eighties, and we never had any television anyway. 

PEVEAR

I said, What happens as a result? She said they had just shipped nine hundred thousand copies.

VOLOKHONSKY

I overheard the number. I thought they were talking about some best seller. I shouted from the other room, Nine hundred thousand copies of what? Richard said, Of Anna Karenina! I thought it was some kind of joke. 

INTERVIEWER

How did that change your life?

VOLOKHONSKY

My mother always told me not to discuss money. 

PEVEAR

So did mine. 

INTERVIEWER

So tell me, Dostoevsky or Tolstoy?

VOLOKHONSKY

I always preferred Dostoevsky. When I was young, Dostoevsky’s world, his heroes, interested me more. But now I have changed. I stopped comparing. They’re completely different writers. I have enormous admiration for Tolstoy as a writer. Working with Tolstoy’s text, I feel that I’m in good hands.

INTERVIEWER 

What do you mean? 

VOLOKHONSKY

I don’t know. Richard, help me.

PEVEAR 

There is a whole, very solid world in Tolstoy. 

VOLOKHONSKY

There is death. There is suffering. But there is also stability. You belong. 

PEVEAR

You’re at home.

VOLOKHONSKY

You enter it and you live in it. And of course, he belongs to the nineteenth century. He doesn’t, like Dostoevsky, make these incredible leaps into ­modernity. And yet, with all this nineteenth-century quality of his prose, these characters and their problems and their lives and their relations, they are also ours. You recognize them. You recognize them as your friends, your neighbors, your aunt. But there is a strange misconception—the widespread opinion is that Dostoevsky wrote badly and Tolstoy wrote well. 

PEVEAR

Good Russian prose, that’s what they say, that Tolstoy wrote good Russian prose.

VOLOKHONSKY

True, he wrote good Russian prose. But not in the sense it’s meant. Tolstoy was very aware of the means of Russian language. Rhetorical means. He used chiasmus, parallel constructions, repetition. He wrote long, long sentences. In one passage, Anna is seen through the eyes of Kitty. Seven times in one scene, Tolstoy uses the word прелестнa to describe Anna. It can mean “­lovely,” “charming,” “enchanting.” But we had to choose. In Russian the word has a Slavonic etymology, which has the spiritual meaning of a seduction, of a magical spell. And it’s repeated seven times, very rhetorically. “Enchanting her firm neck with its string of pearls, enchanting her curly hair in disarray.” So Anna almost becomes like a witch.

PEVEAR

He liked to attach certain epithets to certain people.

VOLOKHONSKY

Anna has a firm neck. Vronsky has even teeth, a wall of teeth. You don’t see the separate teeth. It’s very hard to translate. He’s very precise describing ­people. For instance, in the very beginning, Prince Oblonsky is in disgrace, his wife threw him out. He is in his study, on his leather sofa. He wakes up, he’s forgotten everything, and it all comes back to him. He puts on his dressing gown and throws a knot in it. Then he takes a deep breath, or inhales deeply. And that is how other translators have translated it. What Tolstoy actually says is, “Drawing a goodly amount of air into the broad box of his chest.”

INTERVIEWER

So when you read it in Russian, it’s striking. 

VOLOKHONSKY

It is completely striking. It’s unusual.

PEVEAR

In another instance, introducing a minor character named Madame Stahl, he writes that Kitty pointed to “a bath-chair in which something lay, dressed in something grey and blue.”

VOLOKHONSKY

We immediately see that Tolstoy is completely contemptuous of this Madame Stahl, who is some kind of whining invalid.

PEVEAR

This is one difference between Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. In Dostoevsky, the narrator would be a person, a character. In Tolstoy, it’s Tolstoy. And it’s his emotion, his contempt. He inhabits these people, even the worst of them, and they become alive. 

VOLOKHONSKY

These characters come out of the page at you. They are outside the frame.

INTERVIEWER

Tolstoy famously said that “War and Peace is not a novel, still less an historical chronicle, but what the author wanted and was able to express in the form in which it is expressed.” What do you think he meant?

PEVEAR

What on earth does he mean? But I think he’s right. It isn’t a novel in the ­ordinary sense. He breaks every possible rule. He comments on his own characters, he digresses, he philosophizes. There’s his polemical view of the history of the Napoleonic Wars. And then there are the lives of these people who have nothing to do with any of that. They’re riding through the snow on the sleigh. You can hear the runners running and the horses galloping. The night when Petia Rostov is about to be killed, it’s dark and there’s no ­visual image. It’s all aural. Tolstoy says, “Капли капали.” Simply that—“Drops dripped.” We had a discussion about that with a well-known French scholar and translator. We asked him, Could you do that in French? And he said, No, you can’t do it in French. We were lucky, because it works perfectly in English just as it does in Russian.

INTERVIEWER

Translator’s luck! Why did you translate Tolstoy’s essay What Is Art? first? 

PEVEAR

We were asked. This was when we ran into a wall with Random House. We finished the three Dostoevsky books in our contract. I sent our editor a list of suggestions for further translations, and she wrote back and said, I don’t find anything of interest. The list included Anna Karenina and Gogol!

VOLOKHONSKY 

We panicked. Because by then we’d already acquired a taste for it. 

PEVEAR

So I wrote another publisher, Penguin. And they suggested What Is Art? and we accepted. In fact, it’s a polemic against art. Boneheaded. But Tolstoy was very good at being boneheaded, and he loved doing it. Tolstoy writes about art that he never saw. He sent one of his daughters to Europe. She would look at artworks and describe them to him, and then he would denounce them. 

VOLOKHONSKY

Tolstoy loved music. He wept when he heard Beethoven. But then he would say, All this Mozart and Beethoven, it’s elitist! He was all for folk art.

PEVEAR

He would gather his peasants and make them sing. There’s a beautiful symbolist painting by Odilon Redon in the British Museum entitled The Golden Cell, with a woman’s profile in blue. Tolstoy’s daughter had described it to him, and he had duly denounced it. I was very pleased when I got Penguin to use it as the book’s cover! 

INTERVIEWER

I notice you always have a collaborator, Richard Nelson, when you translate plays. Why is that? 

PEVEAR

It’s a very deliberate thing. I read an article by the French translator André Markowicz about his first translation for the theater. He was commissioned by the head of the Comédie-Française to translate The Inspector, by Gogol, and he was very excited. He finished it and the director said it was very good but started asking him a theater director’s questions. And Markowicz realized he had never thought of it from that point of view. He redid the whole thing, working with the director. When I read that, I ­decided that if I ever did a play, I would want to do it with a playwright. I’d want it to be for the stage, not just to read. 

VOLOKHONSKY

Therefore, each time I raised the question of translating plays, because I like translating dialogue—it’s just fun—Richard said no. Always a firm Anglo-Saxon no. Then some five years ago—I still remember the moment—Richard said, Your prayers have been answered! He read me a letter from the playwright Richard Nelson asking if we would be interested in collaborating with him on translating Russian plays. 

INTERVIEWER

So what is the process with him?

VOLOKHONSKY

We do our version, and he then scribbles all over it, and we discuss it. 

PEVEAR

And we do it face-to-face, not by mail. He’ll say, My actors won’t be able to say that.

VOLOKHONSKY

He always pulls it in the direction of practical staging—“My actors won’t know what it means”—and he’s right. But in the end, we work it out. For instance, in Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard, there is the word недотëпа. It is ­repeated four or five times, and it is the last word of the play. It means someone who bungles things, someone who is not quite a failure but who stumbles. When I did the research, I discovered Chekhov was the first to use it, then it became an ordinary Russian word. So how to translate it? “Nincompoop”? We weren’t terribly pleased with that. It’s a silly word. Then we looked at other translations. Someone translated it as “half-baked ­bungler,” which is too much. We settled for “good-for-nothing.”

PEVEAR

The most simple, plain, ordinary . . . 

VOLOKHONSKY

Banal, totally uninteresting, and not quite right. And we lived with it for a year, and then a few months ago, I said no. Good-for-nothing, I won’t have it. We went to our good old Roget’s Thesaurus and came up with . . . 

PEVEAR

Blunderhead!

INTERVIEWER

Speaking of Roget’s Thesaurus, what are your other reference tools?

PEVEAR

The Oxford English Dictionary, which, in addition to thorough definitions, tells me when a word entered the English language, an old Russian–English dictionary and a newer one. Eric Partridge’s dictionary of word origins is sometimes useful.

VOLOKHONSKY

I use a Russian–English dictionary edited by O. S. Akhmanova. To verify the meanings of Russian words, I also use the tolkovyi slovar of V. Dal and other Russian dictionaries. For the terms of clothing, food, coats of dogs and horses, details of harness, various hunting and card-playing terms, there are now all sorts of sites on the Internet that can be consulted. We occasionally consult friends, scholars, and simple mortals about the use of a word or a phrase. Here we discover that people rarely want to commit themselves or else feel the same hesitation we do. In any case, it helps to simply discuss a problem with a disinterested person. 

INTERVIEWER 

You have taught translation. How do you teach it?

PEVEAR

I didn’t give the students passages to work on. I’d have them choose a ­project and hand out samples from their work on it. Then we’d go over them in class. Translation is a very broad and loose subject. It has no real rules or principles. It all depends on what the translator wants to do. Louis Zukofsky “translated” Catullus into English words that mimicked the sounds of the Latin, often regardless of sense and grammar, so that 

Furi et Aureli, comites Catulli, 
sive in extremos penetrabit Indos,
litus ut longe resonante Eoa 
tunditur unda

becomes

Furius, Aurelius: comities—Catullus.
If he penetrate most remote India,
lit as with the long resonant coast East’s wave
thundering under— 

Marvelous things! And they do make poetic sense after all—because Zukofsky was a true poet, of course. I would try to get my students to see the rich possibilities and, at the same time, to respect the original, as Zukofsky obviously does. To move between languages, rather than from one to another.

INTERVIEWER

Richard, you once said you had never been to Russia and you weren’t curious to see it. Is that really true? 

VOLOKHONSKY

You did say something very snooty. 

PEVEAR

It was something very stupid. And of course they printed it. Because the implication was you had to go to Russia in order to translate Russian, and I wanted to make the point that they’re different things. I’ve never been to Spain, but I’ve translated a lot of Spanish. 

INTERVIEWER 

When you went to Russia, did you recognize it from what you’d been translating?

PEVEAR

Yes, especially Dostoevsky’s Petersburg. We went to the Haymarket, to the bridge where Raskolnikov stood contemplating, to the canals . . .

INTERVIEWER

Was it hard to go back to what you knew as Leningrad, Larissa?

VOLOKHONSKY

When I emigrated, I said to myself, I’m not going to live in a Russian ghetto. You know what happens when you turn back. 

PEVEAR

You turn to salt. 

VOLOKHONSKY

Yes. Anyway, I forbade myself even to be nostalgic. But when I went back after twenty-seven years, I almost fell apart. I stood on the Troitsky Bridge and wept hot tears. I realized how I missed the city. It’s a beautiful city with its own life, but it’s changed now. It is like in “Rip Van Winkle”—you can’t return to your past. We only went three times to Russia. We went to Gogol’s birthplace in Ukraine, which was paradise, and Tolstoy’s estate, Yasnaya Polyana.

INTERVIEWER 

How do you explain the extraordinary richness and variety of nineteenth-century Russian literature?

PEVEAR

The unusual thing about Russia is that it reached cultural maturity in the nineteenth century. Russia didn’t have the Middle Ages of Dante and Chaucer, the Renaissance of the Italians, or the Elizabethan age of the British. They weren’t even sure what language to write in. Pushkin more or less created the Russian literary language, and Pushkin was born in 1799. They were doing for the first time what other cultures had been doing for hundreds of years. 

INTERVIEWER 

What about the idea of the so-called Russian soul?

VOLOKHONSKY

The Russian soul is a myth. Some people believe in it, and some don’t. It is very difficult to describe what it is. The words mysterious Russian soul don’t mean anything. It is nothing but a convention. We don’t know where our own personal soul is, still less where a nation’s soul is. It is an idea that is pleasing to nationalists, I guess. As translators, we don’t live with these ideas. We live with words. 

INTERVIEWER

You once said that one of your subliminal aims as a translator was “to help energize English itself.” Can you explain what you mean? 

PEVEAR 

It seemed to me that American fiction had become very bland and mostly self-centered. I thought it needed to break out of that. One thing I love about translating is the possibility it gives me to do things that you might not ­ordinarily do in English. I think it’s a very important part of translating. The good effect of translating is this cross-pollination of languages. Sometimes we get criticized—this is too literal, this is a Russianism—but I don’t mind that. Let’s have a little Russianism. Let’s use things like inversions. Why should they be eliminated? I guess if you’re a contemporary writer, you’re not supposed to do it, but as a translator I can. I love this freedom of movement between the two languages. I think it’s the most important thing for me—that it should enrich my language, the English language. And I hope that this is the positive effect of our work generally. 

INTERVIEWER

Lydia Davis wrote that “we must get to know our own language even better when we are translating.”

VOLOKHONSKY

I like finding out etymologies of words that have rarely needed translation. I love words. I love my dictionaries. I literally love what I am doing. And there is this feeling of having a mission. I cherish the thought that we supply something that has not been done. Some of these writers were very well translated. But with Leskov particularly, and with Dostoevsky, I was so happy to have done this work. This sense that it was the right thing to do lasted, it stayed with us, no matter what people say about our translations. 

INTERVIEWER

You are a flaming patriot. 

VOLOKHONSKY

Thank you. 

INTERVIEWER 

One last question, which was once asked of Robert Fitzgerald. What are the peculiar satisfactions of translation? 

PEVEAR

I could answer that by paraphrasing what Gregory Rabassa said in the first Translation Review interview in the seventies. Translators are the only ones who live in this place between languages, both as reader and writer. You move back and forth from being one to being the other, and you never stop. No one else is quite in that same . . . whatever it is . . . hiatus.