Oh my dear, sensible parents! Why did I allow you to dissuade me from studying Russian at university?! Then I would have been able to read Doctor Zhivago in the language it was intended to be read, and I wouldn’t have a backache from lugging around two huge hardcover copies of Doctor Zhivago in two variant translations!
I have posted previously on my feelings about translations, and reading Doctor Zhivago has only amplified my sense of unease about reading them. I have done some ‘close work’ as my A Level French teacher used to call it, at comparing and contrasting the two texts of Doctor Zhivago in English, and the differences, though minor, substantially affect the syntax, tone and general readability of the novel. I’ll give you an example.
Manya Harari and Max Hayward translation:
‘Larisa Feodorovna had realized how unhappy he felt and had no wish to upset him with painful scenes. She tried to hear him out as calmly as she could. They were talking in one of the empty front rooms. Tears were running down her cheeks, but she was no more aware of them than the stone statues on the house across the road were of the rain running down their faces. She kept saying softly: “Do as you think best, don’t worry about me. I’ll get over it.” ‘
Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation:
‘ Larissa Fyodorovna had not wanted to upset Yuri Andreevich with painful scenes. She understood how much he was suffering even without that. She tried to listen to his news as calmly as possible. Their talk took place in the empty room of the former owners, unused by Larissa Fyodorovna, which gave onto the Kupecheskaya. Unfelt, unbeknownst to her, tears flowed down Lara’s cheeks, like the rainwater that now poured down the faces of the stone statues opposite, on the house with figures. Sincerely, without affected magnanimity, she repeated quietly: “Do what’s better for you, don’t think about me. I’ll get over it all.” ‘
As you can see, the new translation far expands on the old one, adding extra detail and explanations, that, while I’m sure are more faithful to the Russian, are not particularly necessary, don’t roll off the tongue as well, and sound odd to English speaking ears. I have no knowledge of the Russian language apart from being able to say my name and that I’d like some vodka, please, but it seems to me that in their faithfulness to Pasternak’s Russian, Volokhonsky and Pevear have created a text that, while magnificently atmospheric, comes across as awkward, over detailed, and clunky, because they have not rendered the Russian sentence structure and syntax into a natural, English sounding one. The dialogue is cold, formal and strange to English ears. Harari and Hayward’s ‘I’ll get over it’ sounds much more natural than Volokhonsky and Pevear’s ‘I’ll get over it all’. This might be what the Russian literally says, but English speakers would not express that phrase in that way. ‘Unfelt, unbeknownst’ also feels unnecessary; if she doesn’t feel them, then she obviously doesn’t know they are there. Using both words makes the sentence clunky, and distracts from the sadness of the scene. This is the same with the over-the-top explanation of where the room is and where the statues are – we don’t need to know. It’s not important. Harari and Hayward understand this, and that’s why they omit it. Their six sentences have a lot more gravitas than Volokhonsky and Pevear’s nine.
When I was translating in French class at school, our teacher always told us to translate literally first, then take the sense of the words and translate the intention of them into English. So, something like ‘Le dernier week-end, J’ai alle au piscine’ (which is probably totally incorrect, it’s been a long time), would literally be (if we’re being painfully literal), ‘the last weekend, I went to the swimming pool’. In natural English, we would say, ‘I went swimming last weekend’. Taking out the ‘pool’ and changing the sentence structure doesn’t detract from the essential meaning, and is natural for the English speaker to read and understand. The clean and straighforward Harari and Hayward translation does this perfectly, and while in places the descriptions are not as atmospheric as Volokhonsky and Pevear’s, on the whole, I find it a much more pleasant and powerful reading experience.
In the new translation, I feel like I am tripping over words and have to read sentences several times to make sense of them, as the structure is not natural. The conversations between the characters sound like a foreign language, even though I’m reading them in English. While a lot of the passages are beautiful, especially those describing the natural world, the use of flowery words and phrases that in natural English, even in the period Zhivago is writing about, are just not used, makes the translation feel stilted and convoluted. I don’t really understand why this is so different from their previous translations, as Pevear and Volokhonsky’s Anna Karenina is wonderful, and doesn’t have these problems at all. I suspect that Boris Pasternak’s own use of Russian was rather idiosyncratic, which has made translating him a bit of a nightmare. I can understand that Pevear and Volokhonsky want to be as faithful to the original text as possible, but part of the translator’s duty is also to make a text sound natural and comprehensible to the native speaker of the language they are translating into, and this is what they have failed to do on this occasion.
Another example of how the translation has been over faithful is in the use of Russian idioms, such as ‘spit on the rugs’ and so forth; they make no sense to an English ear. I have no idea what that means. It sounds very Russian, but I don’t see the point of having it there if it’s not used in English, as all meaning is lost. Surely it would be better for the translator to translate this idiom into a comparable one in English? I know a lot of French idioms have no direct translation in English, but the sense of them can be translated into something similar, to give a general idea. I know this is not being ‘faithful’ to the original language, but I think it’s more important to be faithful to the general sense and meaning of a text than to the actual language itself. I might be alone in this, but I would far rather understand the spirit and heart of an author’s work than have to puzzle out strange sounding phrases, that, while beautiful, have no points of comparison in my own language.
I think Im going to stick with the old translation from now on. The new one doesn’t make me care for the characters at all, because their dialogue is not emotive or revealing about them as people, as largely, it makes them sound like pompous thesaurus eating madmen who use fifty words when five will do. I can’t stand it any longer! I don’t care if Hayward and Harari’s translation misses description out and shaves over some of the nuances of Pasternak’s text; it makes far more sense to me to feel engaged with a novel the way the author wanted you to, than struggle along wondering what the goodness he was on about, because half of his meaning has been lost in over-translation.
Pasternak’s niece is of the same opinion as me, though I wouldn’t be as damning as she is of Pevear and Volokhonsky. It’s not that bad, it’s just not as good as I think it could have been.