Lost in Over Translation?! Doctor Zhivago deconstructed

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.

48 comments

  1. Excellent post! The structure is not natural and I am off today to pick up another translation so that I might speed read through the second half this weekend. Because I am struggling mightily through the new translation.

    1. Thanks Frances! I’m glad you are of the same mindset as me. I don’t see the point in reading something I’m not enjoying, and as we have the option, we might as well read the version that works best for us!

  2. I agree completely with you about the new translation. It’s so very clunky. My book group read ‘War and Peace’ last year and about half of our discussion centered on which translation was best! I think it’s most important to get the right *feeling* and not the best literal translation. For what it’s worth, I did study Russian at university – but only one semester and what I did learn didn’t stick.😦

    1. Hi Helen! So pleased you agree with me. The right feeling is what makes the book resonate with you and if I had written a book that had been translated, it would be the feeling behind my words rather than getting them literally right that would be of most importance to me. It’s a shame your Russian didn’t stick. I’d give anything right now to be able to read Dr Z in the original!

  3. I think this book read has been a great lesson for me in ‘the grass really isn’t always greener on the other side’. I’ve now finished it and have truly enjoyed it and am glad I read it. I now want to see the film again. I’ve just started my next book and when then realised it was a translation I did have an inward groan and a ‘must make sure the next book is not a translation.’ Thank you for your, as ever thoughtful, comment about ‘inward music.’ Off to write my next Dr Z post! Hope you’re having a good weekend.

    1. Well you have just steamed through! Good for you. I have taken a short break but am just gearing myself up to start again. Translations are tricky beasts and I think you have to know what is right for you when you set out – and if you have the choice, sample a range of translations to see what suits you best. I preferred the modern translation of Anna Karenina but the older translation of War and Peace. It really does depend!

  4. “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.”

    Exactly! Which is why I returned to my old translation to finish the book as well.

    Frances, I think you’ll be mightily pleased you did as well.

    In college, I did not take Russian language classes, but I so loved the Russian literature one that I did take. I’d like a major in that, actually!

    1. I’m glad you returned to the old one too, Bellezza. I hope this will make us all enjoy the experience much more. I’d LOVE a Russian Literature/Language degree. One day I might do one for fun – the day I have a few spare years and a lot of spare cash on my hands!😉

  5. The funny thing is, on first reading the two extracts you quote, I actually preferred the second, precisely because it sounded awkward and therefore more foreign, whereas the first sounded like natural contemporary English. I suppose this is a variant on the old debate about the appropriate type of language to use in historical novels set centuries in the past?

    On reflection, I can imagine that continued at length the second translation would make quite hard work, and therefore I can fully understand the preference you (and everyone who commented ahead of me) have for MH & MH.

    1. It’s interesting, isn’t it, what each of us prefer! Personally I think a translation should sound like it hasn’t been translated – the whole point of translating a text is to render it into the natural language of the foreign tongue, giving the foreign reader the same experience, as much as possible, as the native. I don’t think Russian readers would be tripping over the words and puzzling over the dialogue the way we are with the English translation. I want to read Dr Z as Russian readers would; I don’t want it to still sound foreign and unnatural to me. Does that make sense?

      Slogging through a clunky translation did seem like a challenge that was fun and interesting at the beginning, but now I’m way past the half way mark, I just want to be able to read a paragraph once rather than five times to make sense of it!

      1. Yes, wanting to read it as Russian readers would does make sense. If a sentence sounds natural to a native reader then the best sort of translation will achieve the same effect.

        As an aside, thanks for asking after me in response to my comment on your original Dr Z thread – I was late catching that. I am doing fine, thank you.

  6. Thanks, Rachel, for your analysis of the two different translations. I read Doctor Zhivago when I was a teenager, and I would love to re-read it as I remember more of the 1965 movie than the actual book.

    I’m of the same opinion as you; I want to read a text that’s readable rather than one that has been literally translated. It seems that translation loses its main purpose of communicating meaning to non-native speakers if it does not convey that meaning in the most understandable way for those speakers. Especially if I am reading a book for pleasure, I do not want to wade through clunky, unwieldy language. Thanks again for the review!

    1. You are welcome, Virginia! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I hope I have encouraged you to reread it rather than discouraged you!

      Yes, I quite agree. Being understood in the native language is a lot more than than just literally transcribing. I am all for echoing the syntax and style of the original writer, but not when it makes it incomprehensible to the speakers of the language you’re translating into. It has been hard work wading through this translation, I tell you!

  7. Despite two attempts, I’ve been unable to get through the old translation. Your post has convinced that I don’t need to try a third time with the new one. Thank you, Rachel!

  8. This is wonderful, Rachel. It is so interesting seeing the two translation and I can certainly see by this that the second is somewhat cumbersome. I will have to go back and read this again when I’m a little less tired to absorb all you are saying (and saying so well).

    I never thought much about translations before your post on Stone in a Landslide, and now here on Dr. Zhivago. What provocative conversations you bring about with it again here. It is exciting what such a good blog as yours can evoke.

    I took two years of Russian in high school. I remember little. Dah, Yah. Nyet. I thought I would sail through it having spent 5 years learning Greek. ha! About all it did was look good on my college applications. I so admire your dedication here to this version and your strength in carrying around such tomes.

    1. Thank you Penny! You are, as always, wonderfully kind.

      I’m glad you have enjoyed my discussions on translation. Translations have always intrigued and frustrated me and that is why I rarely branch outside of English language fiction, because I just never feel like I’m reading the real thing!

      I am jealous that you took Russian! It must have been wonderful. With the alphabets being so similar in Greek and Russian, perhaps you might try again as a hobby?!

  9. Fascinating post. I love the comparison of translations. I would be torn between the very literal translation and the more readable one. I’m sure I would go for the more readable version of such a long and complicated book. A Russian friend was telling us the ingredients and how to make some obscure Russian desert. It didn’t sound good to any of us. When she saw the looks on our faces she said, “It tastes better if you cook it in Russian.” I just thought that was an amusing way to look at language and translations.

    1. Thank you Janet! I don’t see the point in reading something unless it’s enjoyable, and if a very literal translation sucks the ease and joy out of the reading experience, then I think it needs to be shelved! I love that story – it’s very true! I’m sure Doctor Zhivago is a different story entirely when read in the language it was originally written in. Every translation must surely lose something in the conversion between languages.

  10. Its interesting reading your post and the comments after because it does show how different people do like differing translations and how some which seem clunky to one may seem authentic to another person because of the clunkyness (not a word but lets go with it regardless).

    I always find the whole translation thing funny anyway because sometimes the original author doesnt even read the translation because they cant, so unless I go and learn every language under the sun how will I know how true a translation is?

    Yet I still read them and think ‘oh thats what the author must have meant’ regardless!

    1. I know, it is interesting, isn’t it? We are a diverse bunch of readers and it just goes to show how hard a job translators have, as there will always be someone who isn’t happy!

      That’s very true – I remember reading that Pasternak didn’t think much of the Harari and Hayward translation – that it missed a lot of the soul of the book – but then I think that it’s very difficult for it to carry a lot of that over when so much of the Russian language is based on a culture that we don’t share.

      Ha! Me too!

  11. Wow, that is quite a difference. I wonder what the translation was that I read the first time — I had just assumed that this one was going to be the best translation in all the land. I’m sad that this translation isn’t being more thoroughly amazing. This is why books in translation stress me out!

    1. I know – I was quite surprised too! I am very disappointed – I was expecting absolute perfection and an amazing reading experience and I do feel quite let down.😦 But never mind! I’m glad I’m rereading it and enjoying the story again anyway!

  12. I agree with David Nolan, about the second sounding foreign. I don’t like a translation that sounds like normal English. I want to be translated to a distant land.

    1. I got interrupted mid comment. : ) I can’t speak of this translation in particular, but I do truly enjoy when the rhythm of the original language is retained in the speech and descriptions. But I suppose that’s why this translation was made in the first place…to meet a market different from the one the current translation was serving. : )

      1. That’s interesting, Traci! I like to feel that I am reading something authentic and foreign but at the same time, I want to understand and appreciate the language and story from the same perspective as a native reader. If a native reader was reading the novel and not understanding it, then fair enough, but if they’re not, then I don’t feel like I’m getting the experience that the author intended, regardless of how literally correct the translation is. I think there’s a difference between rhythm and sentence structure – I am all for rhythm, but sentence structure has to be adapted to the language you’re translating into, otherwise it sounds absurd. I don’t know what Russian sentence structure is like, but it certainly doesn’t sound right to me in this translation!

  13. That is such a fascinating post – having not read much literature in translation I really wasn’t aware how much difference a translation could make, but your quotes really illustrate that!

    1. Thanks Verity! I know, it’s surprising, isn’t it? It always amazes me how differently a text can be interpreted and translated. It is quite frustrating though because you never know if you’re getting the best reading experience possible!

  14. Thank you for writing such a useful post. I’ve been wanting to read this book for a while but have held off on buying a copy because I have so many other things to read still. Having read your post and the article that you linked I think I’ll definitely go for the older translation when I do get around to purchasing it. I read the Rosemary Edmond translation of ‘Anna Karenina’ and loved that, so it seems that I favour less literal, more romantic translations. It’s a shame though, as the new P&V edition with the silver snowflakes is so pretty.

    1. Thank you for reading it, Katie! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I would recommend the older translation and to be honest, I think with Tolstoy and other 19thc novelists, you’re better off with the older translations anyway, as they more accurately represent the tone and speech patterns of the time. At least you feel like you’re reading a period novel, whereas the more modern translations try and update everything and they don’t quite ring true as a result.

  15. I felt the same way about the little I read of their new translateion of The Brother’s Karamazov one of my favorite books. I couldn’t stand to read it. Everyone said how this was most correct translation …. in fact I just gave up on rereading it I was so disheartened. I decided to just keep my old copy from college!

    1. Oh I’m sorry to hear that Heidi! Pevear and Volkhonsky’s translations aren’t for everyone and I am just glad that there are other translations for us to choose from.

  16. Booksnob: “they more accurately represent the tone and speech patterns of the time”. I don’t understand how you can avow ignorance of Russian and yet make this claim. It is patently absurd. How many great writers sound “natural” in their own languages? Does Dickens? Does Sterne? Does Beckett? I believe you are convusing a certain mental laziness with literary judgement.

    1. Daniel, I think you’re misunderstanding me and making comparisons between style and sense, which are completely different issues. When it comes to translation, if you still feel like you’re reading a foreign language when you’re reading the translation in your own native tongue, then there’s a problem. That’s nothing to do with literary style whatsoever, which is what you’re referring to.

      I don’t think it’s ‘patently absurd’ to say that 19th century Russian would be more adequately translated by a 19th century translator – I think it’s common sense. The Maudes, for example, knew Tolstoy, lived in Russia, and understood the cultural, political and linguistic context of the time by virtue of living through it. Their translation, praised by Tolstoy himself, would certainly be more accurate in expressing Tolstoy’s use of language than a modern day translator, whose use of the language is 100 years’ more modern, and whose purpose these days seems to be to ‘modernise’ the text for contemporary ears, which I highly disagree with. Language changes naturally over time – you’ve only got to read a 19th century newspaper to understand that.

      Mental laziness? Well that’s kind. The only mental laziness I see here is that of a perfect stranger who, rather than choosing to conduct a respectful, interesting and mutually beneficial discussion, has instead chosen to be rude, antagonistic and personally insulting to someone he doesn’t know. I am always delighted to enter into discussions that expand my knowledge and challenge me, and it’s a shame that, despite your obvious intelligence, you chose to simply be abusive rather than instructive. Even so, I appreciate your comment, and thank you for bringing up an interesting point.

  17. I grew up with 5 languages. For me, reading translations is like watching comedy club. Every translator needs to add something of his and then there is the problem of metaphors…

  18. Interesting post – I spent half an hour last night contrasting the two translations of Dr. Zhivago in a bookshop. They really are very different. I suppose the better translation is one which evokes the same sentiment in the reader as would the original to a Russian. Of course, that is a question which can only be answered if one has a bilingual person at one’s side! I remember reading Camus’ “L’Etranger” in French a years ago and was struck by the quite different impression the original created, as opposed to the translation. Camus’ use of the past historic, gave a curt brutality to his prose, which perfectly reflected the alienation of the central character. In the English translation, the verb form being unavailable, it was impossible to recreate this sense of despair and alienation.

    1. Thanks James! Yes, the frustrating thing for me about reading literature in translation is that I am not sufficiently fluent in any other language than my own to ever make a good judgement on the quality of a translation. All I know is whether it reads naturally in English, and this one of Doctor Zhivago certainly didn’t. Thanks for those interesting comments on the Camus translation – I must brush up on my French as I want to be able to read French literature in the translation. There is so much richness in the French language that doesn’t translate well into the more limited confines of English.

  19. 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 < I like that 'stuff' but is there enough to warrant toting a heavy book around and potential rotator cuff injuries? I do not enjoy Kindle. I am too tactile a person.

    Okay I am like an idiot. No, I am an idiot. I do not have the education everyone here seems to be in possession in. My commenting proves. I can barely speak one language and that is the one I need in order to express my ignorance about so many things I reallly know little about. I can express the fact I adore reading especially Russian poetry and literature. Somehow I never read Dr Zhivago. Now is the time . I enjoy the word sledge and find I havent read a good book containing sledges in a while. I logged on Amazon to order Dr Zhivago, saw several versions. Me being tactile and all went for the Deckle edge at first but then started thinking about translations. So, I being so non educated in translations of 'good reads' googled the question regarding the better translation and the was the first site Mr Google linked me to. Smart Mr Google! Love the discussion, especially about how smarty pants everyone is about languages… I envy all of you. I read your example and I enjoy the description comparing the tears to the rain. Also I can read how it doesn't exactly flow as well as the first transalation. What am I supposed to do? I have X amount of time to read and I do not want to waste it on a clunky translation but I do not want to miss out on 'the pretty stuff' if you will. I want it all. Any advice would be appreciated. Thank you.

    1. Hilarious! Thanks for coming by! The new one certainly is a lovely edition, but for easy readability, I’d say stick with the original! If you love the book you can then reread the new translation later when you have more time to leisurely work your way through it! I hope you enjoy reading Dr Zhivago – it’s a wonderful book but you have to be patient with it!

  20. Sorry about the picthing. Also computer illiterate. Russian out those questions made me forget I was on WordPress *hangs head in shame*

  21. You reminded me of something Pasternak himself said (of course, he was referring to the older translation, so it’s a bit ironic) in an interview in 1960: “As for the translators of Doctor Zhivago, do not blame them too much. It’s not their fault. They are used, like translators everywhere, to reproduce the literal sense rather than the tone of what is said—and of course it is the tone that matters. ”

    Thanks for the help — I was trying to decide which translation to read. =)

  22. I am looking for the translator’s note by Hayward and Harari in the original translation, I can’t find it anywhere on-line, it’s not in either of my two copies of Zhivagok, and I need it to reference for a story that I’m writing…thanks in advance!

  23. I am reading it for the first time, and “over-translation” is the first thing that struck me. Going by translations of other Russian literature, I find this translation, in comparison, very lacking in depth. English is a second language to me, and knowing how translating literally can negatively affect the nuance and intent – as a reader, I am not looking for an exact translation word for word, but rather, the interpretation. I will finish it, but I will definitely want to read another version. Any suggestions?

  24. ‘Spit on the rug’ is not a Russian idiom ( although it sounds pretty stange in English) . It actually means “don’t care about those rugs and china (porcelain), forget about them”. To spit on smth means in Rssian ” not to give a damn”, “to ignore” , like “I spit on you” (плевать я хотел на тебя) – I couldn’t care less about you

  25. Thank you for posting this. I am having such a hard time reading this! It is driving me crazy. Im glad to see im not the only one!

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