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For a brilliant example of a translator addressing all the issues brought up in this article, see Lisa Hayden's translation of Vodolazkin's "Laurus". Vodolazkin is a contemporary writer who speaks English - so Hayden was able to consult with him as she worked. The novel is a biography of a Russian orthodox "God's fool" and, per the author's theory that time does not exist, moves seamlessly from the 14th century to the 21st, stopping at all sorts of dates in between. The language shifts accordingly. Vodolazkin has enough faith in his readers to trust that they will understand medieval and Renaissance Russian - and in fact, the novel reads smoothly, the shifts in vocabulary and phrasing are not jarring. Reading the book in Russian, I thought it would be impossible to translate. But Hayden renders all this in English, just as seamlessly, and her Anglophone readers understand the text. And forget that they are reading a translation. On the other hand, Hayden doesn't translate 3-4 full-length novels a year. P&V's assembly-line approach may explain why their translations read like Google Translate.

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"Война и Мир" написана языком начала 19-го века. Очень многие выражения сейчас не используются. Переводчик попытался дословно перевести то, что странно звучит даже на русском. Для того, чтобы перевести речь русского крепостного солдата, можно было бы воспроизвести язык малообразованного человека из английской глубинки.

Но зачем Вам читать перевод, если вы знаете русский?

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Alas for all of us! I quite agree. These two succeeded in mangling my beloved Pasternak, my beloved Tolstoy, and... know this may be controversial, my beloved Dostoevsky.

Before I actually read any of their translations, I gave a copy of P & V's translation of WAR AND PEACE to a highly-literate-in-English, non-Russian-reading friend. I told her it was supposed to be "the best." She gave up halfway through, but said the first half was "certainly comical." She thought WAR AND PEACE was intended as a COMEDY, based on the language of P & V. She also commented that NATASHA was clearly shown to be a "silly," "ridiculous" and "shallow and stupid" person. In fact, she is Tolstoy's model of the perfect (or nearly-perfect) woman.

Nobody who reads the older translations could escape this excruciatingly obvious fact.

Poor Tolstoy. He went through many permutations in his artistic approach (or at least HE thought so). But as a reader of Russian, and someone who loves Russian literature, I would submit that if there was anything Tolstoy NEVER intended to be, it was… a jokester.

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founding

I loved Anna Karenina, guess I now have to hunt down a Maudes translation of War and Peace.

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A great amount of gratitude, but not for the Tolstoy translation insights, my knowledge of Russian literature being even shallower than my knowledge of history (pond), cosmology (puddle), quantum mechanics (raindrop) or the rules of cricket (molecule). No, I only made it as far as the link to the wonderful Theater article on the case for translating Shakespeare, not into contemporary slang, but into the English language as it has evolved.

You make a great case for it being overdue, tracing the line from modern English back to Victorian (my fave), Elizabethan, Medieval (Chaucer) and all the way back to Olde English (Beowulf). All of which I have parsed out with varying degrees of difficulty. But your other link, to Keith Richmonds' wonderful updated versions/translations, was a revelation.

I'd resist anyone's attempt to make a colloquial "street language" Shakespeare, but Richmond is careful to address only the historical changes in the language, the words whose meanings have evolved, or been lost altogether, the sentence structures that are so alien as to disrupt appreciation, the slang and invective that needs an update to retain impact. From the excerpts, it seems he has done a great job of (dare I say it?) IMPROVING Shakespeare, at least in terms of its' value for 21st century readers.

Thanks for the links, but more importantly, for inspiring Richmond to undertake the project in the first place. As a long-ago English major, Shakespeare has not exactly been a big part of my life over the last few decades, and that may change, all due to your inspiration.

ps) I'll get to Tolstoy in a decade or two.

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What comes to mind is the old Russian expression. Trust but verify. Доверяй, но проверяй. I trusted the glowing reviews of P&V translations, but never checked it myself. Спасибо, Джон, что проверил !

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I tried it in Russian and noticed some terms that you don't ever even think about in English being used constantly in Tolstoy's Russian, e.g. зажмуриться.

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The real challenge of translating is conveying meaning and not just replacing words in one language with the exact equivalent in another language. After reading this article I checked my copy of ‘War and Peace’, which is the Barnes and Nobles classics version translated by Constance Garnett. Im not sure how it compares to Maudes, or P&V, but I actually really enjoyed reading it and got through the bulk while on vacation a few years ago. I love the beach, but don’t swim, and mostly like to read or write by the water. I could not put the book down. But I have had issues with other translations I’ve attempted to read. John’s analysis here has really made me rethink those instances when I assumed the problem was that I just didn’t care for or couldn’t get engaged in the story. Perhaps the translation was the real issue. But I think it also goes to the broader reasons behind why some authors works are so enjoyable to read and others simply do nothing for me.

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This was a good little read. I’m not a translator but speak and write a few other languages and I run into these scenarios. Those who don’t speak another language can’t comprehend the plasticity in how one can communicate an idea or sentiment... Striking a balance between conveying meaning but also not losing the context of when and where a story and interaction takes place is no easy feat; you’ve illustrated some good examples of what this means in practice. I should be reading more of these books, rather than rewatching Wayne’s World and Ghostbusters on Netflix. 😬 A time for everything, right?

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By the way, the Maude translation of "War and Peace" can be downloaded for free from gutenberg.org. It's available in either .mobi (Kindle) or .epub formats. It's a British translation from the 1940s, so at times the Russian soldiers are saying "Gor blimey!", but at least the Maudes tried to translate it into a flavor of English as she is spoke, rather than transliterate it.

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Oh, thanks for the information!

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Loved this article, thank you, John! In that same vein, I find Shakespeare very hard to read. Is there a translation of Shakespeare from Olde to Modern English that you recommend?

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Better than the "No Fear" versions (which my daughter read in high school), follow the link to Keith RIchmonds' "Enjoy Shakespeare" verse translations, excerpts from which were good enough to get me to order several of them immediately.

To see what Richmond is doing, follow the link to McWhorter's article in Theater, where he makes the case for "updating" Shakespeare because the evolution of the language in almost five centuries has robbed the originals of impact, meaning and richness. (and by that, I mean impact, meaning and richness the WE can appreciate best)

Richmond was inspired to undertake the project by a reprint of that article in 2011, and he's doing it right (he was an English profesdor in the UC system for years).

Good luck!

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May I make a suggestion? Shakespeare is meant to be heard, not read. What I find helpful is to watch it with English closed-caption texts turned on, so you can read the text and hear it spoken and view the action all at once. I find that to be a great aid to understanding, and to enjoyment.

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Right. So I have done that. However, it would be a massively creative and imaginative undertaking for someone to put into modern English to capture the original, immediate "feel" of Shakespeare's original text, keeping in mind that he wrote for everyone, groundlings included. So maybe wishful thinking on my part, but one can only hope.

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I have a copy of sonnets from No Fear Shakespeare (sparknotes). They have the original opposite a modern translation. It is nice to not only read, but to compare it. Likewise, there are many places on the internet that have Shakespeare in modern English vernacular. Not sure how much ‘flavor’ is retained but after a few readings bouncing between, I seem to ‘get it’ a lot better than puzzling over archaic idioms, that sometimes barely appear as such.

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When I said Richmonds' update/translation was "better" than the No Fear versions, I was, of course, overlooking the wonderful utility of the side-by-side aspect. My daughter was developing an antipathy for The Bard from the stress of parsing the archaic language in her English class and the No Fear versions helped her immensely.

Much as some modern Bible translations retain the sonority of the King James and try to convey some of the antiquity of the original Greek/Aramaic/Latin, Richmond makes Shakespeares' language so much clearer while keeping the essential "Shakespeareness" of the text.

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thanks!

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I’ll be sure to check it out.

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Hi John, New subscriber here. Regarding the Anna Karenina you found so riveting, which translation of that book do you recommend?

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I enjoyed their translations of Dostoevsky's novels much more than the Garnett's. However, I could not make it through their translation of Anna K. I also feel they did a poor job on translating Bulgakov's Master and Margarita which saddened me.

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I am not worthy.

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I urge anyone who enjoyed this post who does not already know the essay "The Task of the Translator" by Walter Benjamin to take the time to check it out. It's short, freely available online, and directly addresses similar questions about what the real job of a translator is.

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I'm so glad that you took the time to expand on your comment from last week. I had read the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of The Brothers Karamozov in college and had *loved* it, but certainly never taken the time to compare it to other translations. When I read War and Peace, it was the Rosemary Edmonds translation, and for me at the time it felt simply invisible, and I remember nothing but the textures and contours of the story itself.

Your post reminds me of the experience of learning French in college and doing some translations of some of Baudelaire's poems from Les Fleurs du Mal. I was guilty of the most extreme form of what you criticize here: I wanted the most direct possible translations of the French *words* themselves, something that was little more than having saved the reader the work of reaching for their dictionary themselves. I remember having one of my translations red-lined by a professor when it was returned to me: "This is not English," it said, simply.

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