Reading in Translation

Translation enables books to cross the language barrier and travel across the world. And just as travel and exposure to different languages and cultures can have a profound – and distinct - effect on each traveller, so the change of language will change a book. It’s not the same book, but it’s not entirely different either (at least, one hopes not!); the translated work occupies a space somewhere in between.

The Way by Swann's

Recently I’ve been comparing the different versions of Proust, as part of gearing up to read the great work again, and whilst last time I read a book called, overall, Remembrance of Things Past, this time I’ll be reading In Search of Lost Time. And indeed whilst last time I read the work in three fat volumes, which are still on my bookshelves, this time I’ll be reading the books on my Kindle – and have just downloaded the first book: The Way By Swann’s as what was Swann’s Way is called in the Penguin version.

Proust seems ideal for the Kindle, given the size of the books you have to lug around otherwise, but that’s for another article, as indeed more on Proust coming soon, but in looking into the issues I came across a wonderful essay by David Remnick on ‘The Translation Wars’, centred principally on Dostoevsky and the translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (who are husband and wife), published in the New Yorker Nov 7 2005 and now available online at

It’s well worth reading the essay in full, but these passages I particularly liked and will whet your appetite. The first reminds me of the Dorset launch party for London: City of Words at which we sold over 60 copies, but the bookshop went bust shortly afterwards and we never got paid:

The Pevear-Volokhonsky translation of “The Brothers Karamazov” won almost uniformly positive reviews and the PEN prize. “In the Wichita Eagle, we got an amazing full-page review with the headline ‘ “karamazoV” still leads creative way,’ ” Pevear said as we broke for lunch one day. “The only problem is that they used a photograph of Tolstoy.”

worn passports

Enjoy this next for the sheer beauty and expressiveness of the ‘worn passports’ image. Mies van der Rohe ‘God is in the details’ meets Beverly Sills – ‘There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.’

In art as in science there is no delight without the detail, and it is on details that I have tried to fix the reader’s attention. Let me repeat that unless these are thoroughly understood and remembered, all “general ideas” (so easily acquired, so profitably resold) must necessarily remain but worn passports allowing their bearers short cuts from one area of ignorance to another.

I thought she was a country singer

And this last, just for the joy of it – ‘I thought she was a country singer’

Finally, in 2000, the book [their translation of Anna Karenina] was published in the U.K. Penguin sold a few hundred copies in England. At Viking-Penguin in New York, Caroline White, a senior editor, ordered a print run of thirty-two thousand, with the hope that some strong reviews would mean that the new edition would displace Garnett, the Maudes, and other translations on the academic market.

Then, one day in the spring of 2004, White called Pevear in Paris. She had big news. Oprah Winfrey was selecting “Anna Karenina” for her book club. Neither Pevear nor Volokhonsky quite understood the commercial implications. In fact, they had no idea who Oprah Winfrey was. “I thought she was a country singer,” Richard said.

White informed them that Viking-Penguin would print an additional eight hundred thousand copies of their translation in a single month. Soon the buses, subways, and coffee shops of America were filled with people reading Tolstoy. I asked Richard and Larissa what “the Oprah moment” meant for them.

“It means I have an accountant,” Richard said.

The full article is at

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