Translating Tolstoy: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

Sixty years ago, Edmund Wilson wrote: "The novelists of Russia have come through to us and made us admire their genius solely through the interest of their content, of the stories they have to tell. We should never suspect from our translation, of which the style is often so colorless and so undistinguished, that Russian, as a literary language, has immense and unique resources."

In the past two decades that situation has changed dramatically, in no small part due to the labors and inspirations of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, whose translations of 19th-century masterpieces of Russian prose have led readers not only to suspect, but also to recognize and revel in the literary resources exhibited in the varied styles of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, and Chekhov. Beginning in 1990 with their revelatory translation of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, the husband and wife team have produced one sterling volume after another, including Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (a translation which, like their Karamazov, was awarded the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize), Gogol's Dead Souls and Collected Tales, Chekhov's Stories and Complete Short Novels, and several other Dostoevsky works, such as Crime and Punishment, Notes from Underground, Demons and The Idiot.

Residents of Paris, Pevear and Volokhonsky visited New York in mid-October on the occasion of the publication of their new translation of Tolstoy's War and Peace. At that time, I had the pleasure of meeting them in the Random House offices to discuss their work. What follows is an edited transcript of our most enjoyable conversation. - James Mustich

In his autobiography, Pack My Bag, the British novelist Henry Green wrote: "Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers . . ." That intimacy between writer and reader is especially important in novels of a certain amplitude, like many of those you've been drawn to translate. Translators must insert themselves into that intimacy somehow, to mediate the relationship between the author and the reader. Are you conscious of assuming that role as you work?

RP: Yes. In fact, I think that is the most important thing. This intimacy, which is the trust of the reader and the writer, is something that has to be gained by the translator. It can be very easily lost if the writing in the translation begins to falter -- if it stumbles, if it's too literal, if it's, on the contrary, too modernized, too distant from what, say, for instance, Tolstoy would have written. So gaining the trust of the reader is a key thing in translation.

How do we do that? The thing is, we have to be Tolstoy. I don't want the reader to trust somebody else, I want them to trust Tolstoy. But at the same time, we have to be Tolstoy in an English that the reader can believe, and can follow, and can be courted in, instead of having this distance in which something begins to fail, the connection is lost, and the reader begins to back away.

LV: In fact, this position of the translator carries a great deal of responsibility, because it is very easy to mislead the reader completely into believing that the translation he's reading is Tolstoy, whereas in fact it might be very far from Tolstoy. As you know, there are many translations of Tolstoy; there are some that are very good, and then there are others that we think are not so good.

There is one principle that sometimes is proclaimed as a necessity nowadays. There are people who say that a translation should be revised every twenty years because language changes. Language does change, but not entirely. There are parts of the language that change, and there are some other parts that remain changeless or change very little in time. When we are dealing with a writer like Tolstoy, we are still comparatively close in time to him. After all, we read Jane Austen and Dickens, and the language is completely comprehensible. So there are translators who try to render a writer into what they like to call "reader-friendly" language, producing a "new translation for the modern reader," like "good news for modern man." This kind of translation tends to betray the original.

JM: I believe I've read that you, as a general rule, will not use an English word that was not current at the time the book you are translating was written-relying on the Oxford English Dictionary, I assume.

RP: Yes, that's right. That's exactly what I said. That's what I do.

LV: The same is true of phrases. We don't use phrases that reflect today's attitudes.

RP: Words like "lifestyle," or "relaxed," or "polarized attitudes."

LV: Yes, we wouldn't use that.

JM: There are translations which, in the effort to be reader-friendly, do indeed employ words and phrases that invoke our own contemporary attitudes, but these verbal anomalies hit you like a cold bucket of water when you're reading a story immersed in a certain period.

RP: Yes, they do. It's true, I use the OED based on historic principles, and I won't use a word if Tolstoy or Dostoevsky couldn't have used it in English. I may stretch that once in a while. There may be a word I really want to use, and I look it up and I discover it entered English in 1886, and Tolstoy wrote it in 1868. But I generally follow that principle.

JM: From what you said at the outset, there is a danger that a translator could develop an intimacy with the reader that may have nothing to do with the original author, whether it's Tolstoy or Gogol and Chekhov, by producing an ersatz representation of the book as written.

RP: Exactly. Or a misrepresentation.

LV: But the way we work together protects us from that. Because we read the book several times.

RP: We alternate.

JM: Can you tell me a little about the method you use?

LV: Well, I have a desk and Richard has a desk...

JM: In separate rooms?

LV: Yes. I begin by writing a first draft, which I try to make as close to the original as possible. Nabokov used to say "as literal as possible." I don't believe that literal translations are possible. So I prefer to say as close to the original as possible. I try to follow the syntax as far as English syntax allows me to.

RP: You don't try to achieve a finished text.

LV: No-no-no. It's a first draft. It's meant to be rough. But it's meant also to convey everything that's in the original-the syntax, the peculiarities of the diction. If there's an odd phrase or an odd word, I comment on it. If there is a phrase or a word that repeats itself, let's say violating all the rules of so-called "smooth writing" ten times on a page, I make a little arrow saying "This is the same as here, same as there."

JM: So you do a literal translation, but you also annotate it to highlight the peculiarities of style.

RP: Yes, it's heavily annotated.

LV: "This is a hidden quotation," I might say. Or "This is an archaism."

RP: She even points out rhymes or jingles, for example "zanimatel'nym i znamenatel'nym" (translated as 'amusing and bemusing' in Crime and Punishment), or "stolichnyj, zagranichnyj" (translated as 'metropolitan, cosmopolitan' in The Brothers Karamazov). In the first example we made a decision to sacrifice the meaning somewhat in order to keep the jingle.

LV: Or I may point out a slang expression. Like, instead of "steal" Dostoevsky can say "filched" or something like that. So I comment on that, and Richard takes it and works on it, following in the original and occasionally looking at other translations. He also asks all kinds of questions. Sometimes he comes running to me and says, "Is this true? Is this what the original says?" Our authors can be pretty wild.

RP: One of my favorite examples of that is a little sentence in Dostoevsky, in Crime and Punishment. His narrator says, 'it was a very simple matter, and there was nothing complicated about it.' I read it three times, and then I said, "Look, is that what he said, really?" "Yes, that's what he says." So I wrote it, and when a well-known professor from Harvard reviewed the book he said, "Occasionally, they lapse into banality," and he quoted this sentence. But it's not my fault!

LV: Then we found the same sentence, exactly the same sentence in Chekhov.

RP: Yes, Chekhov also wrote it. "It was a very simple matter, and there was nothing complicated about it."

LV: It's really interesting to work so closely with the text. In all these writers, the narrative is based mostly on spoken language. They listened. After we started working, I started listening more closely, too, and we do speak like that. We repeat ourselves. We use mixed metaphors.

RP: And fused clich?s.

LV: Yes, fused clich?s-we start with one thing and then end with another. So this kind of prose is very plausible in Russian. But then our task is to make it plausible also in English.

Anyway, we go back and forth, Richard has his version . . .

RP: I print it out -- Larissa writes in pencil, and I get these piles; you can imagine what War and Peace is like! Then I make a version from her version, 4, 5, sometimes 6 pages a day, I print them out - and then I write all over them. "Is this right?" I question things.

LV: You suggest variants. "Maybe it would be better this way." Then it comes back to me. I read it against the original one more time, and then we discuss it; we sit together and discuss it.

RP: That's the hardest part.

LV: That's the most fun.

RP: Well, I don't know. You always hate it!

JM: Have there been instances of intractable disagreement over a certain passage, or does it all become clear as you work through it?

LV: No. What happens is that our, so to speak, "jurisdictions" overlap only a little. My responsibility is to tell Richard what is going on in the Russian text, and then his is to render it into the English that he finds appropriate for this kind of text. So the final responsibility for the English text lies with Richard.

RP: Well, I can just say, "I can't do that."

LV: Then I may say, "But look, this is how it is," and Richard says...

RP: "It won't work in English."

JM: I have spent an awful lot of time with your English words through this summer. In addition to War and Peace, I happened to be reading Richard's translation of The Three Musketeers. Interestingly, when I tracked back Henry James' famous characterization of War and Peace as a "large, loose, baggy monster," I found that in his original text he was referring both to The Three Musketeers and War and Peace.

RP: Yes, I just found that out, too.

JM: I was surprised to find that. The quote is, "What do such large, loose, baggy monsters with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary artistically mean?" Let's talk about that characterization a little bit. We tend to assume, just because the books are so large, that there's some lack of artistic rigor to these novels, but, in the reading, I don't find that to be the case. But it seems, in general, to be a persistent critical perspective on them: that they are too large and too shapeless to be looked at as we would look at a different kind of literary art -- certainly in James's estimation.

RP: Yes, he finds them artistically unfinished, amorphous, and he wanted finished goods - although he could arrive at his own finish in a very roundabout and vague way. But he was an artist for the sake of art. He believed in the triumph of art. Tolstoy, as you know, had very great doubts about art altogether, and liked to express them, although not so much in the period when he was writing War and Peace, which was later.

If we don't speak about The Three Musketeers, but War and Peace, we know that it was very consciously an experimental work. Tolstoy refused to call it a novel. If you read his afterword, "A Few Words Apropos of the Book War and Peace," it's clear that he was doing something that had never been done, and he was conscious of that. The narrative has an apparent formlessness, and apparent randomness, and his first readers were puzzled by it when it began to be published serially in magazines. They couldn't figure out who was the hero, what the plot was, where it was going. In fact, as you read through it, you keep asking the same question. "Who wins? Who loses? Where is the rise and the crisis and the denouement?" It's not there, and he didn't want it to be.

One thing I discovered, a very interesting thing, is that the first literary work that Tolstoy did when he was young, in his early twenties, was a translation of Laurence Sterne's Sentimental Journey.

JM: Is that true?

RP: Yes. You wouldn't expect that at all of Tolstoy.

JM: No, you wouldn't.

RP: And he was a great admirer of Tristram Shandy too. If you remove the comedy of Tristram Shandy and the comic voice of the Sentimental Journey, but see the formal procedure of Laurence Sterne as a mirror of the formal procedure of War and Peace, I think it's very enlightening. Because it's apparently random. Apparently it just goes, a character runs into someone, and something happens. But what Tolstoy wanted was to capture the happening as it happened. He thought no one had ever done that -- novelists always imposed a false order, as historians do when they write history. The whole theme of criticism of historians in War and Peace is his artistic credo, in a way. He says that when you impose this order, you falsify what happened, whereas if you are there, in the midst of the happening, it is very different.

LV:This is why he needed Pierre, a total outsider, to come into the middle of the battle and just look at it wide-eyed, wearing his big white hat.

RP: His bright white hat! [LAUGHS] And he’s huge anyway, so he’s completely conspicuous. Perfect target.

The final point is that Tolstoy achieves unity, artistic unity, but of a kind that Henry James couldn’t understand, and I find very difficult to explain. There is this overarching sense of wholeness and even of harmony, of acceptance in War and Peace. It’s a very strong sense. As you were saying, it’s not a loose, baggy monster. It simply looks like one.

JM: I’m struck by the connection between the role of the historian or the novelist trying to impose a false order on things and the role of the translator who may well impose a false order, or style, on the work. Comparing your translations of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy to earlier versions, it seems to me that there is an implicit critique of previous translations, in that your fidelity to the "happening" of the language, to the line-by-line happening of the words, takes precedence to the ideal of some smoother style, some more homogenous style that might be more reader-friendly. Or even more editor-friendly, as you discovered when you first submitted your Anna Karenina. (Editor’s Note: When Pevear and Volokhonsky turned in the manuscript for this to their London publishers, they were told it was "unreadable." As Pevear exclaimed to David Remnick in The New Yorker: "They told us it had to be more ‘reader-friendly.’ But Tolstoy himself is not reader-friendly!" Aided by the imprimatur of Oprah’s Book Club, it proceeded – friendly or not – to make its way into the libraries of some several hundred thousand readers.) It seems like what Tolstoy is saying about historians and novelists, you are implicitly saying about translating these works—that you can’t impose that false order, that it’s in the language as it happens that the story is really told.

RP: That’s exactly right. Especially imposing an order from outside. Because as an experimental writer, Tolstoy’s language, his seeking in words is also experimental. He worked very hard at how to arrive at, as he says, the effect that he intended. But certainly, it’s not as if there is simply an event which has to be recounted to the reader, because it’s also a way of experiencing that event. A writer only has words to render the quality of the experience, and so the quality of his language is essential to the work. The translator has to follow that, or he loses that specific artistic quality, which is what you’re trying to translate.

JM: I came across a wonderful passage on this theme from George Steiner’s book, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

RP: Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, isn’t it?

JM: Yes, that’s right. Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. I’d like to read it, because it’s on the same theme. He’s speaking of critics like James and their approach to some of the works you’ve translated.

Obscurely but persistently, it is felt that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky fall outside the ordinary range of critical analysis. Their sublimity is accepted as a brute fact of nature, irresponsive to closed discrimination. Our style of praise is significantly vague. It would appear as if works of art could be intelligently scrutinized, whereas pieces of life must be gazed at in awe. Surely this is nonsense. The greatness of a great novelist must be apprehended in terms of actual form and technical realization.

In Dostoevsky’s work, as your translations reveal, the language is occasionally strange and the forms are much more dramatic than in Tolstoy’s fiction. When I picked up, for instance, your Brothers Karamazov a few years ago, it was a revelation to recognize the dynamic energy of the language. Tolstoy doesn’t appear to be quite so startling on a sentence-by-sentence level.

Could you talk about that? You spoke in an interview recently about going back into Tolstoy’s prose as a specific artistic medium. What is that prose like?

LV: I’ll start and Richard may finish. First of all, you are absolutely right that Dostoevsky can be occasionally more strange than Tolstoy, because he plays with language—he takes liberties. He makes puns. All his characters are part of a great drama, they’re dramatis personae—including the narrator. Dostoevsky’s narrator is always one of his most telling characters, and he has his own specific type: is usually a mediocre writer, some local person who writes down this chronicle.

RP: He says, "I’m not a real writer, but I have to say..."

LV: This method allows Dostoevsky to be very free with language.

Now, with Tolstoy, it’s very different. The narrator is always Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, who does not play with language the way Dostoevsky does. And yet he is linguistically very free, sometimes unexpectedly so. He is often very ironic, again, unexpectedly so. And while it’s true that he allows himself less liberty than Dostoevsky, he can be pretty wild. Let’s say he always stays within a certain norm, although the limits of this norm are very wide.

It is very interesting that he has a way of entering his characters’ minds. All of a sudden, this omniscient narrator takes a back seat, and we see something happening through a hero’s eyes. Tostoy goes in and out of his heroes in this way all the time.

RP: The way Dostoevsky structures it, it’s always dialogue. If there are three ideas, he has three characters -- each one embodies an idea and argues with the other. So his points of view are always in conflict, whereas Tolstoy’s narrative flows into and out of all his characters. Even the mind of Napoleon, for instance: Napoleon sitting, watching the Battle of Borodino, which he is about to lose, and saying, "Hmm, what’s going on here? It was never like this before." Tolstoy is extremely attuned to his character’s perceptions. He does it with -- I’m trying to remember the name for these little fuzzy things that cells have on them, these little hairs – the cilia? It’s like Tolstoy’s covered in them. He’s so sensitive to people.

And what makes him a really great novelist is that although has such strong opinions of his own, he was able to live into the hearts and minds of other people he disagreed with, whom he hated. Like Karenin, Anna’s husband. Tolstoy despises Karenin. The reader can tell the narrator doesn’t like this man. But suddenly, he’s inside of him and, seeing him from inside, he can’t condemn him.

So Tolstoy has this wonderful combination. He wants to condemn, he wants to judge -- "vengeance is mine" and all this. Yet, he can’t judge anyone, because they all become a part of him, they all become alive. But it’s not the same as Dostoevsky’s play with different persons, with different individual voices.

JM: There’s a sense in reading Tolstoy that you’re being led by time through all these events, there’s an inexorable, slow forward motion that conveys its own significance, from which meanings emerge. Reading Dostoevsky has always struck me very differently – there’s a great deal of pacing in Dostoevsky books, a back-and-forth movement of confined energy. The inspiration is coiled, always turning back on itself.

RP: And they’re in small spaces. They’re all in one room.

LV: Also, it’s usually just three days or a week when everything happens. Very compressed. So it’s like a spring. It goes upwards, rather than horizontally. In my mind, Tolstoy is always horizontal and Dostoevsky is vertical.

RP: Take the way Pierre appears to Natasha in War and Peace, the way their relationship unfolds. Every time she sees him, she likes him.

LV: Even as a 13 years old.

RP: Yes, even then, she feels good when she’s with Pierre. But he has no thought of ever marrying him. She’d marry almost anyone else. Her relations with Andrey or with Kuragin or Boris are very different. Pierre just reappears every once in a while in her life, and each time she sees him she says, "Oh, there’s that funny Pierre." Yet she winds up marrying him. And he can’t believe it, because he’s in love with her all through the novel, but he doesn’t dare to say it, he tries to stay away. What I mean to point out is this long movement through the novel of one strand that Tolstoy touches on, then drops, then touches, then drops it, and finally resolves the whole problem.

LV: So there is this unity, too. It’s rounded off.

RP: It means that he knew from the beginning that Natasha was going to marry Pierre, but he doesn’t say so. Maybe he didn’t know quite what, but he knew there was something between them; it’s almost as if he’s overseeing it, overhearing it, as a narrator. He notices when they’re at a party together. He sees how Natasha looks at Pierre and Pierre looks at her. Then they go off in different directions.

JM: But it’s through those observations that the relationship is delivered to the reader. The way she looks at him, or the happiness she feels when he’s present, the time that passes between them.

Before we leave the subject of time, I have a question that will no doubt reveal my ignorance.

LV: Or mine!

JM: That’s unlikely. Maybe it will just reveal that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I had three years of Russian in high school, and I squandered it -- at this point I have nothing left except a memory of intricacy of the verb forms – how they relied on aspects rather than tenses, and these aspects expressed the way time was denoted by the verb.

LV: Yes. Aspects.

JM: And how the imperfective aspect -- in which actions are not completed, but in process – was prominent, embedded in the language in a way that it isn’t in English.

It seems to me that there’s some analogy between Tolstoy’s sense of time in this novel, as Richard has described it, and the way the Russian language deals with time. Even the loosest and baggiest novels in English, this happens and then this happens and then this happens -- they are loyal to a clockwork description of time. But the expanse of time Tolstoy traverses seems to me to be fundamentally different than what you get in the English novel.

RP: Mmm-hm, yes.

JM: I’m wondering if that can be traced back to the verb aspects at the root of the language. I don’t really know enough to develop it further than that, so I’m just wondering if that connection has ever struck you.

LV: I never thought about it in these terms. My task sometimes becomes very difficult because of it, because these perfective and imperfective aspects don’t quite coincide with any tenses in English, so sometimes you must convey the imperfective by present continuous or past continuous.

RP: "He was walking" or "She was looking at him." We don’t do that very much in English. It becomes very forced.

LV: But I never thought about it in terms of the sense of time.

RP: It may be, though. Because of the language.

LV: Well, it may be. It would be very interesting to look at it more in terms of language.

RP: Maybe the Russian perception or sense of time is different, and there is this imperfective continuity.

LV: I am sure some student wrote a term paper about this! [LAUGHS] But I don’t know about it.

JM: Fair enough.

For the past decade and more you’ve been working your way through 19th century Russian literature -- Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol. Chekhov. As a period in the history of the novel, the Russian 19th century is really in a class by itself. To quote George Steiner again,


Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were integral to the flowering of the Russian novel in the 19th century. That flowering would seem to represent one of the three principal moments of triumph in the history of Western literature, the other two being the Athenian dramatists in Plato and the age of Shakespeare. In all three, the Western mind leapt forward into darkness by means of poetic intuition, and then was assembled much of the light that we possess on the nature of man.

Do you think that’s true?


RP: I think that that’s quite true. It’s either D. S. Mirsky or Vladimir Weidlé -- I think it was Weidlé – who talked about the fact that a culture can have this moment of crystallization, this moment of flowering (it’s more organic; let’s say "flowering"). These flowerings embrace the whole life of the community, the whole life of the people, as Athenian drama did and as Elizabethan drama did -- the whole English people and their history went onto the Shakespearean stage. It was a moment of cultural fulfillment. The curious thing is that because of its delay, cultural delay, Russia reached that kind of fulfillment only in the 19th century. There’s this great élan, an outpouring from Pushkin to Gogol, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy—and others.

LV: And it all happened very quickly. Because it was delayed, it had to catch up!

RP: In fact, if you speak about Russian literature, it begins with Pushkin, and Pushkin is 19th century. So the curious thing about Russia is that its flowering came at a time of crisis in European culture. As European culture lost its way, Russian literature flowered, and it flowered in a way that embraced that loss, that understood that. Dostoevsky worked with a very Western intelligence. He understood the crisis in Europe. He understood that there was a difference between Russia and Europe, and was very concerned about all the ideas that came from Europe into Russia, and led to the communism that flowered in Russia and not in Europe. Isn’t that strange? A country that had no proletariat became the first proletarian state! It somehow leaped ahead, just as Dostoevsky leaped ahead out of the 19th century into the 20th. He raised the questions that we would have to face, as if his intuition led him beyond what the 19th-century French or British could conceive. We could label it "existential" or "angst," but it’s also a form of brilliance. The inventiveness of these Russian writers is extraordinary.

JM: Indeed. One of the things the two of you have done for those of us who don’t possess Russian as a reading language is to alert us to the formal and literary qualities of that inventiveness. They don’t all sound like Constance Garnett! (Editor’s Note:The prodigious Garnett (1861-1946) was the first English translator of Dostoevsky and Chekhov, and her translations of Tolstoy and others were the standard versions for decades.)

RP & LV: That’s right, they don’t.

JM: As you’ve traversed this body of work, have you found any of the authors more congenial to you in your role as readers, as opposed to as translators? As a corollary to that, to someone coming fresh to this very fertile world of story and theme, what starting point might you recommend?

LV: We never talked about it in these terms, but I think, personally, Dostoevsky is closer to us than all other authors. Although it’s very hard to choose. But Dostoevsky is so rich and so interesting and so amusing. He’s simply fun to translate. There’s always something. There’s a present, a gift, several gifts on every page. On the other hand, when we started looking very closely at Tolstoy as we translated him, we discovered things we never suspected. Wonderful, unexpected things. A translator reads like no reader does. You have to look at every word. You have to translate every word, so you look at every word. You can’t just skip.

RP: A reader doesn’t have to read every word. A translator has to translate every word.

LV: Yes. You can’t approximate it. So it’s very hard to say, but I would say Dostoevsky. Maybe it’s because he was the first we had to translate.

RP: We began with Dostoevsky, because I was convinced that I was a Dostoevskian. He was my man. Then, since he liked Gogol, we decided to try Gogol. I love Gogol. But then, when you start translating Gogol, it’s so fantastic and so different from Dostoevsky that you become a Gogolian!

I didn’t expect anything like that to happen with Tolstoy. But I must say that translating War and Peace has done something to me. It’s such an incredible book. I’ve gained an enormous respect for him. And for his words. People don’t realize how important they were to Tolstoy. Even Nabokov, who adored him, said Tolstoy didn’t mind crudeness as long as it was the shortest way to sense. That’s what Nabokov said: Tolstoy always wants to make his point, and if he stumbles on the way, he doesn’t care as long as he gets to the point.

It’s not so at all. Tolstoy worked on his prose. It isn’t that he worked artificially. He didn’t try to create an interesting style. He hated that. As I was saying at the beginning, what he worked on was rendering happening as he felt it happen. This forced him to write in a certain way and called on him to do certain things. And his responses are fascinating. His physical perception and rendering of sensation are extraordinary. Dostoevsky doesn’t do that at all; he is not interested.

JM: Was this kind of intricacy, if not of style, then of perception, revealed to you in War and Peace in a way it had not been when you translated Anna Karenina?

RP: I think so. I don’t know why. It was for me.

JM: [TO LARISSA] Did you notice a difference between the two?

LV: Yes. The two books leave you with very different sense of reality. Anna Karenina is more like a normal novel. A study of two families. War and Peace is a vast ocean that sort of carries you...

RP: It’s a vast ocean of very fine details. The combination is extraordinary.

JM: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think in your introduction you say that there are two books happening simultaneously, and even two styles simultaneously, one rhetorical and periodic, and one minutely observant.

RP: Yes. It’s a fascinating thing, the composition of the novel out of these two things, and the movement of it from one to the other, the oscillation between Tolstoy’s pronouncements and his observations. Between his saying, "On the 12th of June, the forces of Western Europe crossed the borders of Russia, and war began. That is, an event took place contrary to human reason and to the whole of human nature," and his description of little Petya Rostov in the pitch-dark, the night before he’s killed, hearing a drops of water fall: "Drops dripped." Just that. I don’t know if any other 19th century writer wrote such a short sentence. But you can have a whole page of rhetoric, and then "Drops dripped."

JM: In that particular scene, the two words are fraught with all you need to know about the human drama of waiting for battle, the larger context of the drops dripping. It’s all there in those two words in English. Is it two words in Russian as well?

LV: "Kápli kápali."

RP: It’s almost the same.

LV: But we don’t usually say it in Russian. It’s possible, but it isn’t the most normal way to say, "Kápli kápali." The effect is very deliberate and striking. So I say to Richard, "See, ‘kap, kap, kap...’" Of course, we could use a more ordinary phrase, which is what other translators did, but we would then lose this ‘kap, kap.’

RP: It’s the sound.

LV: We were lucky, of course. We are not always so lucky.

RP: I am told that in French, you can’t translate it. You could say "Des gouttes gouttaient," but it would be bad French.

LV: It doesn’t sound good either.

JM: If I were your young nephew, and I expressed an interest in diving into this 19th century sea of Russian literature, where would you tell me to start?

RP: Maybe with Crime and Punishment. It’s the most immediately gripping. Just think of the beginning: he just pulls you into it, this young man leaving his room, locking his door, sneaking past the housekeeper out into the street to go and kill the pawnbroker. It grabs you immediately. And it isn’t on the level of ideas. Notes from Underground, in contrast, begins with ideas, and you have to have some background to see that.

JM: Would you agree with that?

LV: Yes.

RP: Or maybe Brothers Karamazov. It’s big, but it’s...

LV: It depends on the person, you know? It’s hard to tell.

RP: But if you start with Chekhov, you won’t expect Dostoevsky.

JM: That’s true.

RP: And if you start with Gogol, you won’t expect anything!

JM: [LAUGHS] You may never get out!

Is there any writer in that period in Russia who readers of English don’t know about at all?

LV: Well, it’s not that you don’t know him at all. He is known but only a little in the West, and partly owing to the fact that he is very difficult to translate. His prose is so rooted, so bound with the element of Russian language that it really is hard to convey its qualities in English.

RP: Do you have a name?

LV: Yes, the name! [LAUGHS] Nikolai Leskov. He has been translated. He has been translated, inevitably, very poorly, and his translations go out of print, then someone revives them, and the cycle repeats itself.

RP: It’s the same book that keeps moving from publisher to publisher. If he’s known, it’s for the story that is the basis of the Shostakovich opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. It’s a great story.

JM: Are you going to rectify Leskov’s neglect in the West?

RP: We are going to try.

JM: Is there one book in particular that represents his best work?

RP: No. He wrote short stories. Well, he wrote longish short stories. And one big chronicle called Cathedral Folk. Slavist teachers are always in agony, because there’s no Leskov for them to use with their students. For Russians, he’s almost equal to Tolstoy He’s very high. Some people like him even more.

LV: But I think it’s exaggeration.

RP: He’s the least Western. He’s the least open to Western influences. He’s very Russian. But he’s an extraordinary writer. We’re going to try.

LV: We never know when we begin how it will go. You have to really do it before you know whether you succeed or not.

October 16, 2007

July 24: On this day in 1725 John Newton, the slave trader-preacher who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace," was born.

Crime fiction legends Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly discuss the new book that unites their beloved sleuths Patrick Kenzie and Harry Bosch.

Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Paradise and Elsewhere

Canadian short story marvel Kathy Page emerges as the Alice Munro of the supernatural from these heartfelt tales of shapeshifting swimmers, mild-mannered cannibals, and personality-shifting viruses transmitted through kisses.


When a persuasive pastor arrives in a sleepy farm town, his sage influence has otherworldly results (talking sheep, a mayor who walks on water). But can he pull off the miracle of finding kindly local Liz Denny the love of her life?  Small wonder looms large in this charmer from Andre Alexis.

The Hundred-Year House

When a poetry scholar goes digging through the decrepit estate of his wife's family to uncover a bygone arts colony's strange mysteries, he awakens a tenacious monster: his mother-in-law. A wickedly funny take on aging aristocracies from author Rebecca Makkai (The Borrower).