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DonMat, I read the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of Dead Souls and loved the book. What makes the Rayfiled translation "the standard" and do you think I should reread it?
As for Dead Souls, I've heard that the Robert A. Maguire translation published by Penguin is the tops although I would also like to read the NYRB one - but I'm afraid I personally won't touch anything P/V have translated.
I've never been too keen on the Volokhonsky/Pevear thing. Their edition of War and Peace is Emperor's New Clothes. I think a note in the introduction on Tolstoy's use of repetition is adequate and perhaps sparing demonstration in an approximate and appropriate English is satisfactory. The constant footnoting of the French passages was tiresome.
Their translations of Dostoevsky are nice. But what exactly is Volokhonsky's expertise over someone like Rayfield?
And, without getting into a line by line of it, here's an especially akward rendering on the first page...
"with cockaroaches peeking like prunes from every corner"
"with cockaroaches black as damsons peeking out of every corner"
(peeking prunes...oi kavult!)
I would give it a little while if you just read it. Though I'm sure you would pick up so much more with a second reading so soon after a first regardless of differences in translation (though that could serve you even better perhaps). Rayfield did some conflation of surviving manuscripts for the end of the work as well...I'd read the Guerney (?) translation about 15 years ago before this...
*That is, if the original is "awkward," I'd like the translation to reflect that, not smooth it over.
I've seen several side-by-side comparisons of translations and theirs read really badly. And I personally feel that the best translations will be done by someone who has a good knowledge of the nuances of both languages, not by someone who renders in rough English which is then tidied up by another. I feel personally that the subtleties in both languages will be lost.
I just read the Maudes' translation of Anna Karenina which I loved - it was done by them at a time when Tolstoy was still alive and so it will be in a type of English contemporaneous with the Russian Tolstoy was writing. Do we suggest rewriting Dickens for modern readers? No - so why do we need to retranslate a classic when there is a version that was approved by Tolstoy himself?
I *will* read the Rayfield translation of Dead Souls though - I have heard many good things about it. I'm finding that I want to read more than one translation of a book and I think maybe this is the best way to get an understanding of the original, and also to find which translator suits you best!
First he quotes R. H. Christian, the author of Tolstoy: A Critical Introduction (1969) who, noting that "no English edition of War and Peace has succeeded in conveying the power, balance, rhythm and above all the repetitiveness of the original," cites a passage in which the word "anteroom" is used five times in five lines and says that the Maude, Dunnigan, and Briggs translations omit the word once and use three different words to translate it the other times (although he adds that Garnett omitted it once but kept it the other times). "We have made it a point to keep the repetitions, as well as other devices of formal rhetoric . . . that Tolstoy consciously used and that his translators have often ignored," Pevear writes.
He goes on to give other examples. For instance, he cites a phrase when Natasha who has been devastated and cut herself off from life suddenly needs to take care of her mother. PV translate Tolstoy's five-word phrase literally and simply -- "Love awoke, and life awoke." But Pevear notes that other translators read use more complex language, such as "Love was awakened, and life waked with it," or "Love awoke, and so did life," or "When love reawakened, life reawakened."
I bring this up not to belabor the point but because I find translation fascinating, and enjoy reading about how translators go about it. There are different tastes in translation, as there are different tastes in writing in general.
I find the points about Tolstoy approving the Maudes' translation interesting. How good was his English? How well could he understand what they had done? Also, veering away from Tolstoy, contemporary English translations aren't always best. I've been reading a lot of Zola, and I shy away from the contemporary translations because they were notoriously bowdlerized because the British wouldn't publish things the French would. Zola "approved" the translations, which were by a friend of his, but I'm sure he recognized the restrictions of British publishing. So I don't agree that books shouldn't be retranslated.
As for the Maudes and Tolstoy, I actually don't know how good his English was but he is quoted on Wikipedia as saying: "Better translators, both for knowledge of the two languages and for penetration into the very meaning of the matter translated, could not be invented."
I guess it will always come down to personal preference! My personal favourites are Robert Chandler, Hugh Aplin, David Magarshack, David McDuff and Joanne Turnbull at the moment, but this may change!