Two visitors from Paris sat recently in a glass-walled room in New York City, signing their names in a work written by a 19th-century nobleman. The view was of 55th Street and Broadway, but the gray sky and steady rain were purely Petersburgian—a fitting scene for the Leningrad-born Larissa Volokhonsky and the American Richard Pevear, who met in Manhattan in 1976, married, moved to France in the late ’80s, and have since become the most prolific and prominent contemporary translators of Russian literature. The book they were autographing, Novels, Tales, Journeys: The Complete Prose of Alexander Pushkin (Knopf, Nov.), includes all the novels, tales, and journeys of the title, as well as several fragments, which were left unfinished in 1837 when Russia’s greatest poet, not yet 40, died in a duel.
“I always wanted to translate Pushkin,” Volokhonsky says. Outside of Russia, Pushkin is known for his poetry, if he is known at all.
For their own pleasure, Pevear and Volokhonsky once worked on one of Pushkin’s long poems for children, “The Tale of a Preacher and His Man Bumpkin.” (Later, the poem, accompanied by Pushkin’s doodles and an essay about translating Tolstoy, was published in the Cahiers Series of books on translation, put out by the American University of Paris, where Pevear is distinguished professor emeritus.) But Pushkin’s stories, a significant part of his achievement, remained always in their sights.
For readers and writers of Russian, Pushkin’s poetry and his prose are inevitable—not a celestial body to gravitate toward, but gravity itself. Young Russian aristocrats of the early 19th century, including Pushkin himself, read French, German, English, and Italian literature, often in the original or in French translation. Russians after Pushkin read Pushkin, in Russian, and wrote in Russian, a newly literary tongue that he had helped create.
It is Pushkin’s “three-dimensional prose,” as Nabokov described it, that Pevear and Volokhonsky hope to reconstruct in their English rendering. “We read the [translated] text aloud at least twice,” Volokhonsky says. “Richard reads aloud, and I follow with the Russian text. There’s a certain cadence to it, a certain rhythm.” Pushkin himself was as conscious of the rhythms and other formal elements in his work as he was eager to use his formal innovations to establish a new Russian literary tradition, distinct from the European literature of the time. He joked about the popular passion for, and follies of, European literature in “The Queen of Spades,” perhaps the best known and most popular of his stories.
The only novel Pushkin properly finished was Eugene Onegin, which is written in verse—in a type of stanza he invented. A short historical novel, The Captain’s Daughter, appears in the translated collection, along with two unfinished novels that are no less interesting for being incomplete. But the brevity of Pushkin’s career has proved inversely proportional to the intensity of engagement it inspired. Tolstoy first glimpsed the possibility of Anna Karenina in “The Guests Were Arriving at the Dacha,” one of the fragments included in Novels, Tales, Journeys; Nabokov considered his English translation of Onegin half of his literary legacy. In his preface to Novels, Tales, Journeys, Pevear quotes the Russian émigré writer Andrei Sinyavsky, who calls Pushkin “an eternally flowering past to which [literature] returns to be rejuvenated.”
For Pevear and Volokhonsky, Pushkin was an occasion to “reinvent our own skill” as translators. After 30 years of working on Russian literature, “there are habits, a certain acquired craft, translating certain things in a certain way,” Volokhonsky says. “But with Pushkin, there is some kind of incredible freshness about the writing.”
For writers, Pushkin can provide direct inspiration (as in the Tolstoy example above). The writer Daniil Kharms satirized Pushkin’s omnipresence in Russian literature in a short, fantastic scene, in which Pushkin and Gogol literally trip over each other onstage, falling down and cursing one another. Sinyavsky, whom both Pevear and Volokhonsky admire, spent years in a Soviet prison camp for his novels. “He wasn’t allowed to write, but he could write letters,” Pevear explains. “The curious thing is that they didn’t limit the length of the letters. So he wrote books by writing letters to his wife, and one of them became Strolls with Pushkin (whence the quotation above regarding “an eternally flowering past” originates).
“The trouble with Pushkin,” Pevear adds, “is that he’s perfect.”
Over three decades of collaboration, Volokhonsky and Pevear have been alone together with Dostoyevsky, Gogol, and Tolstoy, and also with Bulgakov, Chekhov, Leskov, Pasternak, and Turgenev. In a now-famous story, they were brought to the public consciousness when Oprah picked their Penguin Classics translation of Anna Karenina for her book club. As they’ve often explained in interviews since then, their work happens in separate offices. First, Volokhonsky, a native speaker of Russian, produces a complete first draft. Then Pevear, whose spoken Russian is not fluent, revises the draft, working to reproduce the writer’s style coherently in English—“what the French call the language of arrival,” he says. This process is repeated as necessary, draft by draft. “Translation is a craft that sometimes becomes an inspired craft,” Volokhonsky explains.
“There are some translators who are experts in a language, and you can see that they work sentence by sentence,” Pevear says. “They finish a sentence and they start on the next one. It’s all very accurate but somehow doesn’t live. And that life is very difficult to define, and the most important.”
The life of Pushkin’s prose has to do with its lucidity and specificity, what the literary historian D.S. Mirsky called Pushkin’s “great concern for the good balance of a sentence.” This “can come out in translation as banal,” Pevear says. “Pushkin’s words are exact; they’re never banal.” Volokhonsky adds that Pushkin “is very precise, and very terse, very compact.”
Compactness is evident in “The Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin,” five short stories included in Novels, Tales, Journeys that Pushkin originally published in 1831. The stories updated popular literary tropes, but subtly. Mirsky wrote that Pushkin intended them to be “models for the future story-teller.” Their language was plain, and their setting rural Russia. Pushkin also included a publisher’s preface attributing the stories to the fictional Belkin, claiming that they were “mostly true and heard by him from various persons.”
“And nobody even noticed them,” Pevear marvels. “Nobody ever mentioned them. Finally, Pushkin admitted that he wrote them,” and the critics, set on being right, told him to stick to poetry. “They thought the stories were trivial,” Volokhonsky adds. Critics since have reconsidered. “What Pushkin does is take a familiar subject, something that has been treated in literature, and does something completely different,” Volokhonsky says. “Like Shakespeare, he takes already-existing subjects and does something of his own.”
The short story “The Stationmaster,” for example, “is a total reversal of the prodigal son,” Volokhonsky says. The stationmaster’s young daughter runs off with a passing traveler, but instead of returning in disgrace, she marries her “abductor”; it is her abandoned father who perishes. “The emotion is pure, it’s real, it’s not sentimental,” Pevear says. And the parable is inscribed into the story elegantly, as a decoration—a set of prints that the narrator, another traveler, sees hanging in the stationmaster’s house.
For Pevear and Volokhonsky, the translator’s task is to transport that crucial ambiguity out of its “language of departure” and into a different tongue and time. Pushkin writes with “perfect ease and simplicity,” Volokhonsky says. But, Pevear adds, “there’s nothing simple in there once you start looking.”
Elina Alter is a writer living in New York.