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23 November 2010

Chekhov/Garnett

Inspired by Elif Batuman, I impulse-bought a collection of stories by Chekhov, translated by Constance Garnett. Publishers love the Garnett translations because they're out of copyright. Scholars seem less fond. This led me to a fascinating New Yorker article by David Remnick about "translation wars", where among other things I learned that Garnett was working at high speed and so didn't polish the translations, or indeed take time over difficulties. So, maybe, reading her translations is a fairly accurate re-creation of the experience of reading the originals with a limited skill in reading Russian: the experience that most readers, even Russian readers, will have.

In the first two pages of the story I've just started reading, "Peasants" (itself possibly a near-enough translation that really requires a footnote), we find these phrases:
 What lots of flies!
... huge stones jutted out bare here and there through the clay.
"It's lovely here in your parts!" said Olga [...] "What space, oh Lord!"
I could "improve" all of those, without any knowledge of Russian, without damaging the sense. But I'd be making them more regular, more English. The awkwardness is a reminder that we're reading a foreign text about foreign experiences, and I'm glad it's there.

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