Doctor Zhivago – Choosing the translation…

Here we go again – literal or liberal?

Months ago, in preparation for the Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge, I bought a copy of the Richard Pevear/Larissa Volokhonsky translation of Doctor Zhivago from Amazon. But, for reasons best known to themselves, they sent me a copy of the Max Hayward/Manya Harari translation instead. I’d probably not have been too fussed about this, except that I had also bought a copy of the audiobook to do a combined read/listen, so obviously it was important to have the same translation in each. So I acquired the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation too. (A sad footnote to this episode was when I discovered that the Audible audiobook, also listed as Pevear, is in fact the Hayward! It appears Amazon and Audible don’t really understand that different translations matter. They should be clearer now they’ve read my e-mails on the subject… 😉 )

So at the weekend I finally settled down to read. The Pevear/Volokhonsky is the most recent translation and my initial sketchy research had suggested they’re the go-to people for Russian translation at the moment. The Hayward/Harari is, I believe, the translation most people will be familiar with who read the book before 2010. I decided to read the first chapter of each and decide which I preferred. And that’s when it began to get complicated…

The Hayward/Harari seems to be generally recognised as a good but liberal translation, where they’ve kept the meaning but made changes to word order and vocabulary to make it read more naturally in English. Apparently they’ve also omitted the occasional bit and, from my own reading, have sometimes added a little extra to clarify something which might not be immediately obvious to a non-Russian. Pevear/Volokhonsky, however, is claimed to be a more literal translation, keeping not just the words but often the order, and striving to emulate the rhythms in the original. Here are some comparisons…

H/H – “There was a certain amount of unpleasantness, and there are certain consequences. For instance, I am banned from the civil service for quite a long time and I am forbidden to go to Moscow or Petersburg. But these are trifles.”

P/V – “There was some unpleasantness; it had its consequences. For instance, I can’t hold a government job for a long time. They won’t allow me in the capitals. But that’s all rubbish.”

In this one, H/H have clarified that the “capitals” are Moscow and St Petersburg. P/V have used “capitals” and then footnoted the explanation. On the one hand, this kind of thing makes H/H easier to read and simpler to understand on a superficial level. But on the other hand, it means that the reader is left unaware that the Russia of the time considered itself to have two capitals, an old (Moscow) and a new (St Petersburg), which, all my history reading of the last few months has led me to believe, is quite important to understanding the country and the revolution. P/V’s footnote clarifies this quite well. I’ve also never come across the term “civil service” in connection with government jobs in Russia – it’s a very British expression, I think.

P/V – A rain of clods drummed down as four shovels hastily filled the grave. Over it a small mound rose. A ten-year-old boy climbed onto it.

Only in the state of torpor and insensibility that usually comes at the end of a big funeral could it have seemed that the boy wanted to speak over his mother’s grave.

H/H – Clods of earth drummed on the lid like rain as the grave was filled hurriedly by four spades. A mound grew up on it and a ten-year-old boy climbed on top.

Only the numb and unfeeling condition which comes to people at the end of a big funeral could account for some of the mourners’ thinking that he wished to make an address over his mother’s grave.

Here, H/H have changed the structure of the sentences making them read more naturally and perhaps simplistically. P/V’s more literal translation follows the Russian structure, I assume, making it seem rather stilted and convoluted at points. On the other hand, I think P/V create a clearer image overall, and I prefer “torpor and insensibility” to “numb and unfeeling”.

Ooh, I say! Oops, I mean… Omar Sharif as the Doctor. Wonder if he does housecalls?

H/H – During the night the boy, Yura, was woken up by a knocking at the window. The dark cell was mysteriously lit up by a flickering whiteness. With nothing on but his shirt, he ran to the window and pressed his face against the cold glass.

Outside there was no trace of the road, the graveyard or the kitchen garden, nothing but the blizzard, the air smoking with snow. It was almost as if the snowstorm had caught sight of Yura and, conscious of its power to terrify, roared, howled and did everything possible to attract his attention, revelling in the effect it had on him. Turning over and over in the sky, length after length of whiteness unwound over the earth and shrouded it. The blizzard was alone on earth and knew no rival.

P/V – During the night, Yura was awakened by a tapping at the window. The dark cell was supernaturally lit up by a fluttering white light. In just his nightshirt, Yura ran to the window and pressed his face to the cold glass.

Beyond the window there was no road, no cemetery, no kitchen garden. A blizzard was raging outside; the air was smoky with snow. One might have thought the storm noticed Yura and, knowing how frightening it was, revelled in the impression it made on him. It whistled and howled and tried in every way possible to attract Yura’s attention. From the sky endless skeins of white cloth, turn after turn, fell on the earth, covering it in a winding sheet. The blizzard was alone in the world; nothing rivalled it.

This third example is a little more bothersome to me. I like both these passages and think both translations convey a vivid picture of the snowstorm – my preference is for P/V. But ‘mysterious’ and ‘supernatural’ have distinctly different definitions and I am left wondering which translation catches Pasternak’s meaning. I suspect ‘supernatural’ might be closer, since even this first chapter shows me that religious belief or lack of it is going to be something of a theme in the book. But, when I started looking for other opinions on the two translations, Ann Pasternak Slater (Boris’s niece) points out in this interesting Guardian article, that, when describing the moon in a later passage, P/V have chosen “blackish purple”, while H/H have gone for “crimson” which Slater, herself a Russian speaker, thinks is closer to the meaning in the original. So P/V’s literal translation may not always convey the author’s intention better than H/H’s liberal one. (Or, of course, Slater could be wrong – being a relative of the author doesn’t necessarily confer greater depth of understanding. And I can’t help feeling crimson moons are a little banal while blackish purple ones are dramatically poetic…)

Looks like the heating’s on the bung again…

My final example is the one that I find most discombobulating…

P/V – As they passed by the Gordons’ compartment, wrapping the corners of their shoulders in shawls and turning the narrowness of the corridor into a source of fresh coquetry, it seemed to Misha that they hissed, or, judging by their compressed lips, meant to hiss: “Ah, just imagine, such sensitivity! We’re special! We’re intelligentsia! We simply can’t!”

H/H – When, with a coquettish wriggle of their shoulders for which the narrow passage offered an excuse, they passed the Gordons’ compartment, it seemed to Misha that through their pursed lips they must be hissing: “Gracious, what sensitive plants! They think they’re a special creation! They’re intellectuals! All this is too much for them!”

It seems to me that, on the surface, these two translations mean entirely different things, though I think P/V’s translation actually leaves the meaning quite unclear (“we simply can’t” what?). H/H suggest fairly strongly that the women were being rather dismissively anti-Semitic towards the Jewish Gordons (or at least that Misha thought they were), while P/V reads as if they were boasting instead about their own superior aristocratic sensitivity. Either works, but what was Pasternak’s intention? Having read the H/H version, I can now see that the P/V version could also be read as a snide comment on the Gordons, but I don’t think it’s at all clear. I studied Russian a little at school and while I’m entirely unable to understand the text in its original form, I can just about tell the difference between “they” and “we”. When I look at the text in Russian it undoubtedly uses “we”. But I suspect H/H may have caught the actual meaning better, perhaps by interpreting some nuance of language or punctuation that P/V have too literally translated. But in truth I have no idea…

My Omar with Julie Christie. Huh! I bet she wouldn’t look half so beautiful without the hat…

I’ve decided to go with Pevear/Volokhonsky, because of that “capitals” thing, because overall I prefer their vocabulary choices, because the footnotes are good, and because they haven’t anglicised the Russian names quite so annoyingly as H/H (who use Nicky instead of Nika, for example). However, I’ll keep H/H to hand to help on those occasions that P/V leave the meaning unclear. But what do you think? Have you read either, or both, and if so what did you think of them? And if not, which do you think looks more enjoyable based on the examples?

60 thoughts on “Doctor Zhivago – Choosing the translation…

  1. From the extracts you quote, both translations seem a bit stilted to me. That’s unfair, of course — one can’t judge the flow of a text from short snippets — but I have to confess that neither versions seems currently very tempting.

    I remember, aeons ago, starting Zhivago but not getting very far with it. I’m now thinking this might have something to do with the translation . . .

    I remember the plot of the movie, though! It goes like this: Julie Christie.

    • I must admit that one of the major reasons I don’t enjoy Russian literature much is because the translations always seem stilted to me. It must be a particularly hard language to translate, I think – even translations from Japanese usually read more naturally to me. However, apart from the occasional dip into incomprehensibilty, I’m actually enjoying the P/V translation a lot now that I’m getting into it. They seem to have kept what I assume is Pasternak’s poeticism. Still not totally sure if I’m enjoying the book itself, though…

      Oh, was she in it? I hope she doesn’t take too much screen time away from my Omar…

  2. Ah, interesting debate. I’m always torn about this – not at all consistent. Sometimes I prefer the literal, sometimes the more liberal. I am planning to read Dostoevsky in multiple translations, to see which I prefer.

    • I’m inconsistent too – basically, if I’m not constantly aware of it being translated, then I assume it’s good, which may not necessarily be the case. I’m enjoying the P/V on the whole now that I’m further in – occasional incomprehensibility but made up for by the quality of the more descriptive passages. And excellent notes – much needed, since Pasternak assumes his readers will catch all the references to people and events of the period. Good idea re Dostoevsky, but I don’t think I have the strength of mind to read any Russian fiction twice! 😉

      • I tend to err more on the interpretive side of translation when I do it myself, by the way… But one of the authors I translated said he liked it better like that.

        • I think, on the whole, a bit of interpretation is a good thing, necessary even. It’s a tricky balancing act – I don’t want a “foreign” book to end up sounding British (or American) but I don’t want it to sound so foreign it’s clunky. So I don’t like things like H/H translating “government posts” into “civil service”, but I equally don’t like P/V leaving a sentence as “We simply can’t!” without interpreting the nuance that clearly must exist there…

  3. Interesting post. I can’t comment as I haven’t read Doctor Z, but can say that translators matter. They can make a huge difference in understanding nuances of the text. P&V I think have made it their life’s work to translate as much as possible of the Russian canon.☺️ I have yet to read their translation of The Brothers Karamazov, and compare it to my old Penguin one.

    • Absolutely – and not just from Russian! I went through this when reading Stendhal a few years ago, that time ending up with three versions before I found one I could bear, and even then I didn’t think it was great. I don’t really understand why it’s so hard – perhaps the differences in language actually make people from different nations think differently? However, I’m enjoying the P/V translation now I’m getting properly into it, so hopefully you’ll be impressed with their Karamazov… 🙂

  4. Wow, this is a brilliant and very academic post, FF! Very well done. I haven’t read either, but I have seen the film and pictures of Omar Sharif are always very welcome. It is interesting how the different translations can be so diverse in parts. I remember doing a sort of similar exercise with translations of Latin and Greek texts in my Classics classes. I think for historical and non-fiction texts, a more literal translation is better. For creative and poetic pieces, a bit of fluidity is acceptable if it helps get across the general feeling to a ‘foreign’ reader. Not sure I like the westernising of the names, though. That’s a step too far.

    • Haha – thank you! Glad you enjoyed it! 😀 Yes, I’m looking forward to watching Omar – I can always fast forward through Julie’s bits. Funnily enough, the best translation from Russian I’ve read is Max Eastman’s translation of Trotsky’s History. He actually knew Trotsky well and was there for quite a lot of the events, I believe, so I suspect he understood every nuance of what Trotsky was saying, probably discussed the translation with him, allowing him to even get the humour and/or anger across. However, I’m enjoying the P/V translation quite a lot now I’ve got into it – occasionally incomprehensible, but they make up for it with some lovely language in the more descriptive parts… 🙂

      • This post has got me thinking ALL DAY about a particular piece from Livy where he was describing the passage of Hannibal across the Alps – one translation described the animals carrying supplies as donkeys the other as ‘baggage animals’ and I thought what a strange phrase ‘baggage animal’ is. The Latin was ‘iumentum’ as opposed to ‘asinus’ (donkey) so baggage animal was a more accurate translation, but it leaves unanswered questions about the type of animal – not elephants, they were mentioned elsewhere. Now, if anyone ever offers to carry my bags or suchlike I think of ‘baggage animal’. This has been going round my head all afternoon, now. Probably not your intended result for such a well researched and well presented post!
        Also, I think it would have been fascinating to know Trotsky, but am now so preoccupied with baggage animals that I can hardly think of anything else.

        • Haha – sorry about that! But that is an interesting point, because if Livy left it unclear in the original then I’m not sure I think the translator should assume what kind of baggage animal it was. It’s the choice between readability and accuracy again. And if the baggage animal was actually a pony – like Bill in LOTR – imagine how hurt its feelings must be by all of posterity thinking it was a donkey… (I think I’ve just made myself sad…)
          Trotsky’s the one that fascinates me most too – I wish I could track down a good bio of him… still trying!

          • I agree, I have always refused to accept the donkey translation just in case. As you can see, it haunts me to this day 😉
            If you do find a good bio you must let me know!!

  5. Oh, this is so interesting, FictionFan! I’ve often been torn between translations in exactly that way. Do you go for the more literal one? For the one that really captures the author’s intent (if you know what that is)? It’s difficult. In this case, I’d go for P/V for exactly the reasons you outline. But H/H has a lot to offer, too. And I really like the idea of looking at two translations of the same text in terms of understanding that original text. Oh, and you’ve put Omar in here, too! What more could one want? 😉

    • It’s always an issue with classics because there’s a choice. With modern fiction, you just have to take the translation that exists and either like it or not, but with the classics there are all kinds of questions. Should they keep it sounding ‘old-fashioned’ or modernise? Should they explain points a modern audience is unlikely to catch? I prefer P/V’s decision to explain obscure stuff in notes rather than trying to incorporate it into the text as H/H seem to have done in some cases, but I can see the advantages of either. I’m enjoying the P/V though, now that I’m further in… and I shall enjoying watching Omar afterwards… 😉

  6. I read Zhivago so long ago that I don’t remember who the translator was, but it was during a period where almost any translation of a Russian book, especially one like Zhivago which had been smuggled out, was judged not on its merits but by its existence. I read a lot of Russian books around that time, and don’t remember Zhivago reading any better or worse than the others.

    • Yes, that’s kinda what happened with the H/H one, as I understand – they did it in a hurry just because pressure was on to get it out to the west. And it doesn’t seem to be bad, in any way – it’s very readable, so that’s probably why it’s survived as the main one for so long. But now that I’m further in, I do think the P/V is better from a purely literary point of view…

  7. What an interesting post.I guess as I read Chicago many many moons ago, it must have been HH , but I’m rather with realthog, in that they both feel stilted: however not having read the original, I can’t comment further. I wonder what Shoshi and Karen, both steeped in Russian lit in translation, have to say to shed light. In my head is a memory of Constance Garnett being the translator of almost everything Russian, an age ago. Maybe that is false memory….

    • In my head is a memory of Constance Garnett being the translator of almost everything Russian, an age ago. Maybe that is false memory….

      Nope. I remember it too.

    • A major part of the reason I don’t really enjoy reading Russian fiction is that it always feels stilted to me – it must be a particularly hard language to translate. I’m sure I came across Constance Garnett when I was looking for a translation of something else – W&P perhaps. But of course she was dead before Zhivago was written, ruling her out rather as a candidate for that one… 😉 I must say I’m liking the P/V translation now I’m further in – they do leave me scartching my head from time to time, but they also do a great job in getting some lovely poeticism into the more descriptive passages. Still not 100% sure what I think of the actual book though…

  8. This is really interesting – I find the subject of translations fascinating and often wish I had a better grasp of other languages in order to read books in their original tongues. I’ve read quite a few Pevear/Volkhonsky translations and have never been unhappy but since I don’t read Russian I have nothing to compare it too.

    • I do too, and have always regretted that other languages never came easily to me – even French, which I studied for years, I would find very hard to read anything complex in, and would miss nuance entirely. I’m enjoying the P/V now that I’m further in – they do leave me puzzled from time to time with an odd sentence structure or something that seems out of context, but on the other hand they do an excellent job of bringing what I assume is Pasternak’s poeticism through into the more descriptive passages…

  9. Based on your examples I would also go with the P/V but use the H/H as a backup resource. It’s an interesting question. I often wonder when reading translated books how accurate the result is and as a reader am I really getting the author’s meaning.

    • It’s working quite well so far and I’m finding I’m referring less and less to H/H as I go along, so maybe my brain is getting more wired into P/V’s style. Yes, I do too – even German and French translations sometimes don’t “feel” quite right. And I always assume that if a translation flows well then it must be good – but that’s not necessarily the case, I suppose…

    • It’s incredible, isn’t it? Any time I compare translations, I end up wondering how you can ever be sure how much of what you’re reading comes from the original author. However, I’m enjoying the P/V now that I’m further in… 🙂

  10. Fascinating! I haven’t read Dr. Z, but the movie is beautiful. Yeah, I know, that’s taking the easy way out, ha! But who wouldn’t rather feast one’s eyes on Omar than wade through all those words on the printed page??!

  11. Your post has made me realise why people learn a language for the specific reason of being able to read a book in the original language, although I can’t think of a book I love enough to do that! I preferred the Pevear/Volokhonsky excerpts as they seemed simpler…

    • Yes, I’d love to be able to read books in the original. But I’d think you’d have to be able to speak it like a native to really get the nuances. I don’t think being able to order steak and a red wine counts as fluent, sadly, though it’s always stood me in good stead whenever I’ve been in France… I’m enjoying the P/V now I’m into it a bit more. Still not sure about the actual book though…

  12. Interesting post! I read Doctor Zhivago a few years ago and it was the H/H translation, but I didn’t choose that one in particular – I just picked the book up from the library shelf on a whim, so had no choice. I have to admit, I didn’t enjoy it all that much, but I did find it perfectly readable so I don’t think the translation was to blame!

    • I’d have taken whichever one Amazon had sent me and thought no more about it if the mix-up hadn’t meant I ended up with both! I’m still not sure about the book either – about a third of the way through and it feels very light somehow, especially for Russian fiction…

  13. I’ll be following your progress with interest though not envy. I’m afraid Zhivago is my least favourite Russian novel and I am convinced this is because of Pasternak rather than any of his translators. Still, if you end up with a winning edition I know what to start with if I can ever face a re-read.

    • I’m not much of an enthusiast for Russian fiction in general, though I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on why. So far I’m about a third in and still undecided. It doesn’t seem to have much depth so far, though I’m enjoying it in the context of all the revolutionary history I’ve been reading recently. I’m definitely enjoying the P/V translation now I’m more into it – willing to put up with the occasional incomprehensibility for the sake of the quality of the descriptive writing…

  14. I think I’d be with you on the translation although that dangling sentence did bother me and I know I’d find that frustrating but the Civil Servants seemed to be an unnecessary Anglicisation turn of phrase. I did read this a long time ago though and I can’t remember having any issues and presume I read the P/V translation. I tend to assume the translation is good if I enjoy the book whereas you’ve shown us (and presumably told amazon) that it is far more complicated than that.

    • Yes, that’s usually how I judge – if it’s not constantly annoying me with clunkiness I think it’s good, but any time I compare translations and realise how different they can be, it leaves me wondering how often we’re not really getting what the author originally intended. Having said that, I’m enjoying the P/V translation mostly now, though there are still times when I’m left thinking “What?” Haha! Amazon and Audible should both be better informed on the subject of translations now… 😉

  15. Ah, translations… the endless debate. I’m glad you decided on the P/V in the end, for the simple reason that that’s the translation I have, too.
    A few years ago, I read this book that starts with a short story in English, then comes the same story in French, and then a translation of the French text back into English by someone who didn’t know the original story. It was fascinating to see how two translations changed the original text and how little things like using “bag” instead of “satchel” would change the picture the story painted.

    • You’ll be glad to hear I’m quite enjoying the P/V transaltion now I’m further in – it’s still leaving me saying “What?” occasionally, but the quality of the descriptive stuff makes up for it, and the notes at the back are very good at explaining the background.
      That sounds like a fascinating exercise! I have a feeling I’ve heard that English has more words than most languages, so that we can use them alone to say what we mean, whereas in lots of other languagaes with fewer words, context and nuance are much more important – I wonder if that could be why translations vary so much in meaning and quality…

  16. I haven’t read this book at all, but throughout your examples I liked the PV version better each time. The language is clearer, crisper. And if it takes a footnote to clarify, I’d rather have that than the clunkier language of the HH version. I’ve never compared a translation of one book to another translation before. I think the only opportunity I would have had to do so was when I took a Nietzsche class in grad school. However, we were told which translations the professor favored, and I was also trying to teach 3 courses on the side, so there wasn’t as much time for me to focus and explore as there should have been. Thanks for doing this post! I learned a lot!

    • Glad you enjoyed it! 😀 I never set out to compare them deliberately either. It only happens if I hate the first translation I try and decide to see if another’s better, or like in this case, where some mix up means I end up with more than one copy. But it’s always intriguing to see just how different they are, and it always leaves me wondering just how much of the flavour of the original we’re really getting…

  17. Fascinating FF! I’ll be interested to see how you get on with it, it’s such a difficult choice. On more important matters: how ridiculously beautiful was Omar Sharif? My goodness *fans self*

    • He is rather lovely, isn’t he? I must give him a place in the hunks’ gallery more often… 😀

      So far, I’m enjoying the translation – not so sure I’m enjoying the book though…

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