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?