Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Smooth Lawn, Not a Volcano

Yesterday’s Writer’s Almanac featured the following information on a productive, if not “faithful”, translator, who apparently didn’t have a problem with changing source texts to fit the target culture:

“It’s the birthday of Constance Garnett, born in Brighton, England (1861). She gave us many of the first English translations of famous 19th-century Russian novels. Garnett could translate 5,000 words a day, scattering piles of pages at her feet as she wrote. She finished Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in six months, and translated a total of 80 volumes, including Dostoyevsky’s complete works, which alone add up to about two and a half million words. But Garnett had a habit of skipping phrases that she didn’t understand, she often missed the humor of the original Russian, and she altered sexuality in the novels to reflect her Victorian ideals. Critic Kornei Chukovsky compared her writings to “a safe blandscript: not a volcano... a smooth lawn mowed in the English manner — which is to say a complete distortion of the original.” Constance Garnett’s translations held up as the standard for decades, but now most of them are replaced by more nuanced versions of the Russian works.”


JW said...

Hemingway is said to have been influenced tremendously by Garnett's translations of Russian literature, which is to say, somewhere in Hemingway's own (enormously) influential style must be traces of Garnett's prose.

B.J. Epstein said...

I didn't know that. What fun it could be to trace how certain authors have been influenced by translations, whether those translations were bad or good, "faithful" or not.

Best wishes,