Literature in Translation

Chekhov’s stories (which I reviewed yesterday) are available free in the public domain via Project Gutenberg, although the translation is different from the one I read. I loved the translation I read! Compare these to passages from “The House with the Mezzanine: An Artist’s Story” to the Project Gutenberg translation. Is there a “better” translation? I think there is.

Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

To the right, in an old orchard, an oriole sang reluctantly, in a weak voice – it must have been a little old lady, too. But now the lindens also ended; I passed a white house with a terrace and a mezzanine, and before me there unexpectedly opened up a view of the manor yard and a wide pond with a bathing house, a stand of willows, a village on the other side, with a tall, slender belfry, the cross of which blazed, reflecting the setting sun. For a moment I felt the enchantment of something dear and very familiar, as if I had already seen this same panorama sometime in my childhood.

Translated by Constance Garnett via Project Gutenberg

From the old orchard on the right came the faint, reluctant note of the golden oriole, who must have been old too. But at last the limes ended. I walked by an old white house of two storeys with a terrace, and there suddenly opened before me a view of a courtyard, a large pond with a bathing-house, a group of green willows, and a village on the further bank, with a high, narrow belfry on which there glittered a cross reflecting the setting sun. For a moment it breathed upon me the fascination of something near and very familiar, as though I had seen that landscape at some time in my childhood.

Which do you prefer? Has a story or novel been ruined for you by a poor translation?

I want to find the best translations for the upcoming works on the HTR&W list. Any suggestions for Maupassant, Cervantes, Proust, and the others?

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. I am a total Pevear & Volokhonsky groupie. 😀

    Before I buy a classic, if it wasn’t originally written in English, I make it a point to research the various translations to help me decide. Contemporary books are harder, because there’s just the one translation so I have to trust the person more. However, so far I haven’t run into a horrendous contemporary translation-fingers crossed!

  2. @Eva: I’ve just discovered the subtle joys of various translations! I did enjoy the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of this. I’ll have to look for theirs for the other Russian works I’m going to be reading.

  3. If available, I usually try to research the different translations beforehand too. I think an awkward translation can certainly affect my enjoyment of a book. I tried reading The Tale of Genji a couple of years ago but got stalled out by the literal, and to me, rather dry translation I had. It’s well respected but maybe almost too literal. So now I have a more recent translation that also has a very good reputation. Hopefully I’ll have more luck with it.

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