March 18, 2020

Dissecting Chekhov

Dissecting Chekhov
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov at work.

First, let us begin with the obvious.

Translation is an art, not a science. Yes, often words have a single counterpart in another language. Yet hilarity ensues (refer to internet) if one simply replaces, machine-like, words in Russian with their English counterparts.

A good translation should not stand out as being a translation. It should read as fluently in the destination language as in the original. Yet it should also, through a combination of intelligence, knowledge, linguistic alchemy and, yes, art, create a work in the new language that echoes with the voice, cadence, syntax, style, and language of the writer. As if one were standing in the middle of Iowa but breathing Russian air.

And yet, because translation is such a quixotic mix of art and craft, one is hesitant to make judgements of another translator’s work. Just because a translator made A or B or X choices of words or phrases, does that make the translation wrong? Maybe not. Yet translations can be generally judged to be better or worse, more or less fluid, more or less true to the original.

Which brings us to Anton Pavlovich Chekhov.

One of the most beloved of Russian authors, Chekhov would seem to be simple to translate, because his language appears less complicated or embroidered, yet there is much that is difficult, because his writing is at once so terse and so rich. He says so much with so little.

A few years ago, the playwright David Mamet “translated” some of Chekhov’s plays for the stage. I put the term in quotation marks because Mamet began with literal translations of the works into English, then reworked that English into a more Mametian style, which, if you like Mamet, worked. But on the long continuum between loyalty to the original and loyalty to oneself, these “translations” were far toward the interpretive side of the spectrum.

Interestingly, the much acclaimed translation team of Richard Pevear and Larisa Volokhonsky (P&V) have a similar working style, which Volokhonsky explained in an interview the pair did with Russian Life back in 2001:

“I do the interlinear translation very close to the text. I try to be very literal, sometimes even to the point of distorting the English sentences, so that Richard knows what is happening in the Russian text. I also sometimes indicate stylistic points – say, if an archaic word is used, or if there is some slang or a wrong word, especially in the dialogue.”

Notably, Pevear is not Russian-fluent (“Richard doesn’t know Russian as well as he should,” Volokhonsky said in one interview), and the two must engage in a back and forth collaboration to make sure he does not overstep when re-writing the English.

Later in the same interview, when Pevear was asked which way one should tack, between making a translation that is “ugly yet faithful, or beautiful yet unfaithful,” he replied:

“I think translations should first be faithful to the original, even to the point of distorting the destination language.”


Indeed, critics have called the couple’s work far too literal, flat and awkward, arguing that they “don’t see the difference between the language norm, phrases used in everyday speech, and the writer’s individual style [Berdy and Lanchikov].”

Gary Saul Morson (in an article titled “The Pevearson of Russian Literature”) was categorically negative, calling the pair’s work “Potemkin translations,” saying they “take glorious works and reduce them to awkward and unsightly muddles,” while Berdy and Lanchikov wrote that “The translations of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have certainly been successful… but to name a single one of their translations a success, a genuine achievement, is simply not possible.”

Chekhov's 52 Stories
Get the book here

So it is with some trepidation that I cracked the cover of Pevear and Volkhonsky’s new translation of Chekhov, 52 Stories (out in April). Chekhov is my favorite of Russian authors, alongside Dovlatov, Bulgakov, and Alexievich, and I worried that the translators’ reputation (particularly among fellow translators) for creating wooden, excessively literal translations, would leave me unsatisfied.

In fact, they did just that.

I tried to imagine a (sad) situation in which I had never before read Chekhov in English. In that alternate universe, these translations would not have made me love Anton Pavlovich’s writing the way the translations of Constance Garnett and others (to say nothing of reading him in the original) have. 

To demonstrate my point, I have selected a few passages, largely at random, and will show the text in the original, along with the translations of Garnett and P&V.

Marrying the Cook

This is the short story’s opening paragraph, and it sets the stage with a typically rich, Chekhovian description.

Original Russian

Кухарка женится

Гриша, маленький, семилетний карапузик, стоял около кухонной двери, подслушивал и заглядывал в замочную скважину. В кухне происходило нечто, по его мнению, необыкновенное, доселе невиданное. За кухонным столом, на котором обыкновенно рубят мясо и крошат лук, сидел большой, плотный мужик в извозчичьем кафтане, рыжий, бородатый, с большой каплей пота на носу. Он держал на пяти пальцах правой руки блюдечко и пил чай, причем так громко кусал сахар, что Гришину спину подирал мороз. Против него на грязном табурете сидела старуха нянька Аксинья Степановна и тоже пила чай. Лицо у няньки было серьезно и в то же время сияло каким-то торжеством. Кухарка Пелагея возилась около печки и, видимо, старалась спрятать куда-нибудь подальше свое лицо. А на ее лице Гриша видел целую иллюминацию: оно горело и переливало всеми цветами, начиная с красно-багрового и кончая смертельно-бледным. Она, не переставая, хваталась дрожащими руками за ножи, вилки, дрова, тряпки, двигалась, ворчала, стучала, но в сущности ничего не делала. На стол, за которым пили чай, она ни разу не взглянула, а на вопросы, задаваемые нянькой, отвечала отрывисто, сурово, не поворачивая лица.

Constance Garnett translation

The Cook’s Wedding

Grisha, a fat, solemn little person of seven, was standing by the kitchen door listening and peeping through the keyhole. In the kitchen something extraordinary, and in his opinion never seen before, was taking place. A big, thick-set, red-haired peasant, with a beard, and a drop of perspiration on his nose, wearing a cabman's full coat, was sitting at the kitchen table on which they chopped the meat and sliced the onions. He was balancing a saucer on the five fingers of his right hand and drinking tea out of it, and crunching sugar so loudly that it sent a shiver down Grisha's back. Aksinya Stepanovna, the old nurse, was sitting on the dirty stool facing him, and she, too, was drinking tea. Her face was grave, though at the same time it beamed with a kind of triumph. Pelageya, the cook, was busy at the stove, and was apparently trying to hide her face. And on her face Grisha saw a regular illumination: it was burning and shifting through every shade of colour, beginning with a crimson purple and ending with a deathly white. She was continually catching hold of knives, forks, bits of wood, and rags with trembling hands, moving, grumbling to herself, making a clatter, but in reality doing nothing. She did not once glance at the table at which they were drinking tea, and to the questions put to her by the nurse she gave jerky, sullen answers without turning her face.

Pevear and Volokhonsky translation

The Cook Gets Married

Grisha, a chubby seven-year-old, was standing by the kitchen door, eavesdropping and peeking through the keyhole. In the kitchen something was going on which, in his opinion, was extraordinary, never seen before. At the kitchen table, on which meat was usually cut and onions chopped, sat a big, burly peasant in a cabby’s kaftan, red-headed, bearded, with a big drop of sweat on his nose. He was holding a saucer on the five fingers of his right hand and drinking tea from it, biting so noisily on a lump of sugar that it sent shivers down Grisha’s spine. Across from him, on a dirty stool, sat the old nanny Aksinya Stepanovna, also drinking tea. The nanny’s face was serious and at the same time shone with some sort of triumph. The cook Pelageya was pottering around by the stove and looked as if she was trying to hide her face somewhere far away. But on her face Grisha saw a whole play of lights: it glowed and shimmered with all colors, beginning with reddish purple and ending with a deathly pallor. Her trembling hands constantly clutched at knives, forks, stove wood, rags; she moved about, murmured, knocked, but in fact did nothing. Never once did she glance at the table where they were drinking tea, and to the questions the nanny put to her she replied curtly, sternly, without turning her face.

Truth be told, I find both translations a bit unsatisfying. Despite their differences in word choices (P&V are often more “correct”), both are clunky, yet Garnett reads better.

Strangely, neither makes any attempt to translate карапузик, a word that sounds so wonderful and colloquial and funny. Garnett for some reason translates it to say the boy is fat and solemn, while P&V dub him merely chubby. But карапузик is a noun that means a round, fat child, usually a toddler, and at least deserved an attempt (munchkin? tot? tyke? critter? – there is also a beetle called a карапузик). “Plump tyke of seven” would have created a better visual image.

And both muff the part about the play of lights on Pelageya’s face. Have you ever heard someone say “a whole play of lights” in English or that something “shimmered with all colors”? And it is hard not to gag on “to the questions the nanny put to her” or “to the questions put to her by the nurse.” And what is it with “without turning her face”? Sure, we know what they are saying, but is that how people talk?

It’s like a celebration of the literal and the passive. And by translating the Russian so literally, both versions end up with stilted, far-from-colloquial-English results. Why not simply: “Not once did she glance at the table, around which they sat, drinking their tea, and she replied to the nanny’s questions curtly and sternly, never turning to face them.”

The goal is not to create something that sounds like Chekhov would have talked if he were semi-fluent in English and often uttered malapropisms or overly literal translations of his Russian thoughts. No, the goal is to create something that sounds like Chekhov would have written, had he been bilingual and flawlessly fluent in English.


A Lost Dog

I randomly selected a shorter bit, something with some dialog. It is about midway through Chekhov’s classic story of a dog’s adventure, “Kashtanka.”


Кот еще сильнее выгнул спину, зашипел и ударил Каштанку лапой по голове. Каштанка отскочила, присела на все четыре лапы и, протягивая к коту морду, залилась громким, визгливым лаем; в это время гусь подошел сзади и больно долбанул ее клювом в спину. Каштанка вскочила и бросилась на гуся...

 - Это что такое? - послышался громкий, сердитый голос, и в комнату вошел незнакомец в халате и с сигарой в зубах. - Что это значит? На место!

 Он подошел к коту, щелкнул его по выгнутой спине и сказал:

 - Федор Тимофеич, это что значит? Драку подняли? Ах ты, старая каналья! Ложись!

 И, обратившись к гусю, он крикнул:

 - Иван Иваныч, на место!


Garnett translation

The cat arched his back more than ever, mewed and gave Kashtanka a smack on the head with his paw. Kashtanka jumped back, squatted on all four paws, and craning her nose towards the cat, went off into loud, shrill barks; meanwhile the gander came up behind and gave her a painful peck in the back. Kashtanka leapt up and dashed at the gander.

"What's this?" They heard a loud angry voice, and the stranger came into the room in his dressing-gown, with a cigar between his teeth. "What's the meaning of this? To your places!"

He went up to the cat, flicked him on his arched back, and said:

"Fyodor Timofeyitch, what's the meaning of this? Have you got up a fight? Ah, you old rascal! Lie down!"

And turning to the gander he shouted: "Ivan Ivanitch, go home!"


Pevear and Volokhonsky translation

The cat arched his back more than ever, hissed, and smacked the dog on the head with his paw. Kashtanka jumped back, crouched down on all fours and, stretching her muzzle toward the cat, let out a burst of shrill barking. The goose, meanwhile, came from behind and pecked her painfully on the back. Kashtanka jumped up and lunged at the goose…

“What’s going on!” shouted an angry voice, and into the room came the stranger, wearing a robe, with a cigar between his teeth. “What’s the meaning of all this. Go to your places!”

He went up to the cat, gave him a flick on his arched back, and said, “Fyodor Timofeyich, what’s the meaning of this? You started a fight, eh? You old rapscallion! Lie down!”

And, turning to the goose, he shouted, “Ivan Ivanych, to your place!”

In the first paragraph, P&V get their word choices more correct (the cat indeed hissed, not mewed; crouching is better than squatting), and also produce a slightly more readable variant than Garnett. But we’ll just ignore the strange construction that both employ, “arched his back more than ever,” which should be “arched his back even more.” Ok, maybe we won’t.

In the next graph, its hoary head the passive voice does raise (“into the room came the stranger”). Also “and a voice shouted” is not what Chekhov wrote. He writes (passively) that a loud, angry voice was heard, the emphasis being on what the animals hear. Further, the construction “the stranger, wearing a robe, with a cigar between his teeth” trips the reader up, because the “with” can be momentarily mistaken to modify the robe, instead of the stranger, which would be more Gogol than Chekhov.

Also, the “to your places” in both versions clangs in my ears as too literal. На место! would be better rendered with a command like “Down, boy!” or “Back off!” Or maybe “To your corners!”

Finally, the use of “rapscallion” sounds awkward, like we have tripped into a W.C. Fields movie. Something like “you old wretch” or simply Garnett’s “old rascal” seems to convey старая каналья better.

Are these splitting hairs? Sure. But that’s what translators and editors do. The point was to present a few random examples that represent the wider texture. And while I would not classify any of these muffs or errors to be egregious, they are representative of the general impression of woodenness that these translations left me with.

Frankly, it is almost as if I were reading another author. Surely this cannot be Chekhov, for it is stilted when it should be lyrical, clunky when it should be fluent (emphasis is mine):

“High narrow wisps of mist, thick and white as milk, hovered over the river, covering the reflections of the stars and catching at the willows.” [Fear]

Motionless at the table was a man who looked nothing like ordinary people.” [The Bet]

“He approached the river. Before him the general’s bathhouse and the sheets hanging on the rails of the little bridge showed white. He went up on the little bridge, stood there, and without any need touched a sheet. The sheet turned out to be rough and cold. He looked down at the water… The river flowed swiftly and the gurgling around the pilings of the bathhouse was barely audible. The red moon was reflected near the left bank; little ripples ran across its reflection, spreading it, tearing it to pieces, and, it seems, wishing to carry it off…” [The Kiss]

It is one thing to make a translation correct, to find the right words. At that P&V are adept, and they correct Garnett's errors in many cases. But it is quite another to create a work of great prose in the target language that parallels the original. This P&V have not done. The Chekhov in these stories comes across as a second-rate writer whose stories skip and stumble with an awkward, non-native English.

Thankfully, we still have Constance Garnett.

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