Saturday, June 20, 2015

"Anna Karenina" TOLSTOY AS "CONTRA"

(25) Tolstoy as "Contra"

Tolstoy is a polemical writer, one who consistently takes strong positions AGAINST what he sees as reprehensible morality or socially unacceptable behavior. This, of course, is in the tradition of Russian Critical Realism, in which the authors are always very much against certain things in their writings.

To quote Boris Eichenbaum ("Tolstoy in the Seventies," p. 135), "Anna Karenina is a polemical work directed against the spirit of contemporary literature and journalism, and against a certain conception of the aims of art, and against prevailing forms of realism, and against the question of women's rights, and against the question of workers' rights, and against the zemstvo, and against the system of public education, and against materialistic philosophy."

Eichenbaum stops there, but he left out several important things. In Anna Karenina Tolstoy takes positions against adultery and casual fornication, against the railways as destroyers of rural traditions, against the rise of capitalism in Russia (again the railways are implicated here), against the class of greedy merchants and speculators (Ryabinin in the book), against contraception, against doctors in general.

One reason why modern readers (say feminists, for example) often react so vehemently to Tolstoy's great novel is because it is so thoroughly steeped in highly CONSERVATIVE positions. Plenty of modern readers are very much FOR some of the things that Tolstoy was so much AGAINST.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

JOHN UPDIKE ON "Toward the End of Time," opisthognathous, Neanderthal Man, Vera Nabokov, "blonde" vs. "blond," actress and actor

While I was corresponding with John Updike he would usually reply to my letters using a manual typewriter and typing on the back of a postcard. The letter that I wrote him in Mar., 2006, mentions several things: (1) I had just read the Updike novel "Toward the End of Time." I jokingly mentioned that Updike deserved an award for being the first to use the word "opisthognathous" since Melville in 1850. I commented on my distaste for the main female character Gloria and wondered who wrote the jacket copy describing her as the "vibrant wife Gloria" (2) I mentioned that I had written letters to Nabokov and had received replies (3) I commented on the  encroachment of political correctness into the English language, the insistence that "blonde" must now be "blond" and that the word "actress" can no longer be used.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

ANNA KARENINA "Остранение" ("Making It Strange") and Laska the Dog

(24) ОСТРАНЕНИЕ and Laska the Dog

The word "ostranenie," usually translated as "making it strange," is a word that the Russian critic Shklovsky coined to describe one of Tolstoy's favorite devices. Tolstoy likes to show things in unique ways, from unique vantage points. He loves describing a scene from the viewpoint of a naive observer, a character who is completely alien to the action surrounding him. One of the most famous examples of this is the description of an opera in War and Peace, through the eyes of young Natasha Rostova, who has never been to the opera before and has no idea what is going on:

"In the second act there was scenery representing tombstones, and there was a round hole in the canvas to represent the moon, shades were raised over the footlights, and from the horns and contrabass came deep notes while many people appeared from right and left wearing black cloaks and holding things like daggers in their hands. They began waving their arms. Then some other people ran in and began dragging away the maiden who had been in white and was now in light blue. They did not drag her away at once, but sang with her for a long time, and then at last dragged her off, and behind the scenes something metallic was struck three times and everyone knelt down and sang a prayer. All these things were repeatedly interrupted by the enthusiastic shouts of the audience."

As is obvious from the passage above ostranenie is often used for ironic aims, sometimes to ridicule an institution. After all, institutions viewed by a child or naive observer with no preconceived opinions often appear ludicrous. Since Lyovin in AK is a rather naive type, who refuses to accept the conventional behavior of society, Tolstoy often shows him observing certain things that the author wishes to to be ironic about. One example of this involves Lyovin's participation in the zemstvo elections (Part VI, Ch. 28, p. 680).

Another example of "making it strange" is the way the dazed Lyovin (who has just gone through a horrendous childbirth that was more painful for him than for his wife!) looks at his newborn son:

"Give him to me," she [Kitty] said, hearing the baby's cry. "Give him to me, Lizaveta Petrovna, and he will look at him."
"To be sure, his papa shall look at him," said Lizaveta Petrovna, getting up and bringing something red, and strange, and wriggling.
"Wait a minute, we'll make him tidy first," and Lizaveta Petrovna laid the red wobbling thing on the bed, began untrussing and trussing up the baby, lifting him up and turning him over with one finger and powdering him with something.
Looking at the tiny pitiful figure, Lyovin made strenuous efforts to discover in his heart some trace of fatherly feeling. He felt nothing but disgust. But when the baby was undressed and he caught a glimpse of wee, wee little hands, little feet, saffron colored, with little toes too; and positively with a little big toe different from the rest, and when he saw Lizaveta Petrovna bending the little sticking-up arms as though they were soft springs and putting them into linen garments, such pity for the little creature came upon him, and such terror that she would hurt it, that he held her hand back" (Part VII, Ch. 16, p. 747).

The reader can only pause in admiration here, savoring Tolstoy's wonderful description of a new-born baby, from the viewpoint of a dazed first-time father.

Tolstoy is daring enough a writer to try even getting inside the skin of a dumb animal. He once wrote an entire story ("Kholstomer") from the viewpoint of a horse. Just as he is able to invest nearly all his human characters with a roundness and verisimilitude that is rare in world literature, so he can also portray a rounded, believable dog. This is Lyovin's bitch Laska, certainly one of the best dogs ever portrayed in creative writing. Especially good are the scenes of the hunt, shown through the eyes of the dog. Tolstoy sometimes uses the canine viewpoint to show the superiority of animal instinct over human rationality. Here we have Laska catching the scent of the birds and setting about finding them:

"They were here, but where precisely she could not determine. To find the very spot she began to make a circle, when suddenly her master's voice drew her off. 'Laska! Here?' he asked, pointing her to a different direction. She stopped, asking him if she had better not go on doing as she had begun. But he repeated his command in an angry voice, pointing to a spot covered with water, where there could not be anything. She obeyed him, pretending she was looking so as to please him, went around it, and went back to her former position, and was at once aware of the scent again. . . . . . . The scent of them reached her, stronger and stronger, and more and more defined, and all at once it became perfectly clear to her that one of them was here, behind this tuft of weeds, five paces in front of her; she stopped, and her whole body was stiff and rigid. On her short legs she could see nothing in front of her, but by the scent she knew it was sitting not more than five paces off. She stood still, feeling more and more conscious of it, and enjoying it in anticipation. Her tail was stretched straight and tense and wagging only at the extreme tip. Her mouth was slightly open, her ears raised. One ear had been turned wrong side out as she ran up, and she breathed heavily but warily, and still more warily looked around, but more with her eyes than with her head, to her master. He was coming along with the face she knew so well, though the eyes were always frightening to her. He stumbled over the stump as he came, and moved, so she thought, extraordinarily slowly. She thought he came slowly, but he was running" (Part VI, Ch. 12, p. 620-21).

There you have, by the way, for one of the first times in world lit, Tolstoy anticipating the age of cinema by showing the dog in making-it-strange viewpoint, as we view a scene through that dog's eyes in slow motion.

In this magnificent scene Tolstoy seems to have such a perfect intuition into the mental workings of an animal that you find it hard to believe he was never a dog himself. The physical descriptions of Laska are near perfect. One of the pleasures of reading creative literary fiction is the thrill of discovering the one detail that adds utter life and vitality to the artist's portrayal of a scene. In this scene that perfect detail is the ear turned wrong side out as Laska stands in a rigid pointing position, waiting for Lyovin to approach [let us here recall the ear motif in the novel, represented most prominently by Karenin's protuberant ears]. A close second to the inside-out ear is the quivering tip of the tail.

Of course, even such a great master as Tolstoy makes mistakes. The perfect rightness of the scene is lost when he begins putting words into the mind of a dumb animal:

"'Fetch it, fetch it!' shouted Lyovin, giving Laska a shove from behind.
'But I can't go,' thought Laska. 'Where am I to go? From here I feel them, but if I move forward I shall know nothing of where they are.' But then he shoved her with his knee, and, in an exited whisper, said, 'Fetch it, Laska.'
'Well, if that's what he wishes, I'll do it, but I cannot answer for myself now,' she thought, and darted forward as fast as her legs would carry her between the hummocks" (621).

This description has some of the same faults as that describing long detailed eye communication between Kitty and Varenka, with all of the words that the eyes are saying expressed exactly (see Part II, Ch. 30, p. 228). Eyes cannot really put things in words and neither can dogs. Although these words in human word-speak may express almost the exact feelings of Laska at the moment, the very fact of giving the thoughts of the dog in words creates a false note.

So even great artists make mistakes, but so much of Tolstoy is so wonderfully done (such as the first hunting passage given above) that the reader is eager to forgive him for his lapses.

(for a detailed treatment of ostranenie, see David Lodge, The Art of Fiction, p. 52-55)

Thursday, June 11, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: New Marian Schwartz Translation of "Anna Karenina" into English

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, translated by Marian Schwartz, edited and with an introduction by Gary Saul Morson. Yale University Press, 2014. Translator’s note and end notes, xxxii + 754 pp. $35 (cloth and eBook).

So here we have one more translation into English of the greatest novel ever written in the history of world literature (my opinion, but not only mine). The publicity announcements and blurbs make big claims for this book. Marian Schwartz, a renowned translator with extensive experience, “embraces Tolstoy’s unusual style—she is the first English language translator ever to do so.” Hmm. “Clearly a labor of love—over a decade in the making—this translation is the most accurate Tolstoy we have in English.” Hmm. Marian Schwartz “bequeaths us not a translation at all but Tolstoy’s English original.” Huh?

Such grandiose blurbery places quite a burden on the shoulders of the translated text. Let’s see if the text can bear such a heavy weight, but before getting to the novel itself, a few words about the front matter—an introduction by Prof. Gary Saul Morson, and a note by the translator.

Professor Morson is also given credit for editing the translation, but nowhere are we told exactly what he did to edit it. Did he read through the text, evaluating it for smoothness of style in English? Did he check the entire English text, comparing it with that of the Russian original? Did he consult the best-known previous translations into English and compare this new text to them? We don’t know.

Leaving aside the issue of its merits or demerits, Morson’s introduction presents a problem at the outset. Do we want to get right to communing with the literary art of a great writer, or do we, first of all, wish to be enlightened by a literary critic? I, for one, vote for getting right to Tolstoy. I don’t want to be told how to read a book before I begin reading it, nor do I want to be told what it’s all about. That’s a matter between me, the reader, and Tolstoy, the writer. Then again, someone who cannot read the novel in Russian already has one intermediary, the translator, to deal with. Why add one more at the start? So I would vote for the litcrit material to be placed in the back matter of the book, after the novel is over. But nobody asked me.


“The Moral Urgency of Anna Karenina
Gary Saul Morson

Whenever I read literary criticism I am reminded of what somebody somewhere once said: when interpreting creative literary art you almost inevitably distort or oversimplify. I’m sure I do the same thing myself. Recently I have been posting on my blog in increments the entirety of my lectures on “Anna Karenina,” from my thirty years of teaching at Miami University. No doubt they are replete with oversimplifications and distortions. There’s no real way to get around this.

Prof. Morson begins with the first sentence in the book: “All happy families resemble one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” “What exactly does this sentence mean?” asks Prof. Morson. Well, the point of all literary fiction is that it does not exactly mean anything. It has a plethora of interpretations. Morson’s is certainly of great interest. He says that it means happy families resemble each other because there is no story to tell about them, no drama in their lives. Unhappy families make for dramatic stories, and each story is different (ix).

Okay, I can buy that. It’s one of many interesting interpretations of that first sentence, one of the most famous sentences in world literature. But then again, think about this. Ever since the novel was written, readers and critics have gone blue in the face discussing that first sentence, but I’ve never heard anyone challenge the logic of the statement. Think about it. Do all happy families resemble one another? Hardly. Happiness is not all of a piece, and I’d bet there are plenty of happy families that have little in common (other than their happiness). Is every unhappy family unhappy in its own unique way? Maybe. But unhappiness sometimes has a way of being rather banal and ordinary. Life is limited in the ways it can bestow unhappiness upon a family. So much for the first sentence.

Now for Prof. Morson’s interpretations of the main characters. They too, these interpretations, are often brilliant, but not definitive. First of all he determines that Anna is a fatalist and a self-destructive character. She and she alone is responsible for what happens to her. She revels in her feral impulses, gets thoroughly wrapped up in eros-thanatos, drives herself onward to her inevitable violent end. I believe it. There is plenty of evidence for this in the novel. “The omen [the man being crushed under the train early in the novel, in the scene where Anna and Vronsky first meet] is fulfilled only because she chooses to fulfill it” (xii). Well, yeah, but…After all, the very artistic structure of the novel cannot be manipulated or controlled by the central character, and that very structure is steeped in fatalism. Tolstoy at one point has Anna and Vronsky both dreaming the same uncanny, frightening dream. Anna progresses through the novel inevitably toward her doom, but pinning all responsibility on Anna is going too far. If you want to blame anyone for Anna’s death, blame the one whom Anna Akhmatova blamed: Tolstoy himself, or the Tolstoy influenced by the puritan mores of his Moscow aunts.

In line with the same argument Morson suggests that Anna could have had everything she wanted—both a marriage to Vronsky and her son Seryozha. Caught up in her self-destructive impulses she refuses such an arrangement. At one point (Part IV, Ch. 22, p. 396) Karenin does indeed offer to confess to adultery, selflessly take the burden of sin upon himself, so that Anna can have a divorce and can marry Vronsky. But this is just a passing fancy. Karenin’s bursts of magnanimity come and go. His visit to the divorce lawyer (338-39) makes it clear that getting a divorce in the Russia of the 1870s was a complicated business. In Part III (258-59) he decides that he is not willing “to let her be united unimpeded with Vronsky, for her crime to be so much to her advantage. . . . in his heart of hearts he wished her to suffer.” At the end of Part IV, when Karenin suddenly makes his magnanimous offer, Anna refuses to accept his generosity, and Morson makes much of this, her refusal to demean herself and (subconsciously) her self-destructive urge.

But there is really only this one brief moment when Karenin is willing to provide Anna and Vronsky with everything they want, and they miss that brief chance. They go abroad (399), “not only without having obtained a divorce but having resolutely refused one.” This appears to be rather irrational behavior, but you cannot ascribe it solely to pride or self-destructive impulses. After all, at this point in the novel both Anna and Vronsky are physically and emotionally weak, each of them very recently having almost died. They just want to get away from the whole turmoil, they go abroad. They miss their one chance to get the divorce, and later on in the novel Karenin never again repeats his offer. In a word, it’s an oversimplification to say that Anna could have had all she wanted, could have lived on in a peaceful life with Vronsky, had she not been so bent on self-destruction.

Morson makes Alexei Karenin into, largely, a positive character. There are grounds for doing this; over the years I have had students make the same argument. The most wonderful thing about Tolstoy as a writer is the way he draws highly rounded characters. Karenin is, basically, a decent man. There are times in the novel when the reader cannot help feeling sorry for him. After she falls in love with Vronsky Anna treats her husband not like a human being, but like a thing, a pair of ears. People in society mock him, laugh and jeer in their hearts at his every appearance, he the cuckolded husband. At one point he feels as if he must be circumspect in his every move, because people are ready to rip him apart the way a dog pack rips a wounded dog.

That’s all on the one hand. One the other hand there are a lot of facts as well. Based on a few minor details, Morson makes a case for the Karenin marriage. “Surely this was a marriage as good as or better than most!” (xv). That’s  a hard point to support, unless you assume that most marriages are halfway bad or really bad. Tolstoy never gives us much detail about the life of the Karenins before the action of the novel begins, but most of the details we have suggest that this was, at best, a tolerable marriage.

Morson emphasizes how Karenin is the one character in the novel “moved to genuine Christian love and forgiveness.” It’s true, and it’s highly ironic, that this dry stick of a man is the best Christian of them all. But only temporarily. Tolstoy knows better than to make Karenin the hero of the novel. His Christian epiphany cannot be long lasting. It’s a burst of emotion, totally ephemeral. Later on in the novel, under the influence of the sanctimonious Countess Lydia Ivanovna, Karenin’s ostensible Christian feelings are tempered by sham sanctimony, and he dresses his hatred for Anna in fake Christian vestments.

In his attempts to elevate Karenin to the position of a hero Morson makes much of one passage, about how Karenin looked after the baby daughter of Vronsky and Anna (legally his own daughter). “She surely would have died had he not taken an interest in her.” Karenin, therefore, “is the only character in this novel who saves a life” (xiv-xv). But are we really to take this passage literally? Would the little girl have died if Karenin had not taken an interest in her? This was, after all, not a peasant child living in a village in provincial Russia, where, at the time the novel is set, women sometimes deliberately rolled over on their children and smothered them in the night, so as to simply rid themselves of an unnecessary burden. This was a child brought up in a family of the aristocracy, with wet nurses and caretaker nurses and governesses.

You can’t read every sentence in such a complex writer as Tolstoy as gospel truth. Take this one: “Stepan Arkadyevich was always truthful with himself” (5). Read the novel as a whole and one thing certain about Stiva is this: he lies to himself on a regular and steady basis, and that’s how he is able to ignore the way he is bankrupting his family in aid of his profligate life. The sentence about truthful Stiva should be read ironically, as filtered through his own personal viewpoint. Stiva tells himself that he is always truthful with himself, but he is lying. Similarly, the sentence about how little Annie would have died if not for Karenin is right in the middle of a paragraph that filters everything through the viewpoint of Karenin. The implication is that he himself, Karenin, has that thought about saving Annie. Tolstoy can be masterful at presenting POV of a character in a text that is third-person omniscient. Those two sentences, the one about Stiva’s truthfulness with himself, and the one about how Karenin saved Annie’s life, are good examples.

Later in the novel Karenin’s devotion to the little girl Annie seems to have been totally misplaced. He lets Anna and Vronsky take the child (he could have refused them that, as the child is legally his), and nowhere is he shown to have missed Annie or to have wanted her back. He does get her back, by default, after Anna’s death, when Vronsky leaves to fight and (he hopes) die in Serbia (707). We are not told how Karenin reacts to having Annie back. Maybe he dotes on her once again; we have no way of knowing. We do know that Karenin cannot find any love in his heart for his own son.

“The real hero of AK is Dolly,” says Prof. Morson. Well, yes, I can buy the argument that Dolly is a positive character, a decent woman of principle, but she is, of course, a secondary character. Then again, Morson emphasizes how Tolstoy’s views were old-fashioned in his time and sometimes almost bizarre in the modern world: “his views are even more at odds with educated opinion today” (xxii). Try telling your average contemporary American woman reader, steeped and marinated for the past forty years in the principles of feminism, that Dolly is a heroine—in anyone else’s mind but that of her conservative creator, whose whole novel exalts family life with children and castigates sensuality, licentiousness, adultery.

Dolly’s scapegrace husband Stiva Oblonsky, meanwhile (says Morson), is the bad guy of the book. Stiva is, in fact, evil (xvi-xvii). This oversimplification is repeated by the translator in her introduction: “Stiva is the villain of the book, its representation of what evil is” (xxvi). At least Morson qualifies his statement: “not the worst evil,” and “he [Stiva] does not have a shred of malice.” For anyone who reads the whole of this long novel “evil” is not a word that can be applied to Stiva. He is the most vivacious and life-loving character in the book. Wherever he goes he radiates good will. He is utterly frivolous and irresponsible, but all the other characters love him. Time and again he is shown to be totally democratic in his principles, willing to help others of all classes. See, e.g. p. 10, when Stiva takes the time to meet with, and offer help to a petitioner, as one of many examples of his kind heart. Tolstoy himself, often ruled by his stern puritan code in his daily life, could not as an artist help liking Stiva. Stiva is just too likeable not to like, despite his many faults.

As is obvious from what I’ve written above, I find much to disagree with in Prof. Morson’s interpretations. Where I most agree with him is where he stresses that Tolstoy's message, probably the most salient message of the whole book is the ANTI-ROMANTIC message. Anna Karenina did not necessarily have to die because she was self-destructive, but she did have to die because Tolstoy was so thoroughly opposed to anyone’s living a life based on romantic, sensual love.


Marian Schwartz

The translator mentions that this work “has been more than a decade in the making,” and is for her “the most exciting translation ride of my life” (xxvii). I can imagine that. If you’re a translator and you’re given a chance to work on the greatest literary work in the history of world literature, it must be a thrill. But imagine this scenario: you’ve been constructing your spiffy new frigate for, say, nine years. You foresee in the not too distant future the time when you’ll be breaking a champagne bottle over the bow and launching your beloved craft—to a full-throated roar of acclaim from all over the English-speaking world. Why, never a better frigate has ever been built! But then you look up from the final polishing of the bow and stern, and in the distance you see a huge battleship called the Pevear-Volokhonsky come steaming its way into port, blowing its whistle and flexing its smoke stack.

Of course, it did not happen exactly like that. The P-V translation of AK was published in the year 2000, presumably before Marian Schwartz began her labor of love, so she was not taken unawares. Nonetheless, in making her claim to have written the best-ever English-language AK, she is certainly aware that her main rivals for the honor are the translator pair of P-V. The rivalry with P-V seems to underlie the publication of this new translation, especially since Prof. Morson, who wrote the introduction, has published an attack on all the P-V translations of Russian literature, calling into question the preeminence (widely accepted in American Slavic academia) of P-V as translators. See "The Pevearsion of Russian Literature, "Commentary," July/August, 2010. 

In her translator’s note Schwartz lays claim on the first two sentences of the book. Not mentioning P-V by name, she starts by citing their first sentence: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” (xxiv). Then she explains why her first sentence is better: “All happy families resemble one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Moving on to the second sentence, “the book’s moral and stylistic cornerstone,” she makes an argument for “The Oblonsky home was all confusion.” The P-V translation has “All was confusion in the Oblonskys’ house.” Schwartz’s argument is rather belabored, but I can buy her sentence. Although the P-V sentence would be equally fine with a couple of slight changes: “All was confusion in the Oblonsky home.” To cite a couple of older translations, the Modern Library version (Constance Garnett updated) has the clearly inferior, “Everything was in confusion in the Oblonsky household,” and the Norton Critical Edition (Maude) has the even worse, “Everything was upset in the Oblonskys’ house.”

So, in my opinion, Marian Schwartz has won the battle for the first two sentences. Assuming that the older translations are not serious contenders (which, however, you should not assume with alacrity), the question is this: does she win out over P-V in the struggle for all the rest of the sentences in the book? I’ll get back to that later.

Schwartz’s main argument in favor of her translation is that she is the first to preserve the roughness of Tolstoy’s style, the first not to correct his “mistakes.” After all, he was an obsessive rewriter of his text, so when he got to the end of the rewriting you have to assume that that was the way he wanted it. In the space of two sentences, for example, he uses the phrase “the family members and the servants” three times. If he did that in Russian then you must do it in English. So that’s what Schwartz does, and I believe she is right. Most of the time, anyway.

Tolstoy also has a way of using the same key words throughout the text. Schwartz has counted all instances of vesyolyj (gay, happy, joyous, cheerful) and its corresponding nouns and verbs; the number comes out at 316. Very perspicaciously she remarks that if you stick in such a joyous word so many times over the course of the book “the reader begins to wonder just how cheerful anyone really is” (xxv). Point well taken. She does not mention this, but there is even a character who embodies the joy-taking word in the novel, and his name is, appropriately, Vasenka Veslovsky. It would translate into English as something like “Jack Joy.” Marian Schwartz would perhaps render him as “Charlie Cheerful.”

I like Schwartz’s idea that you should try to use the same word in English every time that vesyolyj  or one of its variants shows up. Her choice is “cheerful,” but she cautions the reader that you can’t use “cheerful” exclusively, since “two words in different languages will always have different ranges of meaning.” Then you read the book and discover that she sometimes ignores her own advice. “Cheerful” shows up too much, and sometimes it is gaily stuck into sentences where it just won’t fit. Take this (Part I, Ch. 29): “Anna felt herself being swallowed up. But she found it not frightening but cheerful” (94). Something not quite right there. P-V has “But all this was not frightening, but exhilarating.” The Russian text: “No vse eto bylo ne strashno, a veselo.” The word “exhilarating” for “veselo” might be a stretch. I’d try this: “But all of this was not frightening, but full of joy.” Or, to take a worse example, Vasenka Veslovsky is going out to party with the peasants, and he says, “Farewell, gentlemen. If it’s cheerful, I’ll call you” (540). That’s an awkward sentence in English. You have to give up on “cheerful” here. What he means is, to paraphrase, “If we’re having a good time I’ll come back for you.”

This is not to say that I don’t admire Schwartz for her efforts. I do. But in now going on to treat her translation in some detail, I have to keep asking myself the main question: has she really done the best translation into English of AK ever done? One other question before we begin: given her insistence that previous translations don’t measure up, is Marian Schwartz consistently checking previous translations as she works? We don’t know. But in places where she repeats previous errors you kind of wonder. When I was working on translating Ivan Bunin’s works, I made it a point not to look at previous translations. Once in a while, when I simply could not figure out a locution, I would take a peek. And guess what? Most of the time the previous translator had simply given up on the word or phrase, had thrown the offensive passage out the window with the slops, and then blissfully gone on about his/her business. Marian Schwartz certainly does not do that.


Since I do not have the ten years it would require to check the Schwartz translation line by line with the original Russian, and to compare its sentences to all those of previous translations, I have proceeded as follows. Reading through the Schwartz (from now on termed S), when I come upon sentences that strike me as somehow off, I check the original as well as the following translations: (1) Pevear-Volokhonsky (P-V) (2) Modern Library Edition, translation by Constance Garnett, as revised by Leonard J. Kent and Nina Berberova (ML) (3) Norton Critical Edition, L. and A. Maude translation (NC).

The beginning sentence in Ch. 2 of Part I is one of those rough Tolstoyan sentences that S mentions in her note. But she makes the roughness smooth: “Stepan Arkadyevich was always truthful with himself” (5). ML has “S.A. was a truthful man with himself.” P-V gets the roughness best here: “S.A. was a truthful man concerning his own self.” Not a very good sentence in English, but the Russian original is awkward as well.

Part I, Ch. 26:   Levin returns to his country estate and says (S, 87), “It’s fine being a guest, but being home is better.” ML has, “Visiting friends is all very well, but there’s no place like home,” and P-V: “There’s no place like home.” I’ll go with P-V here; translate a proverb by a proverb.

Part I, Ch. 30   Anna returns home from Moscow, in love with Vronsky, and she sees her husband in a new light. From then on she sees him mainly as a pair of ears. The Russian is “Otchego u nego stali takie ushi?” S: “Where did he get those ears?” P-V: “What’s happened with his ears?” ML: “Why do his ears look like that?” NC: “What has happened to his ears?” I’d call this one a draw.

All through the novel Vronsky is said to have krepkie zuby. S, along with everyone else, goes with “strong teeth.” Is it only me, or is that just not said in English? I don’t know any way to do this except “good teeth,” but I’ll check with my dentist to see if anyone ever says “strong teeth.” At times those bothersome teeth give a toothache to the translators. P-V: “The nagging pain in the strong tooth” (780). Huh?

In Part II, Ch. 16 we come upon a passage that seems as if calculated to drive translators mad. By way of describing a minor character, the merchant Ryabinin’s steward (or clerk), Tolstoy uses the adverb tugo (tightly) four times in two sentences. P-V: “A little gig was already standing by the porch, tightly bound in iron and leather, with a sleek horse tightly harnessed in broad tugs. In the little gig, tightly filled with blood and tightly girdled, sat Ryabinin’s clerk, who was also his driver” (167). Give P-V an ‘A’ for effort (for getting the ‘tightly’ in four times), but that “tightly filled with blood” is bizarre. The Russian here is “V telezhke sidel tugo nalitloj krov’ju i tugo podpojasannyj prikazchik,” literally, “In the cart sat the tightly infused with blood and the tightly girded steward.” I don’t even know exactly what the Russian here means (“tugo nalitoj krov’ju”), and I doubt if the translators do either.

Here is S: “Pulled up at the front steps was a buggy fitted in iron and leather [she gives up on the first tugo], with a sleek horse tightly harnessed with wide traces. Sitting in the buggy was the blood-engorged, tightly-belted steward who served as Ryabinin’s driver” (155). So she gets only two of the four tugos, and she gives us that awkward “blood-engorged.” ML throws up its hands in the face of the tugos and the “tightly filled with blood”: “At the steps there stood a trap covered with iron and leather, with a sleek horse tightly harnessed with broad collar straps. In the trap sat the chubby, tightly belted clerk who served Ryabinin as coachman” (178).  We get only two of the four tugos, but you got to love that otsebjatina (invented by the translator) “chubby” there. The translator has embellished Tolstoy’s clerk, “improved” on him by giving up on the bothersome tight blood, then adding on some pounds and plumping him up!

The NC translators (the Maudes), in my book, deserve a Hero of the Soviet Union medal for the way they handle that bothersome business of “tight blood”: “At the porch stood a little cart strongly [strongly?] bound with leather and iron, and to the cart was harnessed a well-fed horse with broad, tightly stretched straps. In the cart sat Ryabinin’s clerk (who also performed a coachman’s duties), his skin tightly stretched over his full-blooded face [my emphasis, YES] and his belt drawn tight” (152). To me that’s as good a guess as any and probably the best anybody can do with the phrase of the tight blood.

In addition to the problem of all the tugos here, the passage presents all sorts of other problems: how, exactly, is the horse harnessed in (with wide traces? with broad collar straps? with tightly stretched straps?); and what is the conveyance, a buggy, a cart, a gig, which one? Ponder deeply on the passage with the tugos and the tight-blooded whatever, any of you readers who may be considering becoming a literary translator!

Part III, Ch. 2    In contrast to the tugo business above, to that complicated phrasing, sometimes one word, or a very simple passage in the original can cause problems. The one word here is roevnja. Walking out on his estate, Levin comes across a peasant who is carrying a roevnja with bees. Most of the translators I have checked use the word “hive” for roevnja, which is incorrect. The word for hive is “ulej.” Roevnja is a kind of bast netting where swarms of bees are placed to transport them from one place (or hive) to another. Of the four translations I have checked only NC has it right: “carrying bees in a swarm carrier.”

Here’s the simple passage. Levin asks the peasant, “Chto? ili pojmal, Fomich?” Literally: “What? Or did you catch [it, them, bees], Fomich?” Russian can often do without the direct object when it is understood. English cannot. S: “What’s this? Did you catch that, Fomich?” (223). The reader is slightly shocked: what does the word ‘that’ refer to? P-V: “Did you catch it, Fomich?” Same problem. What does the ‘it’ refer to? If it’s “bees,” then it should be, “Did you catch them, Fomich? NC: “Have you found one, Fomich?” One what? ML uses a bit of otsebjatina, but I believe that’s the best approach here: “Taken a stray swarm, Fomich?” That’s good. Point goes to ML. Here a very simple problem, the absence of a direct object in Russian, leads the translators astray, and only one of the four I have consulted successfully renders this into English. That translator also uses otsebjatina (ownself making up), which is illegal. But then, in the realm of literary translations, all rules are made to be broken.

Part IV, Ch. 9  Kitty is trying to catch with her fork “nepokornyj otskal’zyvajushchij grib.” S: “a recalcitrant, slippery mushroom” (353) [Good]. P-V: “a disobedient slippery mushroom” [Good]. ML: “a perverse mushroom” [clearly wrong].

Part V, Ch. 6  The word “molodye,” literally “young ones,” is used in reference to Levin and Kitty, who have just been married. S: “After supper that night the young people left for the country” (420) [clearly wrong]. P-V: “the young couple” [right]. ML: “the young couple.” You could also translate the word here as simply “the newlyweds.”

Part V, Ch. 21    Karenin is “shamefully and repulsively unhappy,” oppressed by the hatred of people all around him in society.
S: “He felt it was because of this, precisely because his heart was lacerated that they would be pitiless toward him. He felt that people would destroy him, the way dogs suffocate a dog lacerated and howling from pain” (464). “Suffocate” won’t work here, although the Russian word can mean “suffocate” or “strangle.” Dogs can’t suffocate or strangle another dog. And normally in English you howl “with” pain, not “from.”
P-V: “as dogs kill a wounded dog howling with pain” (better)
ML: “men would crush him as dogs rip the throat of a crippled dog yelping with pain” (somewhat embellished, but not bad—my favorite of the three translations here—point goes to ML again)

Part VI, Ch. 23  Tolstoy has so many wonderful lines. Here is Anna, telling Dolly why she wants no more children. The Russian reads, “Esli ikh net, to oni ne neschastny po krajnej mere.” Literally: “If they are not, then at least they are not unhappy.” You can’t get it that perfect in English.
S: “If they don’t exist, then at least they are not unhappy” (583). [Good]
P-V: “If they don’t exist, at least they won’t be unfortunate” (638). “Unhappy” is better than “unfortunate.”
ML: “If they are not, at any rate they are not unhappy.” That “if they are not” is good, it’s a literal translation of the Russian, but it’s not English.

In the same conversation Anna goes on to say that if she brings unhappy children into the world she alone is to blame (guilty). Dolly comes up with a wonderful thought in answer to this, another sentence that is perfect in the Russian, but cannot be exactly duplicated in English:
“Kak byt’ vinovatoju pred sushchestvami ne sushchestvujushchimi?” Literally: “How can you be guilty before beings that are not in being?”
S: “How can she be guilty before beings who don’t exist?” (the “she” is wrong here)
P-V: “How can she be guilty before beings that don’t exist?” (the “she” is still wrong)
ML: “How can one wrong creatures that don’t exist?”
NC: “How can one be guilty toward beings who don’t exist?”

The word “guilty” in English presents special problems. It does not appear to have a perfect preposition-complement. In Russian the person toward whom you are guilty is always expressed with the preposition “pered” or “pred” (before). You took Ivan’s pie, so you are guilty before Ivan. But that won’t work in English. Are you guilty toward somebody? In regard to somebody? “Of” works to express what you have done: I’m guilty of taking your pie. But there seems to be no perfect preposition-complement to use in regard to the person you have offended. Given that fact, S, P-V, and NC above are guilty of using inappropriate prepositions. The winner of the point here is me (with a nod to ML): “How can you wrong creatures who don’t exist?”

Part VII, Ch. 2   Here we have a proverb about drunkards, and all of the translations I have checked do a good job.
S: “The first shot’s a squawk, the second a hawk, and after the third—like tiny little birds” (616)
P-V: “The first glass is a stake, the second a snake, and from the third on it’s all little birdies.”
ML: “The first round sticks in the throat, the second flies down like a hawk, but after the third they’re like tiny little birds.”
NC: “The first glass you drive in like a stake, the second flies like a crake, and after the third they fly like wee little birds.”

Part VII, Ch. 28   Anna is in the middle of a long stream-of-consciousness riff, her anguished mind skipping from image to image.
“Voda moskovskaja tak khorosha. A mytishchenskie kolodtsy i bliny.”
S: “Moscow water is so good. Oh, the springs of Mytishchi and the pancakes” (688).
P-V: “The Mytishchi springs and the pancakes” (757).
ML: “Ah, the springs at Mytishchi and the pancakes” (787).
NC: “Oh, and the wells in Mytishchi, and the pancakes!” (685).
Two problems here. The Russian letter “A” at the beginning of the second sentence is a conjunction (“and” or “but”), and not an exclamation. So P-V wins out on that one (by simply omitting it and not exclaiming). But NC is the only one that gets the wells right. “Springs” here is bad (1) because kolodtsy means “wells” and (2) because the word “springs” creates confusion. In the Russian we are clearly speaking of water, but in the English word “springs” we could be speaking of spring seasons in Mytishchi.

Finally, on p. 737 of the S translation there is a misprint or mistake that slipped past the proofreader. The word “Kitty” shows up in the middle of the page, and then, two lines later, we get “but the Katya’s dress was soaked through.” Should be, “but Kitty’s dress was soaked through.” It’s as if some importunate Russian translator had elbowed his way briefly into the book, grabbed Marian Schwartz’s pen, forgetting that Katya is most often called Kitty (and has just been so called two lines up, and is so called by Tolstoy in the original), and, unable to grasp the use of English articles, this jerk sticks an extra “the” in there for good measure. I point out this error not in some caviling spirit, but really to congratulate the translator—this is the only such error I have found in the whole long book!


This review is up to 6000 words. If I had the time and energy to go on comparing passages in various translations it could easily go to 10,000, 20,000. So the sad fact is this: I can’t really tell you if Marian Schwartz has done the best translation ever into English of Anna Karenina. The sampling of comparative passages above is simply too small to be statistically relevant. To see who wins enough points to win the whole game we would have to go on and on and on.

I suspect that the Schwartz translation is very good. It reads well, it shows evidence of extremely conscientious work. I enjoyed reading (for the umpteenth time) Tolstoy’s AK through the mediation of Marian Schwartz! Pointing out places where her translation is in error (as I have done above) is not entirely fair—because I have not gone to the trouble to point out the many many passages where Tolstoy is rendered into English effectively, sometimes even brilliantly. And there are surely many more of those successful passages than the unsuccessful ones.

Is the S translation better than the P-V? Once again, I don’t know. The sampling of passages is too small, and I’ve never read P-V all the way through. Then again, we tend to accept new translations as somehow automatically better than the ones already out there. Some of the samples above suggest that we may too quickly assume that good old Constance Garnett or the good old Maude couple are somehow automatically inferior. Take another look at my sampling. It’s rather surprising how often the ML or the NC translators have done a better job than S or P-V. In a recent article in "The New York Review of Books" ("Socks," June 23, 2016), Janet Malcolm discusses translations of "Anna Karenina" into English. She relentlessly deprecates the English style of both P-V and S, suggesting that older translators, such as Constance Garnett and the Maudes, should perhaps still be relied upon for the best renditions of this classic novel. My small sampling suggests that she may be right.

What’s the solution? Here’s my idea. Since Anna Karenina is the best work of literary fiction ever written, and since the target language of English is probably the most important target language in the world, don’t you think AK deserves some highly unusual, even herculean effort? Why not let all living translators of AK make one more collective effort? Let S and P-V and whoever else is still out there come together for a mass translation marathon. They could bring with them Constance and the Maudes and all other now-dead translators in the person of their books. Then they would sit together and hash out the whole thing—checking texts and arguing their way through to the final, definitive, best-ever translation of AK into English. It might take them a year to do it, but it would be worth it. That’s what I think anyway.