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Russian Literature


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#46 vagansmom

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Posted 16 April 2013 - 07:52 AM

Pherank (whom my iPad keeps trying to call Phreak), thank you for writing about Dr. Zhivago. I saw the movie first, back when I was quite young. I thought it was good, not great. I remember that I was bothered by Zhivago's infidelity. But my mom, a strict Catholic who didn't believe in divorce, told me to read the book so that I could understand the characters better; she had enormous sympathy for Zhivago. I did too once I read the book. Except for the cinematography - the snow was practically a character in the novel - the book is so much richer, both politically and in terms of characters. I know that's often true, but I found it to be truer of this book and movie than most others.

As far as what great Russian novel to read first, mine was Anna Karenina. My boyfriend at the time had to read it for college, so I read it too. I then launched into War and Peace, followed by Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and then a series of shorter works by Tolstoy and Dostoyevski. I look back on that year with great fondness as my mind was fully immersed in all matters Russian. I've never lost that affection.

I've mentioned it on other threads, but I reread War and Peace once every decade. It's a different book each time even though, until my most recent read, I used the very same physical book that I'd originally read. I switched things up this last time and found a whole new world! I read a modern translation. Until then, I hadn't known how funny Tolstoy could be! His descriptions of the military are especially hilarious. The translation I read is the one by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I've just begun rereading a modern translation of the Brothers Karamazov.

#47 dirac

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Posted 16 April 2013 - 09:29 AM

Hello, vagansmom, good to hear from you. I started out with Anna Karenina, too, probably because I'd seen one of the movie or television versions first. I tend to be in favor of reading the book before seeing the movie, since even bad movies have a way of imposing their images in your mind's eye, but it's not always possible.

#48 pherank

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Posted 16 April 2013 - 01:26 PM

Pherank (whom my iPad keeps trying to call Phreak), thank you for writing about Dr. Zhivago.


Perhaps that is my real name, and I just can't hide from it! Nice to hear your thoughts on Zhivago - "the snow was practically a character in the novel" - Yes! And I happen to love that sort of imagery, so the descriptions of the weather will stay with me perhaps longer than the philosophizing, but it was all good for me. I've always remembered the chapter "Snow" from Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain - part of my personal mythology.

Hello, vagansmom, good to hear from you. I started out with Anna Karenina, too, probably because I'd seen one of the movie or television versions first. I tend to be in favor of reading the book before seeing the movie, since even bad movies have a way of imposing their images in your mind's eye, but it's not always possible.


I'm realizing that I just can't remember what Russian Literature book I read first, and it rather bothers me. I know that Dostoyevsky's The Idiot came early, and I was personally very affected by that book and still count it one of the most important readings in my life. During my adolescence I read a huge amount of European Literature and philosophy, especially in highschool (when I thought it was important to know all the 'classics' before going to college - How innocent is that!). So Russian Lit books are scattered throughout my reading history, but in no particular order.

#49 dirac

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Posted 23 April 2013 - 10:49 AM

vagansmom writes:

During my adolescence I read a huge amount of European Literature and philosophy, especially in highschool (when I thought it was important to know all the 'classics' before going to college - How innocent is that!).


Innocent, indeed, alas....

#50 vagansmom

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Posted 01 May 2013 - 04:54 PM

dirac, that's a great quote, but it's not mine - it's pherank's.

#51 pherank

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Posted 01 May 2013 - 05:04 PM

dirac, that's a great quote, but it's not mine - it's pherank's.


I didn't even notice that myself. ;)
And no offense taken.

#52 dirac

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Posted 02 May 2013 - 10:32 AM

Homer nods, what can I say? Sorry, pherank. Posted Image

#53 pherank

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Posted 17 September 2014 - 03:27 PM

I'm reviving the thread because I happened upon an interesting article in The Guardian -

Rereading: Doctor Zhivago which includes a fascinating discussion of the pitfalls of translation from Russian to English (or any Romance language, I would think).



#54 atm711

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Posted 18 September 2014 - 10:15 AM

While not in the category of Russian Literature my favorite is "Bronislava Nijinska's Early Memoirs"---it has the sweep of a Russian novel.

There was supposed to be a sequel, but her daughter Irina who edited the first volume passed away.



#55 pherank

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Posted 18 September 2014 - 11:59 AM

While not in the category of Russian Literature my favorite is "Bronislava Nijinska's Early Memoirs"---it has the sweep of a Russian novel.

There was supposed to be a sequel, but her daughter Irina who edited the first volume passed away.

 

Thanks for the suggestion - I wasn't aware Nijinska had written a memoir.



#56 Ashton Fan

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Posted 07 September 2015 - 06:07 AM

As far as Bulgakov is concerned I understand from a friend who speaks Estonian that a more complete edition of the Master and Margarita  has been published recently and has been translated into Estonian. I wonder how long before it appears in English? His other works are well worth  reading.

 

A Country Doctor's Notebook,in which a newly qualified doctor is let loose upon the world,terrified by one procedure which haunts him a bit like the question you dread seeing on an exam paper; he finds support from the nurses who work with him.At the end, during the civil war, he has a run in with someone on the other side who is armed.He survives the encounter and when he is aked by a listener whether he killed the other man his reply is wonderfully enigmatic. He says, if I recall correctly, "I am a doctor".

 

The Heart of a Dog in which a man's heart is transplanted into a dog by an eminent professor;the result is something pf a disaster.The White Guard, the civil war from the point of view of an ordinary middle class family on the losing side and Black Snow. The latter a brilliantly funny account of the attempt of the innocent writer Maxudov's experience of having a play staged by the Independent Theatre ( a thinly disguised Moscow Arts Theatre).Even in translation it is a comic masterpiece. To add to the discussion about translation the editions that I have read were all translated by Michael Glenny who writes idiomatic English.

 

I had a look at the Guardian article about translations and I am afraid that I found the modern examples that were quoted in the piece exceptionally poor.They were the sort of thing that as a school child required to translate from Russian into English you would have had returned to you with an order to write it in recognisably idiomatic English rather than Russian as English. Every language has its idiomatic phrases for which there is no direct word for word translation which as a school child you have to learn.I think that the words used in English and French for the activity of rendering a foreign language into the local one contain the warning that you will not receive a verbatim account of the original. You know, if you have any knowledge of a foreign language that when you read a work in translation it can not be a verbatim account of the original text since there are idiomatic phrases that do not transfer from one language to another and in every language their are phrases  and words that bring a lot of cultural baggage with them. You trust that the translator will have sufficient knowledge of both languages to achieve the same effect as the original in his or her translation. If the original text has an idiomatic phrase that  has something significant in it which can not be translated then you write good English and use a footnote.What you don't want is a translation that creates a wholly erroneous impression. The Guardian article gave two translations of the same descriptive passage. In the older translation the translator had chosen to describe the bird's nest as a "rook's nest" in the more uptodate translation the words chosen was "crow's nest " which conjured up all sorts of unintended images.

 

I would agree with the person who mentioned Victor Serge he is really worth reading. The Case of Comrade Tuleyev is  excellent, as is Men in Prison and the other titles in the Trilogy.One thing I would like to ask and it is this whatever happened to Solzhenitsyn? All the while he was in Russia and having trouble with the authorities there he was the great man of literature.When he came to the West he became critical of the West and eventually went back to Russia. He was engaged in producing a twentieth century War and Peace. The first book August 1914 was translated and published in the West. I believe that at least one further volume was published in Russia but I am not aware that  it has been translated and published in the West. Does anyone know about this work ? Did it get published in translation anywhere in the West?

 

Is Solzhenitsyn a case of a writer being suppressed at different times by both sides? Has his name slipped from general consciousness because he was not that good a writer or was he dropped because he did not remain grateful and positive about life in the West? It really does puzzle me.

                                                                                            "



#57 dirac

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Posted 07 September 2015 - 10:55 AM

Thank you for reviving this thread, AshtonFan, and your comments on the Guardian piece.

 

 

Is Solzhenitsyn a case of a writer being suppressed at different times by both sides? Has his name slipped from general consciousness because he was not that good a writer or was he dropped because he did not remain grateful and positive about life in the West? It really does puzzle me.

 

A bit of both, I should think. 



#58 Drew

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Posted 07 September 2015 - 04:03 PM

Some translations are incompetent of course--and all translations are, from a certain point of view, inadequate--but there is genuine debate among translators (and theorists of translation) about how much a translation should try to make a work sound 'idiomatic' in its new language and how much it should retain a bit of its 'foreign' flavor including unfamiliar idioms etc. For translators into English, the goal is then--at least as I understand it--to push the boundaries of English and make it feel and sound "Russian" or "Spanish" or "Italian" etc. ...(I have no opinion about the particular Russian translations being discussed.)



#59 Ashton Fan

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Posted 08 September 2015 - 05:01 AM

As I understand it there are a number of problems with translating nineteenth century Russian literature. One, which many of the exiles spoke of,was the change in the language after the Revolution.According to the late Kyril Zinovieff the change in the language meant that many allusions and idiomatic phrases in these texts which would have been immediately recognisable to a pre- revolutionary readership no longer register with  a modern Russian readership let alone modern translators whose first language is English. An interesting question, of course, is whether this change was any more marked in Russia than the changes which took place in most languages during the course of the  twentieth century. In most languages the literary form differs from general usage being more concerned with linguistic and grammatical correctness,heritage  and allusion than is the case in day to day speech.The literary form often retains words that are otherwise all but obsolete Although few nations go as far as the French who have a special form of the perfect tense reserved for literary use the literary form of most languages retain words, which if they ever were in common usage, are rarely used in daily speech but can be of use in scrabble.

 

As far as Russian literary language is concerned  the most obvious change in the twentieth century was the elimination of the monied leisured class from which the majority of nineteenth century Russian writers were drawn, but there are other factors.The push for universal literacy in Russia also had an impact on its modern literature . A significant number of the short stories written and published after the Revolution were, as I understand it, required to be relatively simple in language and structure as part of the literacy drive.I have always assumed that the persecution of the orthodox church and the adoption of atheism also played their part in cutting the now literate population off from a full knowledge and understanding of their literary past.In much the same way that reading English literature without any knowledge of the King James Bible and the Prayer Book has an impact on reading and appreciating much English literature.

 

The question about how far a translation should attempt to reflect the words and usage of the writer of the original language is an interesting one. Surely it is the difference between a "student's crib", which is a word for word translation however weird the result, and a rendition of the work in readable form. I am not sure that I need a translation that shows me that it is common practice to switch between tenses in the way that happens in some of the most modern translations. If it is commonplace in Russian prose then it will have no impact on the Russian reader unlike the English reader for whom the effect of this uncertainty of tense may render the prose heavy going, if not, unreadable.  For everyone who finds the student revision notes type of translation a revelation because it reminds the reader that it is a work of foreign writer, there is someone who finds the resulting prose jarring, awkward,off putting and weird. Now that would not be so bad if there were a large number of translations readily available at the one time but that is not the case everywhere.At the present moment it seems to be the case that the most recent translations are pushed relentlessly and you have to search for the older more readable ones, even on the internet.

 

I am not sure what proportion of the population, other than students, read literature.A relatively small one I expect. Of those who read literature voluntarily only a small portion seem to read translations of foreign classics and far fewer read modern works in translation.I am not convinced that translations that a significant number of readers find annoying and jarring are the way to encourage people to try foreign literature. As far as Russian literature is concerned many potential readers are put off the works of nineteenth century authors by the idea that their books are heavy tomes that would have benefitted from the intervention of a ruthless editor;peopled by characters whose names seem to change page by page and whose lives are involve lots of suffering and are rarely touched by humour.I am not sure that the body count is any higher in Russian literary works but lots of people believe that characters in these works are more inclined to suicide than the average perhaps it is a stereotype but it is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of other European literatures.

 

I know that it is just a question of picking up the right book in a readable translation but the fact that the short story seems to be completely out of fashion does not help. There are plenty of Russian short stories but because the form is not fashionable you have to look for them and in order to do that you have to know that they exist. I think that the best starting point for getting to know Russian literature are works like the Captain's Daughter and Chekhov's short stories.Works  that entrance and infuriate because they are so perfect in their construction and economy.You would love to write like that but you know  that you never will because, unlike Chekhov, you were never anointed with oil.

 

I think that I may be able to answer my own question about Solzhenitsyn's  four volume work about the coming of the Revolution. The first two volumes were translated and published in the West.I wonder how well  the second volume November 1916 sold ? I imagine that Western publishers thought that the two volumes set in 1917 weren't worth the effort of translating given the likely sales.It will be interesting to see whether they will take the same view in 2017.Perhaps the third and fourth volumes will be published in English then.



#60 vagansmom

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Posted 11 September 2015 - 10:03 AM

I read my first great Russian novel as a teen for a Russian history course I took while a junior in high school. I then gobbled up most of the Tostoy and Dostoyevsky novels in the next couple years. Most of the translations were the Garnett ones, although the first time I read Anna Karenina, the translator was Rosemary Edmonds. I reread it two years ago, a different translator, but can't recall who it was. Throughout my life, I've reread most of these novels - War &Peace every decade ( I'm beginning to identify with the elderly characters, hehe) - a different translator quite by accident each time. Until a few years ago, my heart was with Garnett and the two Maudes.

But then I read the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation. More recently, I read their translations of Crime & Punishment and "The Brothers Karamazov" (finished it a month ago). I love them. They revived the humor in those novels, especially War & Peace. I think that reading more than one translation has provided me with a deeper understanding. Translations are always flawed. What one translator misses, another corrects, and the cycle continues.

Here's the article I read in 2005 that sent me to the Pevear/Volokhonsky versions: http://www.newyorker...ranslation-wars


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