Sunday, April 03, 2011

What Happened to the New Translation of Dr. Zhivago?

This is was going to be a short post, because of limited time, but I wanted to register something literary and poetry-related I noticed during break that I said I'd blog about.  I had been jonesing for the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation of Russian poet Boris Pasternak (1890-1960)'s extraordinary and lone novel, Dr. Zhivago (1956), for which, along with his poetry, he was awarded the 1959 Nobel Prize in Literature, which the Soviet authorities pressured him to decline. The novel itself was not published in Russia until 1988, in the pages of Novy Mir, a major Soviet literary journal, but it did appear internationally in 1957 because Pasternak had given a copy to Italian publishing magnate Giangiacomo Feltrinelli to smuggle out of Russia, which he did, and then promptly had the novel published in Italian, as Il Dottor Zhivago.

Since I'm trying to be concise, I will not delve into all the particulars of the novel, which covers the period from before World War I through the Russian Revolution and the subsequent Civil War there. The Russian authorities despised it; they thought it critical of Stalin, the Soviet State and its ideology, and Marxism. They deemed it counterrevolutionary, too formally experimental, abstract, etc. It is not a conventional novel except in girth. It has a confusing plot, cares little about fluid transitions between scenes, features jarring approaches to characterization, and so forth. At the end of it Pasternak appends poems "by Yuri Zhivago," that offers a fuller demonstration the eponymous protagonist's poetic gifts, but which mainly underline Pasternak's greatness as a poet. A novelist and poet I admire told me many years ago over coffee that he found Dr. Zhivago "tedious," and then, finally confessed that he hated it.  I was surprised, but with a bit of distance, I can understand why he did and why Dr. Zhivago isn't to everyone's taste. (David Lean's 1965 movie, starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie was a popular success and a critical bomb, and only partially captures the novel's depth and grandeur.)

Yet, Dr. Zhivago repeatedly presents, at least from the impression I formed from the initial, 1958 English translation of the book, a powerful demonstration of Pasternak's poetic skill; again and again, his descriptions of the landscape, of people, of politics, all of it, come alive through metaphor, simile, synecdoche, metonymy, and other figurative means to the extent that the world of the novel, its background and foreground, almost seem to bristle with life. I should note that the name of the protagonist Yuri Zhivago, points to this, as zhiv- in Russian is the root meaning "life," and Pasternak earlier had published a book of poems entitled My Sister, Life (1921), which had a tectonic effect on Russian poetry. After Stalin began his clampdown, Pasternak turned to prose, and published two books that are among my favorites for their lyrical strangeness and intensity, the short memoir Safe Conduct, and the stories, including the haunting "Aerial Ways" (I have probably read this story 10 times), which together constituted the collection A Childhood in Luvers.  Around the time of the shorter prose works he began writing portions of the long novel, and there are continuities of style. Again, the striking use of metaphors and personification are here, as are the idiosyncratic explorations of time and history, and so much else that flowers in the novel. And in the memoir-with-stories edition that New Directions published many years ago, the poet Babette Deutsch (1895-1982) translates with a flourish many (all?) of his poems included in that collection. Pasternak himself translated works from English and other languages, and Russians loved his translations of William Shakespeare's plays, which critics appraised as being too much Pasternak and too little Shakespeare.

I've already gone on too long. Okay, So let me get to it: Pevear and Volokhonsky are broadly acknowledged as among the most important and best translators from the Russian. Their version of Mikhail Bulgakov's (1891-1940) The Master and Margarita (1967) is so entrancing that I did not want to put it down.  They also famously rendered as whole as is humanly possible Leo Tolstoy's (1828-1910) War and Peace (1869), including leaving in the rivers of French (which was the social language of the Russian aristocracy of the novel's epoch) that fill the book, and they restored Tolstoy's peculiar uses of repetition, which the previous best-known English translation had shorn away. So it was with real eagerness that I grabbed the copy of Dr. Zhivago I saw on sale at one of the moribund Borders (RIP) here in Chicago; I was sure, given their proved skill, and the glowing reviews I'd read, that it would improve the earlier version by many bounds.

But, here's the thing: Pasternak is a poet. And as I began to read the new translation, I kept wondering, where are those poetic passages from the earlier, allegedly "flawed" 1958 version, by Max Hayward and Manya Harari, that I even underlined and noted years before? I don't read Russian, unfortunately for me, but I could see that a laxity, vaguenesses, the concision of Pasternak's imagery, appeared off compared to the earlier book. Again and again I found myself searching the text for those moments from Hayward's and Harari's version and finally realized that, for all their skill, Pevear and Volokhonsky appear to have blown this one a bit. Though likely more literal, the prose has become, well, "tedious" to me, though I haven't given it up yet, since I know the story and still do enjoy it. If you don't believe me, I've done you the favor of having already (not tonight, a week ago) typed up the earlier and their versions of some of the passages that caught my eye the first go-round. Which, I ask you, is more poetic? Is more compelling? Even as fiction? Now, I also wonder, were the critics who praised this new version even aware of this? If not, why not? How closely did they read the novel, and did they recall any of the earlier prose, which, as you'll see below, almost brands itself into your memory. I'll stop there because this has gone on far longer than I intended, but what do you think?


Dr. Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak (1890-1960), originally published in Italian translation from the Russian, in 1957.

English translation 1958, translated from Russian by Max Hayward and Manya Harari, "The Poems of Yuri Zhivago" by Bernard Guilbert Guerney, Wm. Collins Sons & Co., Ltd., London, with authorized revisions to the English, Pantheon Books Inc., New York, NY.

English translation 2010, translated from Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, with an introduction by Richard Pevear, Pantheon Books Inc., New York, NY

Hayward & Harari (HH): Turning over and over in the sky, length after length of whiteness unwound over the earth and shrouded it. p. 4

Pevear & Volokhonsky (PV): From the sky endless skeins of white cloth, turn after turn, fell on the earth, covering it in a winding sheet. p. 4

HH: Crows settled on the heavy branches of firs, scattering the hoarfrost; their cawing echoed and re-echoed like crackling wood. p. 5

PV: Crows landed on the hanging fir branches, shaking down hoarfrost. The cawing carried, loud as the cracking of a tree limb.

HH: The half-reaped fields under the glaring sun looked like the half-shorn heads of convicts. p. 6

PV: The sun scorched the partly reaped strips like the half-shaven napes of prisoners. p. 5

HH: Neat sheaves rose above the stubble in the distance; if you stared at them long enough they seemed to move, walking along on the horizon like land surveyors taking notes. p. 6

PV: Its ears drooping, the wheat drew itself up straight in the total stillness or stood in shocks far off the road, where, if you stared long enough, it acquired the look of moving figures, as if land surveyors were walking along the edge of the horizon and taking notes. p. 5

HH: Gregariousness is always the refuge of mediocrities, whether they swear by Soloviëv or Kant or Marx. p. 9

PV: Every herd is a refuge for giftlessness, whether it's a faith in Soloviev, or Kant, or Marx. p. 8

HH: It was hard to keep one's eyes on the shimmering river, which, like a sheet of corrugated iron, reflected the glare of the sun. Suddenly its surface parted in waves. p. 10

PV: It was painful to look at the river. It gleamed in the sun, curving in and out like a sheet of iron. Suddenly it wrinkled up. p. 10

HH: Orioles kept making their clear three-note calls, stopping each time just long enough to let the countryside suck in the most fluting sounds down to the last vibration. p. 10

PV: At every moment you could hear the pure, three-note whistling of orioles, with intervals of waiting, so that the moist, drawn-out, flutelike sound could fully saturate the surroundings. p. 10

HH: A heavy fragrance, motionless, as though having lost its way in the air, was fixed by the heat above the flower beds. p. 11

PV: The stagnant scent of flowers wandering in the air was nailed down motionless to the flowerbeds to the heat. p. 10

HH: Russia, with its fields, steppes, villages, and towns, bleached lime-white by the sun, flew past them wrapped in hot clouds of dust. p. 12

PV: Past them in clouds of hot dust, bleached as with lime by the sun, flew Russia, fields and steppes, towns and villages. p. 11

HH: The rising sun had cast the long dewy shadows of trees in loops over the park grounds. The shadow as not black but dark gray like wet felt. The heady fragrance of the morning seemed to come from this damp shadow on the ground, with strips of light in it like girl's fingers. p. 17

PV: The sun was rising, and the ground in the park was covered with the long, dewy, openwork shade of trees. The shade was not black, but of a dark gray color, like wet felt. The stupefying fragrance of morning seemed to come precisely from the damp shade on the ground, with its elongated light spots like a young girl's fingers. p. 15

HH: ...and the boat was dragged in to shore as if by a boathook. There the stems were shorter and more tangled; the white flowers, with their glowing centers looking like bloodspecked egg yolks, sank and emerged dripping with water. p. 19

PV: The boat was drawn to the bank as if by a hook. The stems beecame entangled and shortened: the white flowers with centers bright as egg yolk and blood sank underwater, then emerged with water streaming from them. pp. 16-17.

HH: Purple shadows reached into the room from the garden. The trees, laden with hoarfrost, their branches like smoky streaks of candle wax, looking as if they wished to rest their burden on the floor of the study. p. 39

PV: Violet shadows reached from the garden into the study. Trees peered into the room, looking as if they wanted to strew the floor with their branches covered with heavy hoarfrost, which resembled the lilac streams of congealed stearine. p. 35

HH: In winter the street frowned with a forbidding surliness. p. 44

PV: In winter the place frowned with gloomy haughtiness. p. 39

HH: The weather was unseasonable. Plop-plop-plop went the water drops on the metal of the drainpipes and the cornices, roof tapping messages to roof as if it were spring. It was thawing. p. 44

PV: The weather was trying to get better. "Drip, drip, drip" the drops drummed on the iron gutters and cornice. Roof tapped out to roof, as in springtime. It was a thaw. p. 39


  1. Totally agree with you John. I love the lyricism and intensity of his shorter prose works too - 'The Last Summer' is a particular favourite - but have never met anyone out there in the real world who has felt the same about them. Or about 'Dr Zhivago' for that matter. I am not religious but those poems at the back of the HH translation are an absolute touchstone, I don't know when I am going to need them but they have to be permanently accessible in case I do! Thanks for the selections above and all the best - Andy W, York/ England.

  2. Thank you very much for your work with comparisons!!! It's huge!

  3. Thank you very much for your work with comparisons! It's huge! And very useful for young translators and their teachers.

  4. John, I want to thank you for taking the time to post this thoughtful comparison of the Zhivago translations. A few months ago, I read Pavear and Volokhonsky's translation of "War and Peace," which I loved, though I don't speak Russian and read no other translations, so I had no basis for comparison to other versions. I also enjoyed PV's Dostoevsky translations, years ago. Last week, I found an old, yellowing, crinkled copy of "Doctor Zhivago" on a friend's parents' bookshelf, and asked to borrow it. I read the first forty pages, which I've really enjoyed. Then it suddenly occurred to me that PV have a new translation of the work, and I almost went to Amazon and bought it right then and there. But I was enjoying the HH translation so much already, I thought, hmmm, let's see what others have thought. A little Googling brought me to Ann Pasternak Slater's take-down of the PV translation, then to your blog. I'm very glad for it! Your side-by-side comparisons, which must have taken considerable time to lay out, sealed the case for me. The HH's translation's crisp, compact, beautiful natural images from the first few chapters are what I've enjoyed most about the novel so far, and seeing the same passages in the PV version have convinced me to stick with what I've got. I don't quite understand how PV seem to have translated "Doctor Zhivago" so badly. Their renderings of the passages you highlight are stilted, flabby -- awkward in syntax and disastrous in word choice. I mean, "lilac streams of congealed stearine"? Yikes. Compared to the silky "smoky streaks of candle wax." That was all I needed to read right there. Somehow PV missed the mark on this one. I'm excited to keep reading HH. Thank you! Much appreciated.