NIKOLAI Gogol has not always been well served by his English translators. As late as 1944, Vladimir Nabokov, in his brilliantly eccentric book Nikolai Gogol , about ‘‘ the strangest prose-poet Russia ever produced’’, complained that ‘‘ all translations of Dead Souls into English are worthless’’.
Obliged to do his own ‘‘ Englishing’’ of Gogol, the great novelist and accomplished translator of Lermontov and Pushkin admitted his efforts were ‘‘ the best my poor vocabulary could afford, but even had they been perfect as those I hear with my innermost ear, without being able to render their intonation, they still would not replace Gogol’’.
The problem lay in the special nature of Gogol’s genius which, Nabokov explained, is ‘‘ a phenomenon of language and not one of ideas’’. Of course, Dostoevsky and Turgenev also offer difficulties for the translator. But the real-world substance of those Russian writers, the universal social questions addressed in their work, offers some cross-cultural purchase: if we can’t get the texture of their prose, we can at least communicate its content.
Gogol’s writing is different. Scholar Andrei Sinyavski has written of how it ‘‘ shifts from the object of speech to speech as a process of objectless intent, interesting in itself and exhausted by itself’’. Gogol’s language, he suggests, gazes into its own navel. Behind the fabulous imaginings and convoluted plots for which the Russian is celebrated, is ‘‘ speech in a pure sense about nothing’’.
Nevertheless, in 1996, the husband-and-wife team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, following their early translations of Dostoevsky and before their versions of Tolstoy’s big novels, took on the apparently impossible task of rendering Dead Souls into English and came through, triumphantly. Novelist William Boyd, in choosing it as his book of the year, claimed that for the first time in English one received a palpable sense of the idiosyncrasies of Gogol’s Russian — its magnificent strangeness, its madness — rendered through no pedantic literalism but in a vivacious English prose that is almost sui generis, Gogolian, in fact. A genuine triumph, I think, one of which even Nabokov would have approved.
Two years later came this, their equally admirable collection of Gogol’s short fiction, containing the early Ukrainian tales, most of them from the 1831-32 volumes Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka and the later, St Petersburgbased stories, beginning with Nevsky Prospect in 1835 and ending with the spectral genius of The Overcoat , from 1841.
Coming after the enormous critical and popular success of Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translations of Anna Karenina and War and Peace , the reprinting of Gogol’s Collected Tales as an Everyman’s Library classic is confirmation, if it were needed, of the couple’s pre-eminence as translators from the Russian, an authority comparable only to that held by Constance Garnett in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
But as the Tales show, Pevear and Volokhonsky are unlike Garnett in significant respects. Where the Edwardian translator was slipshod and wooden in her renderings, blithely anglicising every Slavism she happened across, Pevear and Volokhonsky are sticklers, concerned to preserve as much of the linguistic and cultural matrix in which the tales unfold as they can, without sacrificing coherence. The effect is at once coarser and more sophisticated: Gogol’s prose has been debowdlerised and reinvested with its original exuberance, its extravagant absurdity, its incorrigible strangeness. Take this description of the clerk from The Overcoat in an earlier translation: short of stature, somewhat pock-marked, red-haired, and mole-eyed, with a bald forehead, wrinkled cheeks, and a complexion of the kind known as sanguine. The St Petersburg climate was responsible for this.
And compare it with Pevear and Volokhonsky’s: short, somewhat pockmarked, somewhat red-haired, even with a somewhat nearsighted look, slightly bald in front, with wrinkles in both cheeks and a complexion that is known as haemorrhoidal . . . No help for it! The St Petersburg climate is to blame.