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On The Maude And Pevear & Volokhonsky Translations Of Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina

I’ve mentioned before the switch I made from Louise and Aylmer Maude’s translation of Anna Karenina to Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s, but today I want to explain it a little in case it could help others.

I switched translations at 500 pages in. I was incredibly frustrated with the Maudes – a lot of the text didn’t make sense to me and I just didn’t find it well done. I found out many people considered Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation to be the definitive and took the plunge, deciding to start from the beginning because it had been a while since I’d picked up the Maude and I’d forgotten too much to be able to say I’d truly read it. I definitely wouldn’t have been able to review it. I’d stuck to the Maudes for 200 pages more than I should have simply due to my preference of persevering. I knew it wasn’t Tolstoy’s fault.

I wouldn’t say Pevear and Volokhonsky’s version is as excellent as the marketing describes but it’s a lot better than the Maudes’. It’s a lot clearer, more thought through – it obviously went through more editing stages. The team also, without overdoing it, are evidently writing with the reader in mind – a reader who might not know anything about Russian literature, the period, and so on.

Something I’ve since learned that bears reflecting on if you’re trying to decide on a translation, is that the Maudes were acquainted with Tolstoy. Now I’ve learned two further things, that conflict. The first is that the couple didn’t particularly like the man. The second is that they were friends and visited him. I’m wondering if perhaps it was one of those ‘frenemy’ situations – Aylmer’s views were not Tolstoy’s, but either way, apparently Tolstoy authorised Aylmer to translate his work and liked it.

If the above linked article is right then the translation was actually just Louise’s and so there was no real team work; Pevear and Volokhonsky, on the other hand, did work as a team. The pair are married; Volokhonsky translates and Pevear checks it over, edits it. They converse on word choice and so forth. They’ve many accolades and awards and whilst there may not have been awards in the Maudes’ time, it does speak highly in Pevear and Volokhonsky’s favour.

Whilst the Maude has been around since 1918 and continuously in print, I’d recommend the newer translation unless you want a historical version. Whilst Tolstoy liked the Maudes and that’s in their favour, there was of course no way for him to read Pevear and Volokhonsky, so we’ll never know if he’d have liked that one, too.

How do you choose translations when there’s more than one?



May 19, 2016, 3:46 pm

A good translation can make all the difference! If there is more than one translation available I usually sample a few. Sometimes I just go with the most recent one figuring it will be better but that is not always the case. When I read Homer I started with the Fagles translation because it had gotten so much praise but I wasn’t liking it so I ended up with the Fitzgerald translation because it read more like the poetry it is instead of the semi-prose novel Fagles had made it.


May 21, 2016, 12:50 pm

Loved your post, Charlie! I have been thinking about the Pevear / Volokhonsky translation and the other translations of Tolstoy’s works for a while now. People normally say that the Pevear / Volokhonsky translation is better and I have ignored that because most of those saying that haven’t read other translations and many feel that newer translations are always better. But I loved your post, because you have read two translations and compared them. That is so wonderful. I have read that that Maudes’ translations were approved by Tolstoy and loved by readers of that time. It is interesting that you feel that the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation is better. I have had mixed feelings about Pevear-Volokhonsky – mostly because of Pevear. The main reason for that is that Pevear doesn’t know a word of Russian and Volokhonsky does all the translation and once it is done, they discuss it and he mostly helps in dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. And probably they discuss word choices as you have said. But Pevear gets the lion’s share of the credit for the work, while Volokhonsky’s name is pushed to the background. I hate that – when the wife does the work and the husband takes the credit. Pevear is more a translator from the French and with respect to the Russian translations that carry his name, he can be more properly regarded as a consultant rather than as a translator per se. Volokhonsky deserves to be regarded as the lead translator of the book. This is my own point of view though. After reading your post, now I want to put my bias aside and read the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation of the Russian classics. Thanks for changing my mind and inspiring me :)


June 6, 2016, 8:56 am

Stefanie: I’m thinking of doing the same next time I want to read a classic. Yes, that’s something you learn – new doesn’t mean best, it means a new interpretation and possibly updated language. I can understand the prose version of Homer; I suppose it makes it more palatable, but not true to form.

Vishy: Thanks! That’s true, if they’ve not had anything to compare it too it becomes hearsay. I think the Maude translation has stood the test of time because of the fame – I wonder if it wasn’t so well received then, would we still be reading it now? Undoubtedly it works for people but it’s definitely, understandably, old fashioned now.

That’s an interesting point you make about Pevear – when I found out his role I wondered why it’s not ‘Volokhonsky & Pevear’, at most, but yes, that only the wife thing… Proofreading isn’t translating. I wasn’t aware he didn’t know any Russian, though. That is odd, not quite ‘right’.

Consider it Volokhonsky’s work and Pevear’s first position a marketing tactic perhaps?



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