Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago

Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago came out in November of 1957 first in an Italian translation even before a Russian edition came out in France at the very end of 1957. The story of its publication is as full of twists and turns as the novel Doctor Zhivago is itself. Sergio D'Angelo, an Italian communist bookseller, offered to act as a scout for the publisher Feltrinelli on a trip to Moscow, learned of the possible publication of Pasternak's novel during the post-Stalin thaw, and met with Pasternak, who authorized an Italian edition, telling him, "You, sir, are hereby invited to my execution."

An Italian reader for Feltrinelli said, "Not to publish a novel like this would constitute a crime against culture."

Correspondence about the edition followed. Feltrinelli and Pasternak set up a code that if letters were written in a language other than French they were to be ignored. At one point a bank note was cut in half and needed to be matched by two parties to guarantee authenticity. Pasternak was forced to pretend to plead with Feltrinelli not to publish.

The Russian edition in 1957 was quietly killed; it didn't come out in Russia until the fall of the communist state. But the first printing of the Italian edition was 12000 copies and sold out almost immediately; further printings occurred at two week intervals. Doctor Zhivago won Pasternak the Nobel prize, or would have, had he been allowed to claim it; after his death it was given to his heirs. [Details on the publication history drawn from Feltrinelli, Carlo Feltrinelli's biography of his father Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, English translation, 2001.]

The novel was first translated into English and came out in 1958; that edition was translated by Max Hayward and Manya Harari. It was retranslated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, appearing in 2010. It's this second edition I've just read, though I've also read the earlier translation, even taught it once in a Reading and Comprehension course in Cal-Berkeley's Comp Lit program. I'd say, those poor students, who had to suffer through me, but since none of them read it, I don't feel that bad...

The story is pretty well known: Doctor Yuri Zhivago falls in love with Larissa (Lara) Antipova, though each of them are married to someone else. They're separated and rejoined several times by the tides of World War I, the October Revolution, and the Russian Civil War. You can if you choose now whistle or hum Lara's Theme.

With all that was going on, it would be reasonable to assume the original translation into English was rushed, and 40+ years on, it could stand redoing. Pevear and Volokhonsky are well known and, I think, generally successful translators from Russian. Like everyone else in the universe, I became aware of them when Oprah picked their translation of Anna Karenina for her book club. I read that and their War and Peace, some of their Chekhov. I really felt like I got a new appreciation of Dostoevsky when I reread his major novels in their translation. But I have to say I'm less convinced by this one.

I have no Russian, and I have to assume they're often trying to reproduce something that feels ungainly in the Russian, but it makes it harder going in English. Here's an example of what I mean, from the section named either Conclusion or The Ending, part 5. From Hayward and Harari:
"...the porter's lodge was always warm and dry, and the water did not freeze."
From Pevear and Volokhonsky:
"...only in the porter's lodge was it warm and did the water not freeze."
That's a particularly egregious example, but not an uncommon one.  I think Hayward and Harari, rushed though they may have been, didn't do so bad. 

Poetry translation is hard, but neither volume does especially well with the poems. Neither translation attempts the original rhymes.

Anyway, a great novel. An adequate translation, but maybe no better than what was there before.

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