Beyond the Words


The Art of Translation

As humans, we have a tendency to organize ourselves into different groups. We create these tribes of people which we identify with on some level, and these tribes in turn produce divisions among people. These distinctions are, of course, artificial, but we are drawn to them in order to find solidarity in those who we perceive as like us. We look for people who have the same struggles, feel the same emotions, and hold the same ideas and values that we do. Most of the time, this grouping creates antagonism, an “us vs. them” mentality, a negative tribalism that breeds ignorance and fear when we align ourselves against others. What is often ignored amidst all this divisiveness and polarization is the fact that we all belong to the single tribe of persons, and that we are all in the same boat as human beings on this planet.

One of the largest schisms that divide us is language. The very fact that we express ourselves in ways that are literally unintelligible to a majority of the other people on this planet is an absurd chasm that we must cross in order to appreciate each other as human beings. Normally, art is the best bridge we have to reach others, to express our own condition, and to love each other. But on the international scale, something more is required. To make these connections is the job of a translator.

A translator’s job is not simply to transfer meaning, at least not exclusively on the literal level. Handling the words and the vocabulary is only the beginning of the translators job; online dictionaries are capable of a rudimentary translation of most words, but not to the level of a translator. But all else is beyond the capability of Google, as putting these words together into different grammatical constructions for each language is often an impossible task for these language processors. Even if this analogous level of translation was all that was required, translating would be a beast of a task, but there is more. The best translators, such as Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, as linked above, attempt to capture not only the technical, but the stylistic. There is an emotion behind every word and every construction, and literal translation does not always transfer that, often sterilizing the author’s voice in the name of word to word accuracy. But the translator’s job is not to deal in facts, but in truths, and to recreate an author in an entirely new language. It is a monumental task, but one that brings the entire world closer together and moves us all closer to our larger group of humanity by understanding those who we would have no hope of communication and little hope of empathizing with. Translators help us understand and look beyond the microscopic scope of one single culture, and I am eternally grateful for, and astonished by, their art.

How Pevear and Volokhonsky came to translate Brothers Karamazov:


I had my Russian edition of Dostoevsky, and I decided to read along. Dostoevsky had always really gripped me. Usually if you read in your native tongue, unless you’re either a scholar or an especially curious and attentive reader, you just read. You follow the plot, the characters, you hope maybe this time this one won’t murder that one! But now I started actually looking at the language. I said, How is Magarshack going to translate this? And lo and behold, he didn’t. It wasn’t there. The jokes, or the unusualness, just disappeared.


What was there instead?


Something very bland. Something tame, not right. The meaning is there, but the style, the tone, the humor are gone. For example, there is a character, Mr. Miusov. He’s a secondary character, but he’s important because this particular scene is seen through his eyes. Mr. Miusov has just come from abroad. He’s a liberal, he’s cultivated, he’s refined. Describing him, Dostoevsky adds this sarcastic touch—he says Miusov is “столичный, заграничный.” It has the same jingle as hoity-toity. English kindly gave us “metropolitan, cosmopolitan.” We were lucky. We’re not always so lucky.


What had the other translators said?


“Who had been in capitals and abroad.” They would give the information but not the voice. This is the kind of thing I began to notice throughout the novel. Sometimes three times, five times on a page.


And I discovered during our work together on Dostoevsky that he was not a brooding, obsessed man, but a very playful, free spirit. You see it in his style. The style of Dostoevsky is extremely varied. He would practice writing pages in different voices. He shows characters through the voice, through the way they use or misuse language. Which meant a lot of people used to say that he didn’t write very well! For example, there is a little note at the beginning of Karamazov, “From the Author,” about how he came to write the book. The “author” is not Dostoevsky—he makes that perfectly clear—although everybody seems to think that Dostoevsky is the narrator. But the narrator isn’t a writer at all. He just happens to live in the town where the novel is set. He got interested in the story of the Karamazov brothers and the murder of their father and wanted to record it. The whole point of this preface is to introduce all possible voicings of this narrator, who writes absurd things like, “Being at a loss to resolve these questions, I am resolved to leave them without any resolution.” And of course all the translators vary the words, because Flaubert said you should never use the same word twice on the same page. Finally he says, “Well, that is the end of my introduction. I quite agree that it is superfluous, but since it is already written, let it stand.” Dostoevsky gets you into the entire question of whether this man is trustworthy. Does he know what he’s talking about? The uncertainty surrounding this narrator is very important, and all of that is introduced just by the way it’s written. So the light suddenly went on.


I said to Richard, You are reading a different book.

Image courtesy of Michael Lionstar at


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