The Millions Interview: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

December 8, 2009 | 15 books mentioned 17 8 min read

The Russian language is the real hero of Tolstoy’s masterpiece; it is his voice of truth. The English-speaking world is indebted to these two magnificent translators, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, for revealing more of its hidden riches than any who have tried to translate the book before. — Orlando Figes

After reading their 2007 translation of War and Peace, Orlando Figes, the eminent Russian historian, did not mince words about Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. And so, neither will I: When I found out that I had the opportunity to interview the translators, I was giddy as a girlish Beatles fan circa 1964.

covercovercoverAs the bestselling and award-winning translators of sixteen great works of Russian literature, Pevear and Volokhonsky are something of a rock star duo in the literary world. The fluency of their translations, grounded in a nuanced understanding of the time and place that the source texts were written, have given cause for many of us to fall more deeply in love with The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Notes from Underground, The Master and Margarita, Dead Souls, and the fiction of Anton Chekhov, among many others. The pair have been working together since 1986; Pevear has also published individual translations from French and Italian. As a duo, they were twice awarded the PEN Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize. Their 2004 translation of Anna Karenina was an Oprah’s Book Club pick.

coverThe couple, who are married and live in Paris, added a new title to their oeuvre just last month: The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories, by Leo Tolstoy. The collection includes eleven glittering and strange tales, among them “The Kreutzer Sonata,” “Master and Man,” “The Prisoner of the Caucasus,” and the novella Hadji Murat, which was Tolstoy’s final work. While Pevear and Volokhonsky have previously translated the short fiction of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekhov, and Nikolai Gogol, this is their first turn at the stories of Tolstoy. The ones they’ve chosen are largely from Tolstoy’s later years; together, the stories wrestle with questions of war, honor, death, sex, obsession, resentment, redemption, crime, and innocence. Seven of the stories collected were never published in Tolstoy’s lifetime.

So how do they do it? Pevear and Volokhonsky are candid about their tag-team approach to translation. Volokhonsky, a native speaker of Russian, pores over the original text first and creates a transliterated draft marked with her comments about the author’s literary style. Pevear, who does not read Russian, works from that draft to polish the English text, discussing pressing questions that emerge along the way with Volokhonsky. Should any disagreements emerge, Pevear makes the call. As Volokhonsky recently told Jeffrey Tractenberg in the Wall Street Journal:

Richard is a native speaker of English. I’m a native speaker of Russian. My task is to explain to Richard what is happening in the Russian text. Then it is up to him to do what he can. The final word is always his. I can say this is not quite what the Russian says. Either he finds something that satisfies me or he says no, this is how we’re going to do it. We discuss endlessly and sometimes it becomes a nuisance because we return to it again and again even after the manuscript goes off. But we really don’t quarrel. It would be much more interesting if we did.

Pevear and Volokhonsky do agree, however, to refrain from using contemporary expressions in their translations, choosing to remain faithful to the style of the novel’s time. Their current project? A translation of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago.

In kind with their team approach, Pevear and Volokhonsky approached this email interview for The Millions as a pair.

The Millions: Your newest translation together is The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Other Stories. Why did you choose to do this particular book?

Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky: Quite simply because these later stories are among Tolstoy’s greatest works. In fact, the short novel Hadji Murat is perhaps the finest thing he wrote, and he seems to have known it. After all his storming against the notion of beauty, he could not help himself, being a born artist, and “in secret from himself” (as he put it) wrote his most perfectly beautiful work – “beautiful” in the way that The Iliad is beautiful. “Master and Man” is also a perfect work of a very different sort, vividly told and deeply moving. But even the opening story of the collection, “The Prisoner of the Caucasus,” which he wrote for a children’s reading book in the simplest style possible, is gripping and unforgettable. How could we not want to translate them?

TM: Having also translated War and Peace and Anna Karenina, what have you found to be unique about how Leo Tolstoy worked in short fiction, compared to his novels?

RP and LV: Tolstoy’s two big novels, like almost all of his work before 1880, portrayed people of his own class, the landed aristocracy, and their social milieu. Most often his heroes were self-conscious men, seekers of the meaning of life – in other words, self-portraits to one degree or another. In his later stories, there is much more variety: one hero is a narrow-minded bureaucrat, another is a well-to-do peasant, still another is a sort of holy fool, and finally there is the Chechen chief Hadji Murat. “The Forged Coupon” portrays people from all levels of Russian society, from the tsar to the lowest criminal. And there is a corresponding variety of “worlds.” That’s one thing. Another is the effort Tolstoy made to rid his art of what he considered the “superfluous detail” of the novels. His compositions became tighter, more formal, without losing any of the sensual immediacy that was the essence of his art.

TM: What are the greatest misconceptions about Tolstoy?

RP and LV: The greatest misconception might come from believing what Tolstoy said about his artistic work after his “conversion to true Christianity,” as he called it; that is, from believing what he preached in the series of tracts and polemical works he wrote after 1880. He was never able to practice what he preached. He remained a deeply divided and contradictory man all his life. And that nourished his artistic work. We took a phrase from W. B. Yeats as the epigraph for our introduction to Anna Karenina: “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” That is even more true of Tolstoy in his later works, because his inner quarrel was more intense. “The Kreutzer Sonata” was meant to teach a lesson about the evils of modern marriage, but it does something quite different and humanly much more complex. Another misconception is that Tolstoy only wrote those two huge, unreadable novels.

TM: Together, you’ve worked your way through some of the greatest fiction ever written. What are the unique pressures you have as translators of fiction that is both beloved and so highly regarded?

RP and LV: The pressure comes more from the quality of the writing itself. There are two questions that it might seem quite proper for a translator to keep in mind, but that in fact will spoil the translation. The first is, “What will the reader think?” And the second is, “How do we say that in English?” A good writer does what he or she has to do in the writing so that it “goes right,” as Robert Frost put it. There is at least as much intuition as intention in the process. A good translator has to follow that process far more consciously than the writer and yet come as close as possible in the new language to the instinctive “rightness” of the original. The greater the writer, the closer you want to come. That is both the challenge and the joy of it. But exactly what that “rightness” is remains undefinable, which is why there is no such thing as a definitive translation.

TM: Only about three percent of books published in the U. S. are in translation; the rate is even lower for translated fiction. What do you make of these numbers?

RP and LV: There are a number of things that might be made of them. The percentages are much higher in Europe, of course – 12% in Germany, 15% in France, 24% in Spain. We might say that that’s because Europe is small, a sort of family of countries, despite all past wars and present rivalries. And so translation comes naturally, like overhearing a conversation in the next room. But the analogy doesn’t quite work, because Europeans also translate a great deal of American writing and writing from all over the world. And Russia, which is a rather large country, has always given great importance to literary translation and has produced many superb translators. Is it American insularity, then? A lack of curiosity about what happens elsewhere? But what about the statistics for Great Britain? Surprisingly, they are about the same as for the U. S. Which suggests a linguistic insularity specific to English itself: if you speak the language of the hegemony, why notice the babble going on around you? It might also be a question of the market and marketing. Americans read an enormous amount of junk, which is dutifully supplied to them by publishers – unless it is actually the publishers who create the taste for junk. In either case, publishers are not likely to pay for the rights to translate junk and turn over a good percentage of the book’s earnings to the original publisher. They tend to pick up the small number of books that win the major European prizes, hoping that the momentary notoriety will create a market among more discerning readers with a minimum of advertising. But, on the positive side, we do have publishers who have consistently gone against the market statistics and made a point of publishing translations: Dalkey Archive Press, for instance, and first of all New Directions. Among major publishers, Knopf, Vintage, and Everyman’s Library, who publish most of our translations, are the exception that proves the rule.

TM: Your translations have achieved immense acclaim and success. Particularly in context of the low numbers of translations in the U. S., as well as the many other versions available of some of the books you work on, what is it about your translations that resonates with readers?

RP and LV: We’re the last people who can answer that question.

TM: Russian or otherwise, who are the writers you’d most love to see translated into English? What books are U. S. publishers and readers lacking?

RP and LV: There are three fine Italian writers of the twentieth century who should be translated into English: Alberto Savinio, Cristina Campo, and Guido Ceronetti. A very few of Savinio’s many books have been translated and gone out of print. One book by Ceronetti (who is still living) was published by Farrar, Straus in 1993. No English translations of Campo have been published as far as we know. Then there is the French poet Jacques Darras, who is incidentally a major translator from English. Some of his more scholarly books have been translated, but not his remarkable poetry and artistic prose. And there is the fine essayist and “culturologist” Sergei Averintsev, one of the most important Russian thinkers of recent times, a brilliant and witty writer. A few of his essays have been translated into English, but nothing like the substantial collections available in Italian, German, and French (the French publisher Cerf has recently commissioned a translation of Averintsev’s complete works).

TM: What books have you decided not to translate, and why?

RP and LV: We have decided not to translate Turgenev, because not everyone can be Mrs. [Constance] Garnett.

TM: Does contemporary literature lack the deep engagement the Russians had with the mysteries of life, like the existence of God and the meaning of death? If so, why do you think this is and what is lost?

RP and LV: These questions are very difficult to talk about or even to formulate correctly. They lead to glittering generalities that are almost certain to be wrong. But we might say tentatively that the qualities we find in nineteenth century Russian literature came in part from the late maturing of Russian culture, which reached its “golden age” not in the time of Shakespeare or Molière or Cervantes, but in the age of Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy. These writers belonged fully to the nineteenth century, with all its social and spiritual conflicts, but at the same time they were creating the language and the forms of their literature, and posing these “accursed questions,” as Dostoevsky called them, for the first time. There is a primary energy in their work. As for what may have been lost, writers themselves have little choice about these things; they are determined by forces much larger than the individual will. Besides, what is lost here is found there.

TM: What is the social resonance of Tolstoy’s ideas today? Why do we keep turning back to him?

RP and LV: There are people all over the world who are still taken with Tolstoy’s social ideas – that is, with “Tolstoyism,” as he and his followers defined it: the radical simplification of life, egalitarianism, non-violent opposition to the state, pacifism, vegetarianism, post-marital chastity. But that’s probably not what you mean by “Tolstoy’s ideas.” We turn back to him, we keep reading him, because in his artistic work he deals with universal conditions and almost never with topical issues, and because he has such an extraordinary gift for concrete realization.

TM: Judging by your output, you both seem to work so much and so efficiently. Do you have time to read for pure enjoyment? If so, what have you read recently that you have loved?

RP and LV: Dorothy Sayers’ mystery novels, Don Quixote in Liubimov’s Russian translation, The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, the essays of Eliot Weinberger (Oranges and Peanuts for Sale and An Elemental Thing), the journals of Kornei Chukovsky, Guido Ceronetti’s La Pazienza dell’arrostito (The Patience of the Roasted), Martin Chuzzlewit

's writing has appeared in The American Prospect, Utne Reader, Hobart, Writers' Journal, Bitch Magazine, Religion Dispatches, Common Dreams, The Women's International Perspective, Women's eNews, AlterNet, ColorLines, RH Reality Check, make/shift, BloodLotus, and other publications. She is the editor of the literary and social justice website, Isak, and she contributes video book reviews to The Collagist.


  1. I was very pleased to see the plug for Alberto Savinio. Here’s a link to my posts on him:

    The top post includes some of his (stranger) artwork with links to his books in English, and scroll down for an excerpt from “The Tragedy of Childhood.” Green Integer will be releasing his “Fantastic Tales” at some point.

    Look forward to following all the other leads in this interview!


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  3. The one thing that made me hesitate to buy the new Tolstoy translation was the absence of “The Cossacks” (there is another translated Tolstoy collection which includes it). I wonder if Pevear and Volokhonsky made a conscious decision about this, or if there was some other reason for its omission?

  4. My hunch would be that the editorial focus here is on the late, post-Anna K. works, whereas “The Cossacks” predates War & Peace.

    For what it’s worth, less than halfway through, I highly, highly recommend the book; I hadn’t read P & V’s Tolstoy (love their first few Dostoevsky translations; found their Chekhov to be…too much like reading “P&V do Chekhov”), but reading the opening of Hadji Murat is like seeing the restored Sistine Chapel. The colors just sing, somehow. And what the selection of stories here does is kind of create a solid, coherent, and large book to fit on the shelf beside the larger novels. Previously, I thought of Tolstoy (in my reductive moments, when the third-grade baseball card collector in me starts comparing stats) as someone who wrote two of the best books ever written, plus some great shorter works; now I find myself thinking of him as someone who wrote three.

  5. I am curious. The remark they made about Turgenov and Constance Garnett, was that in reference to the “good” job she did on the translations or were they saying that she did not do such a good job?
    And if they thought she did a good job, does that mean they were not impressed with her other translations including War and Peace?
    Just curious.

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