Translating well-known, classical literature is always a double-edged sword. On one hand, names like Chekhov are already famous, lessening the need for the sort of publicity campaign it usually takes to convince English speakers to read anything foreign. On the other hand, so much already exists in translation that the difficult task becomes convincing the reading public that a new translation is actually worth their trouble. In recent decades, few translators have faced this challenge so enthusiastically as Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Working as a duo, Pevear and Volokhonsky have spent the better part of half a century tackling the entire Russian canon, solidifying themselves in the process as possibly the most authoritative English translators of classic Russian literature since Constance Garnett. While the couple is most famous for their translations of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy’s major works , they have also translated Bulgakov, Pasternak, Pushkin, Gogol, Leskov, and, of course, Chekhov.
Importantly, Fifty-Two Stories is not the first volume of Chekhov produced by Pevear and Volokhonsky. In fact, it is the third, coming after both Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov (Modern Library, 2000) and The Complete Short Novels (Vintage Classics, 2005). This fact is so important principally because without it, Fifty-Two Stories appears conceptually rather odd. The large collection includes a great deal of stories, but those familiar with Chekhov may be surprised by what is absent: There is no “Ward Six,” and no “Lady with a Dog.” “Student,” “The Huntsman,” and “A Boring Story” are nowhere to be found. In short, this is not the “greatest hits” compilation we have come to expect from translated collections of short prose. The question becomes, then, what is it?
For me, this collection carried out the same function as a well-executed “B-sides and rarities” album. Yes, your favorite songs are absent, but that means you don’t know what to skip to. You have to just sit down and listen to the whole album. This process has the power to make the familiar new again—you may have listened to your favorite band for years, but an album devoid of the songs you know by heart removes the trappings of comfort and familiarity, and you find yourself discovering the band all over again. Having already compiled a “Greatest Hits” with Selected Stories, Pevear and Volokhonsky have produced in Fifty-Two Stories a collection that can perhaps be best thought of as “B-sides and Rarities.”
Fifty-Two Stories makes a number of exciting and important contributions to our English-language understanding of Chekhov. Most obviously, a few of the stories—including “Reading” and “An Educated Blockhead”—appear here in English for the first time. Arguably of more importance, however, is the overall concept of the collection, which Pevear phrases as “to represent the extraordinary variety of Chekhov’s stories, from earliest to latest, in terms of characters, events, social classes, settings, voicing, and formal inventiveness” (ix). Pevear and Volokhonsky take us from 1883, near the beginning of Chekhov’s writing career, to 1898, near its end. Despite being only 15 years, this time span sees a great evolution take place in Chekhov’s life and writing. In 1883, Chekhov was 23, freshly graduated from medical school and in preparation to publish his first volume of short fiction. By 1898, he was much more famous—and much more gravely ill. The tuberculosis he had lived with for most of his life had begun to advance dramatically, and he was already preparing to move to Yalta, where he would spend his final years.
In Fifty-Two Stories, Pevear and Volokhonsky trace Chekhov’s artistic evolution in snapshot form, through his short fiction. The earliest works in the collection are brief, humorous sketches, and Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation allows the young Chekhov’s sharp wit to thrive in English. Many of these stories are really hilarious and unexpectedly playful, accustomed as we are to the more somber, realist Chekhov who wrote the major plays. These early stories, while they may have been composed quickly and primarily for the money, still manage to include the subtle social commentary for which Chekhov would become famous. In the 1883 story, “Fat and Skinny,” Chekhov pokes playful fun at his era’s obsession with the minutia of social rank, and its ability to supersede even years-old friendships:
… “I’ve been transferred here as chief clerk in the same department… I’ll be working here. Well, and what about you? Already a state councillor I’ll bet? Eh?”
“No, my dear, aim higher,’ said the fat one. ‘I’m already a privy councillor…I’ve got two stars.”
The skinny one suddenly turned pale, froze, but his face quickly spread in all directions into the broadest smile; sparks seemed to fly from his face and eyes. He himself shriveled, shrank, subsided…His suitcases, bundles, and boxes shriveled, cringed… His wide’s long chin grew longer; Nathaniel stood to attention and buttoned his school uniform…
“Your Excellency’s gracious attention is like life-giving water…” (7)
This particular excerpt is noteworthy not only for its humor, but because it offers a good example of Pevear and Volokhonsky’s meticulous attention to detail: the alliteration here, “shriveled, shrank, subsided,” is an exceptionally good translation. In Russian, the phrase is “syezhilsya, sgorbilsya, suzilsya,” nearly matching Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation in sound quality with its repetition of s sounds. Moreover, each of these three Russian words carries with it a distinct connotation of downwards motion (given by the prefix s-), a quality which the translators have managed to carry through into English.
Towards the end of the collection, Pevear and Volokhonsky do an equally good job with a much different Chekhov, producing beautiful renditions of some of Chekhov’s more sentimental work. One of these stories, “About Love,” is among the highest-profile names in the collection. Generally included alongside “The Man in a Case” and “Gooseberries” as the third in the so-called “Little Trilogy,” the story appears here on its own. This short tale of a forbidden romance suppressed by circumstance is calm and reflective, characteristics which are mirrored in Chekhov’s prose. Pevear and Volokhonsky translate this effectively, retaining the story’s quiet sense of love and heartbreak.
Fifty-Two Stories is not without its drawbacks. Like all of Pevear and Volokhonsky’s work, this collection has already been subject to the same accusations that the translating duo has always had thrown their way: That, as Janet Malcolm once put it, they have “established an industry of taking everything they can get their hands on written in Russian and putting it into flat, awkward English.” At times, this is true. The same meticulous care that gives us “shriveled, shrank, subsided,” also gives us this awkward passage from “The Teacher of Literature:” “He was breathless, he did not know what to say; with one hand he held her by the hand, with the other by the blue fabric” (416). Moreover, the book’s concept seems somewhat vague and inconsistent. If the point of it is really to show Chekhov’s breadth and evolution, why not include a more substantive introductory essay? Or more importantly, why include so many stories? This point could surely be illustrated just as effectively with half as many individual works. Perhaps the most cynical interpretation of this project is that it functions as a sort of grab-bag, a manifestation of the duo’s desire to conquer not only the great cities of Russian literary culture, but the minor islands as well.
Nonetheless, I remain something of an apologist for the couple. Their volumes of Dostoevsky, neatly packaged with similar jackets to look almost like a series, were my introduction to Russian literature. It is their Anna Karenina, and their War and Peace which I have read. In fact, I abandoned Magarshack’s Anna Karenina halfway through, switched to Pevear and Volokhonsky, and never turned back. When I look for any 19th-century work of Russian prose in English, I look first for Pevear and Volokhonsky. Criticisms of the pair are valid, but I believe that the work they have done to reanimate the Russian classics for my generation far outweigh the minor sins their works commit. If anything, they are honest translators, admitting in their work that to really feel its full beauty, you should learn Russian.
Fifty-Two Stories should probably not be the first volume of Chekhov that you read. It should certainly not be the only one. However, I am very glad that it exists, and I believe it will make an excellent addition to the bookshelf of anyone who is interested in short fiction, Russian literature, or literary translation.
Chekhov, Anton. Fifty-Two Stories. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Penguin Classics, 2020.
Patrick Powers studies Russian/East European Studies and Comparative Literature at Oberlin College, and will graduate in 2021. He lives in La Grande, Oregon, translates from Russian and Spanish, and is a member of the Soupbone Collective.