Always to Seek: On Reading Russian Literature in Translation

By Brandy Harrison

It all began with youthful audacity. When someone asked me one day, “What are you reading?,” the answer was War and Peace. There was a pause, a faint flicker of confusion in the face hovering above my own, and then a slower, more tentative second question: “Why . . . are you reading that?

I, at seventeen, sitting propped up against my locker in the hallway, didn’t really have an answer. The plain grey hardcover teetering against my knees looked as thick and heavy as a brick (he said), and why would anyone want to read some novel about the . . . Russians . . . during the – what was it, again? The Napoleonic Wars? What was the point?

I shrugged with adolescent nonchalance.

“I don’t know. It’s interesting.”

Perhaps a more honest answer was that I was a show-off. At some point during my senior high school year I discovered a taste for seeking out the sort of books that well-meaning adults liked to brand “difficult,” as though it were impossible for a mere teenager to understand such works, let alone enjoy them. I started to raid the library in search of challenges. My premise was that just about any book that looked lengthy and imposing enough would do to inspire astonishment in others, and War and Peace, as one of the most famously lengthy of all, fit the bill nicely. I knew nothing about Russia when I was first introduced to Tolstoy, nothing about Tsars or patronymics or orthodoxy or Siberia – nothing at all. And at first, none of it seemed to matter much anyway.

Of course, my vanity was disappointed. Apart from teachers, most people had better things to do than take note of what I read or care much about it. I persevered anyway, soon forgetting all about vanity and sinking deeper and deeper into Tolstoy’s world, fascinated.

Meanwhile, the few who did notice usually reacted to my choice of reading more with puzzlement than with admiration or interest. After all, what was the point?

It was a valid question. Fifteen years later, I’m still trying to come up with a proper answer.

A Soul, Or Something Like It

There are plenty of reasons for me not to read Russian literature. I’m not Russian. I don’t know the Russian language; my active vocabulary consists of such impressive words as da, nyet, and – strangely enough – banya. At the time of writing this, I still haven’t even travelled within Russia itself. With all this geographical and emotional distance dividing me from the country and its culture, in theory I should have been able to fall in love just as easily with, say, Japanese literature, or French, or Hindi. But I didn’t. It is Russian literature that has evolved from vainglorious teenaged dabbling to enduring obsession in my life. But why?

Is it something intrinsic to Russian literature itself, as a literary phenomenon? Russian literature stands apart from the literatures of many of its European counterparts, or at least seems to. The story of its remarkable emergence is often told like this: Russia, the eternal enigma, drifts about in ignorance and darkness, cut off from the great epochs of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, which are so pivotal in shaping the West through several long centuries. During these eras, the Europeans tend to ignore Russia, or think of it only as a caricature: it’s despotic, it’s feudal, it’s freezing cold, it’s full of onion domes and bears. While Russia’s military strength is occasionally felt on the continent, its cultural influence is not. Italian has its Petrarch and Dante, English its Shakespeare, French its Montaigne and Molière – and Russia? Nothing. Silence. Still buried in a quasi-medieval world of folktales and religious meditations. Even the Russian aristocracy seems to shrug in embarrassment at this state of affairs, idolizing foreign tongues and foreign literatures amongst themselves, and reserving their mother tongue for giving orders to their serfs.

And then in the nineteenth century, an earthquake – an explosion of brilliance, a miraculous century. Suddenly this supposedly backwards, sprawling country has a Pushkin and a Lermontov in poetry, a Gogol in satire, a Chekhov in drama and stories, a Tolstoy and a Dostoevsky in novels . . . and Europe gapes in astonishment. The vision of the Russian writers is so bold, their style so robust and colourful, that other contemporary European literatures risk looking a little insipid in comparison. The old caricature doesn’t disappear entirely, but it does undergo some grudging modifications: the land formerly dismissed as merely brutish and dark is now credited with a philosophical bent and supreme depth of feeling – the myth of the Russian soul is born.

In all of my years spent reading Russian literature in translation, a precise definition of what exactly constitutes this supposed Russian soul has eluded me. It could be argued that this myth is just as limiting a caricature as the old brutish one, albeit more flattering. And there is some truth to that criticism. The popular stereotype of Russian literature – often repeated to me with unnerving confidence by those who have read little or none of it – is that it is deep but depressing, scribbled by dreamers agonizing over the life and nature of man while getting crushed under the boot of one authoritarian regime after another. Such a stereotype readily acknowledges the philosophical or spiritual quality of many of Russia’s best literary works, but it all but ignores the humour, the humanity, the richness, and the sheer range found within the canon.

Nevertheless, this Russian soul myth remains tenacious, and has some truth to it as well. There is indeed often something deeply soulful about Russian literature, and if I had to describe it in one word, I would choose restless.

Perhaps the Russian writers themselves would understand what I mean in invoking restlessness as a defining trait. An apocryphal story about Leo Tolstoy on his deathbed claims his famous last words were, “To seek, always to seek . . .” One of Anton Chekhov’s dictums was that the task of the writer is not to give the reader the right answers, but to ask the reader the right questions. By the late 1970’s, the great dissident writer Aleksander Solzhenitsyn was stating, with pride, in his address at Harvard University: “we [in the East] have been through a spiritual training far in advance of Western experience. Life’s complexity and mortal weight have produced stronger, deeper, and more interesting characters than those generally produced by standardized Western well-being.” It could be argued that it has produced stronger, deeper, and more interesting literature as well.  

It is the restless aspect of Russian literature that intrigues me, that keeps me coming back again and again through the years. My own academic background is in English literature. To turn from the more orderly, regimented world of English literature to that of Russian literature always represents a visceral shift, like trading a garden for the wilds of nature. And I have sometimes joked that a prophet complex is one of the occupational hazards Russian writers have traditionally faced: their moral influence within their own societies has been so marked and outsized that it’s little wonder figures as diverse as Tolstoy and Mayakovsky were convinced of their work’s importance, and its power to change their world. They were not afraid of creating works on a grand scale, driven by grand ambitions, long after many of their Western counterparts had begun to doubt art’s role in the wider world. Perhaps the essence of their Russian soul is their stubborn belief that art can be – and is – an essential part of man’s search for purpose and meaning. Such a belief can seem almost quaint in a modern, heavily commercialized Western culture, but in returning to Russian literature, I find it all but impossible to resist the seeker’s call, and I begin believing all over again.  

In Other Words

But what is the point of reading Russian literature in translation? The purist will claim that no one who reads a translation has really read the work in question at all. To replicate a writer’s style, wordplay, meaning, and form all at once in a completely different language seems impossible, especially if the second language is by nature very different from the original. And Russian and English are quite far apart in many ways. Can I really say that I have read Russian literature itself, or just a poor, shadowy replica of it?  

I would argue that it is the ambivalent, imperfect nature of translation that makes it an art form in its own right, and which helps to make foreign literature – Russian or otherwise – come alive for English readers in a way that gives it a parallel authenticity to the original. No translator would ever dare to assert that his translation is entirely successful in every respect, or that her translation is the definitive and final one, rendering all future attempts at translation useless. In fact, one of the great charms of translators’ notes or introductions is how frequently they appear to be written in a spirit of nervous modesty, with the translator openly acknowledging the inherent challenges of the process and the shortcomings of the result.

I try to bring something of the same modesty into my reading experience. No, I can’t claim that I have had direct contact with Bulgakov or Mandelstam, although I do believe that a truly great translation provides us with a reasonable approximation, however flawed it may be. There is still much that I miss. But part of the fun of reading – part of that restless seeking – is trying to catch glimpses of the author in spite of the barriers. That’s why it is especially rewarding to read a much-loved book in multiple translations, when they are available: different translators often capture different aspects of the author’s style and form. It’s a bit like trying to piece together the image of a puzzle with some of the pieces missing, and there is something about that process that makes me even more alert to the nature of language and literature, deepening my connection to what I read.

I also rather shamelessly enjoy playing favourites along the way. I remember how Pushkin’s verse never quite lived for me until I discovered them in Walter Arndt’s graceful renderings, which seemed to bring Pushkin so close to the English Romantics he had admired. Although it has become somewhat fashionable to malign the efforts of Constance Garnett – one of the first great translators of Russian literature into English – I’m not sure if there is any version of War and Peace I prize more than hers, both out of sentimentality and a conviction that there is something about its old-fashioned elegance that transports me back to the Napoleonic Wars more effortlessly than any other I have read. Likewise, I feel such a deep loyalty to Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita that when I came across a different translation on a friend’s bookshelf, I was almost offended by the way some of the characters’ names had been translated into English, and complained aloud that the choice of vocabulary in some of the novel’s crucial motifs was not just inferior but wrong somehow.

But of course, there is no true right or wrong when it comes to translation, only varying degrees of accuracy or stylistic liberties. Best of all, reading a book you’ve already read in a new translation is the closest you can get to experiencing that novel or poem for the first time all over again – it’s familiar, but not quite. And no matter how excellent or satisfying a particular translation may be, there is always the lingering sense that perhaps a different one might come along that will be revelatory in some way, which leaves us with an open-ended longing. In this way, the same work is reborn again and again, and we find ourselves undertaking not just one, but two adventures simultaneously: the adventure of trying to catch whatever tantalizing glimpses we can of what lies behind the translator’s veil, and the adventure of experiencing the beauty, pathos, and wisdom of the literary work itself.

All the Right Questions

I momentarily transport myself back to that hallway, back to that crucial question. Have I succeeded in finding my way towards some sort of answer? Can I now say, with confidence, what the point of reading Russian literature is?

Yes, and no. For in some ways, trying to pin down a definitive “point” is a bit like trying to craft a perfect translation: slippery, elusive, and futile. There are many answers that can be given in response to the question, and each answer will illuminate a different aspect of reading, of the art of translation, and of Russian literature itself. But no answer is complete or definitive, just another piece of the puzzle. And it seems to me that everyone is reading with their own set of pieces, which are determined by the context of their lives, their connection to the literature at hand, and their ever-changing motivations and moods. The point of reading Russian literature – or any literature – varies and metamorphoses from person to person, sometimes even from moment to moment.

Perhaps that was what Chekhov knew all along. He couldn’t give his readers the right answers because he knew there aren’t any. And maybe that is why I remain close to Russian literature after all these years – because it keeps asking me questions. And I keep seeking the answers, invigorated in the conviction that the answer will be different every time I read.      

Brandy Harrison received her PhD in English Language and Literature from Queen’s University, Canada, in 2019. Her doctoral dissertation, No Man is an Island: Interdependent Conceptions of Selfhood in Wyatt, Donne, and Milton is now freely accessible to the public online. A long-time devotee of Russian history and culture, she blogs about Russian literature at Russophile Reads. She divides her heart and her time between her two countries, Canada and Portugal.

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