Rereading: Doctor Zhivago

Boris Pasternak knew that Doctor Zhivago was explosive. But a new translation to mark the 50th anniversary of the author's death loses much of its force, argues Ann Pasternak Slater

The Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva once said that Boris Pasternak looked like an Arab and his horse. In the 30s a Soviet cartoon turned him into a long-jawed sphinx, paws curled over a lectern. As a public speaker he was incomprehensible. His work is notoriously hard to translate.

In his increasingly difficult times, it also became safer not to be easily understood. When Stalin startled the life out of him with a "friendly" midnight phone-call – Well? What can you say about that poem of Mandelstam's? – Pasternak replied with a deflective discussion of what was, for him, the fundamental issue of human right over life and death. Questioning a homicidal despot's power to his face carries some risks. Fortunately, Stalin was too impatient to understand, and cut off the call. This time, the sentence for Mandelstam's anti-Stalinist poem was a mild form of exile – but in the great purge of 1937 he was one of the 44,000 liquidated. Beside Pasternak's name, Stalin reputedly scribbled the instruction "Don't touch this cloud-dweller".

Pasternak's work is also difficult because his mind-set is unpredictably complex, evocatively associative, synaesthetic and polysemous. His vocabulary is exceptionally wide, and his intellect has a pronounced metaphysical cast. In an uncollected letter to TS Eliot, Pasternak explores their shared aesthetic in ambitiously faulty English. Eliot's art, he writes, like his own, is "a casually broken off fragment of the density of being itself; of the hylomorphic matter of existence . . ." Pasternak became much more accessible in his later work. Doctor Zhivago was suicidally vivid and forthright. The poems that accompany it are translucent.

From his schooldays, Pasternak tells us, Yury Zhivago had dreamed of writing "a book of impressions of life in which he would conceal, like sticks of dynamite, the most striking things he had so far seen". Doctor Zhivago was that book. It was packed with dynamite and, as Pasternak expected, it blew up in his face.

Pasternak was the first writer of the Soviet regime who dared convey the truth about Russia's recent history. In the space of 40 years the Russians of his generation suffered two world wars; three revolutions; civil war and famine; the disasters of collectivisation and famine; the purges of the intelligentsia, the military, the Soviet political elite and the kulaks. Starvation, cannibalism, murder, reprisals, legitimised slaughter – nothing is glossed over in the novel's unflinching particularity. It ends with Khruschev's Thaw, tentatively celebrating "a new freedom of spirit" embodied in the book Zhivago wrote before his death.

Pasternak's hopes were denied when the forthcoming Russian edition of Zhivago was withdrawn from the Soviet press. In 1958 its publication in the west coincided with the Nobel prize, awarded for Pasternak's poetic achievements and his work "in the great Russian epic tradition", clearly linking Doctor Zhivago to Tolstoy's War and Peace. The Soviet response was to denounce Pasternak as a traitor. He was expelled from the writers' union, robbed of his livelihood and vilified in the press. He refused to seek exile in the west, and declined the Nobel prize. Within two years he was dead.

Fifty years have passed. Now we have the opportunity to reread – and reassess – his novel in a new translation.

Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear's recent translations of Tolstoy have been universally acclaimed. They come to Doctor Zhivago with an enviable reputation. Harvill Secker's publicity material promises that in "this stunning new translation" they "have restored material omitted from the original translation, as well as the rhythms, tone, precision, and poetry of Pasternak's original". A vague and daunting claim. Can it be sustained?

Doctor Zhivago was first translated, at great speed, by Max Hayward and Manya Harari in 1958. I remember Max saying he would read a page in Russian, and then write it down in English, without looking back. This sounds incredible – even though a page of the large-faced Russian typescript they worked from is roughly equivalent to only half a page of their Collins text. I can, though, readily believe that he did this with paragraphs and sentences. Of course both translators then cross-checked and agreed their combined version against the original. Nevertheless, it's perfectly true that there are negligible omissions which are made good in the Volokhonsky-Pevear translation. This comes at a price.

Max Hayward's provocatively described practice is actually a difficult and necessary discipline. The translator needs distance. His main pitfall is to drift unconsciously into the linguistic aura of his original – in this case, to write a kind of Russified English. This is the danger besetting Volokhonsky and Pevear.

On a first reading, one is distracted by locutions that are somehow not quite right – often not strikingly, but continuously and insidiously so. They just don't sound English. The terrorist "was serving at hard labor". "Pavel had gone to bathe in the river and had taken the horses with him for a bath." (Hayward-Harari have "Pavel had gone off to bathe in the river and had taken the horses with him.") He "fell to thinking" ("stood thoughtfully"). "The spouses went rolling off" ("The couple drove off").

Sustained, low-level unease is intensified by un-English word-order. "Yura was pleased that he would again meet Nika." Inversions (ubiquitous in early Conrad) are natural to foreigners speaking English and a mistake in translators. The inversion of subject and verb, aggravated by an invasive parenthesis, is an elementary translator's error. "At the turn there would appear, and after a moment vanish, the seven-mile panorama of Kologrivovo." It is quickly apparent that Volokhonsky-Pevear follow the Russian very closely, without attempting to reconfigure its syntax or vocabulary into a more English form.

This misguided literalism is disastrous in dialogue. "Yes, yes, it's vexing in the highest degree that we didn't see each other yesterday" ("Oh, I wish I'd seen you yesterday").

Russian is liberal with knee-jerk invocations and imprecations. Volokhonsky-Pevear solemnly translate word for word; Hayward-Harari naturalise. "As God is my witness, I'd spit on you all" ("I'd chuck the lot of you, honest to God I would"). In Russian, "mne naplivat' na . . ." literally means "I spit on", but conveys, more weakly, "I don't give a toss", "too bad about . . ." Not so for Volokhonsky-Pevear: "Ah, spit on the rugs and china, let it all go to hell" ("Do stop worrying about rugs . . .").

Colloquialisms create similar problems. Pasternak's narrative prose is full of colloquialisms, regularly swallowed whole by Volokhonsky-Pevear, and regurgitated undigested: "The words Gintz uttered had long since stuck in their ears" ("They'd heard it all before"). "On makhnyl rukoi" is, literally, "he waved it aside", "gave it up". When a night storm banging at the hospital doors falls still, a character thinks: "They saw no one will open and they waved their hand and left." This suggests an actual wave of farewell, which is entirely misleading.

It's instructive to check Volokhonsky-Pevear's English against the Russian. Its painful ineptitudes can regularly be defended by a Russian source. Yet the original isn't inept. It's simply been badly translated. Pasternak's Russian is packed, concise, colloquial and muscular. Volokhonsky-Pevear's English is prosaic, flabby and verbose. It often renders Pasternak's more philosophical passages incomprehensible. It's far worse than the compact, natural and always lucid prose of Hayward and Harari.

These differences prompt questions about accuracy. When Volokhonsky-Pevear write: "Having performed his traveling ablutions in pre-war comfort", they translate the Russian word for word, and it sounds absurd. Hayward-Harari turn what it implies into easy English ("He washed and shaved in pre-war comfort"). This was certainly one of Pasternak's principles as a translator. In his great translations of Shakespeare he cut, compressed, paraphrased and invented freely. He wrote Shakespeare in Russian.

It is, perhaps, too easy to criticise Volokhonsky and Pevear. What about the sustained liberties taken by Hayward and Harari? Are they justified? Here we come to Pasternak's obscurity.

A small example. Volokhonsky-Pevear introduce us to a showy figure at the station, enigmatically wearing "an expensive fur coat trimmed with railway piping". What does that mean? The unusual Russian adjective, "puteiskii", suggests the function of a railway engineer. Hayward-Harari hazard an explanation: "an expensive fur-lined coat on which the piping of the railway uniform had been sewn". The italicised words have no textual basis. Which is better? To trip up the reader on a trivial enigma, or to try to make sense of it?

Volokhonsky-Pevear are ruled by the principle of literal fidelity, Hayward-Harari by the imperatives of clarity, elegance and euphony. Take Pasternak's description of a moonlit night rich with suppressed passion. In Hayward-Harari's version it begins:

"An enormous crimson moon rose behind the rooks' nests in the Countess's garden. At first it was the colour of the new brick mill in Zybushino; then it turned yellow like the water-tower at Biryuchi."

The unauthorised, italicised words clarify the implicit chromatic scale of the brightening moon.

Volokhonsky-Pevear have:

"Beyond the crows' nests of the countess's garden appeared a blackish purple moon of monstrous dimensions. At first it looked like the brick steam mill in Zybushino; then it turned yellow like the Biriuchi railway pump house."

Tiny things undermine the effect here – the irrelevant nautical associations of crows' nests; the ugly improbability of a bruised, "monstrous", "blackish purple moon" (the translators have chosen the wrong dictionary alternatives between enormous and monstrous, and crimson and purple). It's hard to see how the moon can look like a "brick steam mill". Instead of Hayward-Harari's soaring "water-tower", Volokhonsky-Pevear plump for the (equally correct but bathetic) "railway pump house". The sentence flops onto its bottom like a toddler. Hayward-Harari suggest colours sumptuous as a Goncharova, and convey Pasternak's fascination for nature fused with mechanised modernity.

The dangers originally posed by Pasternak's prose are inconceivable to the modern reader. In the 70s, I met a Russian who told me, rather sourly, that he'd served six years in the camps for possessing a samizdat chunk of Doctor Zhivago. Ten pages of blurry carbon copy. "Oh dear," I said; "I hope it was worth it." "Worth it! A chapter of nature description?"

Turning to Zhivago's poems, I have to declare an interest. My mother translated her brother's poems. Boris's poetry is formally rich, regularly rhymed, and metrically precise. It is full of delectable assonances, at once musical and wholly natural. My mother's first priority was to reproduce his aural effects. She did. This difficult demand inevitably exacted its own price. Her English is flawed – it sounds Russian. But it sings, as Pasternak's poetry does. Its quaintness is authentic, like Garnett's period translations of Tolstoy.

There are many bad translations of Pasternak's poems. Volokhonsky and Pevear's are no worse than the rest. They're what Nabokov called his translation of Pushkin's Onegin – "a pony". A humble pack-horse. A prose crib, dutifully set out in pointless short lines mimicking the original.

Not inaccurate, and lacking everything.

Ann Pasternak Slater

The GuardianTramp

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