The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Other Stories
A new translation of 11 short works by Tolstoy.
Translators are cooks trying to follow recipes to the letter, but by necessity they have to use the ingredients and equipment they’ve got at home. They make do and hope the approximations taste good. The American/Russian husband/wife team Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are known for their translations of the Russian classics, and we should at least be grateful that their productions remind us to read or reread some of the best literature in the world. Learn Russian if you can (it’s taken me four years of hard labor to be lousy at it), or accept with gratitude what Pevear and Volokhonsky serve you.Skip to next paragraph
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Are their translations obviously better than all the others? No. Translation is an art of incremental details, and comparing phrases and sentences and passages, it’s possible to see how an earlier translator, Rosemary Edmonds, for example, was better with this particular phrasing and this pair is better with that one.
In any case, as I was merrily reading along in The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Other Stories translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, I opened my Russsian-language editions of Tolstoy and compared what I made of particular lines with Pevear and Volokhonsky’s take, and if mine were sometimes livelier, theirs were invariably correct, though not absolutely consistent in vocabulary and tenses. (What I learned from learning Russian is that the translations I grew up on convey 95 percent of what’s there. What’s missing is what’s necessarily missing in any language transfer – the sound, the rhythm, the tumble and play of words and phrases.)
What I’ll crab about is that Pevear and Volokhonsky didn’t put much thought into the selections included in this collection. They chose as if randomly from Tolstoy’s famous and unfamous, finished and unfinished, later stories and novellas.
It seems to me whoever wrote the novella “Hadji Murat” should be regarded as the greatest master of fiction in the world after Tolstoy. Tolstoy happened to write “Hadji Murat,” so, with “Anna Karenina,” he has the two greatest works on my list. “Hadji Murat” was a Tartar warrior in the middle of the 19th century who, because of a rival leader’s jealousy and death threats, goes over to the enemy Russians. A “based on a true story” adventure, Tolstoy introduces it, saying: “I remembered an old story from the Caucasus, part of which I saw, part of which I heard from witnesses, and part of which I imagined to myself. The story, as it shaped itself in my memory and imagination goes like this.”
More well-known is “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” Tolstoy is so great that to criticize his work we mortals have to build a tower to see high enough to compare his lows with his highs. From such a perspective we see that what Tolstoy manages in “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” he does much better in many other stories and novels. I ascribe the popularity of “Ivan Ilyich” to its brevity and Tolstoy’s powerful singlemindedness: “The dead man lay, as dead men always lie, with a peculiar heaviness, dead-man fashion, his stiffened limbs sunk into the lining of the coffin, his forever bent head on the pillow, displaying, as dead men always do, his yellow, waxen forehead with the hair brushed forward on his sunken temples, and his thrust-out nose, as if pressing down on his upper lip.” (The repetition is characteristic of Tolstoy and true to the passage.)