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The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Other Stories

A new translation of 11 short works by Tolstoy.

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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.

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.)

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