The Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva once said that Boris Pasternaklooked 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.
by Boris Pasternak, translated by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear
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 Zhivagowas 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 ofZhivago 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 r
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.