Today we are sitting down to talk about translating Dostoevsky and David Magarshack with Cathy McAteer, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Exeter who has recently defended her PhD in Russian and Translation Studies at the University of Bristol. Her doctoral thesis examines Penguin Books’s Russian Classics series (1950-1964) with special emphasis on Magarshack’s role as translator in bringing Russian literary texts to an anglophone audience.
BK: So, first of all, tell us a bit about your research project. Why did you decide to focus on Penguin’s Russian Classics series? Were there any surprising discoveries in your research?
CM: Hello Katia, thanks for inviting me to talk a bit about my research. My interest in Penguin’s Russian Classics took on a new dimension once I’d started my MA in Translation Studies at the University of Bristol. The act of comparing different Penguin versions of Russian literary classics against the original source texts prompted a new set of questions for me about the background to those Penguin commissions: who were the people driving and completing them; what were their various professional backgrounds and qualifications (if any); how did Penguin and its commissioned translators interact with each other; was there ever such a thing as an in-house Penguin translation style; and then, how well did the Anglophone lay audience, which ultimately spanned several geographical borders, receive this relaunched literary canon? When I finished my Masters, I was fortunate to receive funding to pursue a PhD framed around answering these questions. On a broader scale, I also wanted my PhD to fill a gap in knowledge as far as the more modern phase of Russian literary translation in English is concerned, namely the mid- to late-twentieth century, the exact time when Penguin was publishing its versions of the classic Russian literary canon.
My doctoral project relied heavily on detailed archival research, initially at the Penguin archive (housed at the University of Bristol) but also at the Leeds Russian archive. In terms of surprising discoveries, I never expected the personalities of key and minor players to reveal themselves so strikingly via their correspondence. They came to life in a way which is never apparent just from reading their end-products, the translated texts themselves. Individuals like the editors EV Rieu and ASB Glover feature throughout, efficient, often humorous, and polite. Translators like Elisaveta Fen, Rosemary Edmonds, and, of course, David Magarshack reveal that they could be self-assured and commercially astute, but at times frustrated by the tedium of the commercial process and unsolicited changes to their translations. Surprises include one letter which reveals the Turgenev translator Gilbert Gardiner’s patient, 25-year wait for missed royalty payments. There are startlingly frank letters from the lay-reading public too. Some applaud the price and accessibility of Penguin’s Russian Classics, while others offer criticism. One correspondent criticizes Penguin for allowing over-popular translations of Russian literature ‘just so that it can be understood by people without literary knowledge’, another complains to the editors for even allowing the title Anna Karenin (‘an act of impudence and vandalism’), and another correspondent praises an excellent translation (The Devils) but laments that it is marred with ‘phrases, not to say paragraphs in French’. Their voices are vibrant; it was fascinating to discover how opinionated Penguin’s readership could be over matters of translation.
Analysis of this archival material allowed me, therefore, to construct a profile, a microhistory, of key Penguin Russian players, but also to map the climate of reception for Russian literature in English translation during the last half of the twentieth century.
BK: Now tell us a bit about David Magarshack. He’s an acclaimed translator of Dostoevsky (and others). Why did you choose him as the focus of your case study?
CM: I suspected from the outset that David Magarshack would probably play an important role in my thesis – he was after all one of the longest-serving early translators for Penguin’s Russian Classics, translating the four major works by Dostoevsky for them, along with Goncharov’s Oblomov, Gogol’s Dead Souls, and Chekhov’s Lady with Lapdog – but I never actually expected him to dominate the project to such an extent! After weeks of scouring the Penguin archive I realized I would need to corroborate my Bristol findings by pursuing material stored in other collections. I went to Leeds, therefore, to examine David Magarshack’s (and Elisaveta Fen’s) private papers. Fen’s papers were useful, certainly, but I found the most relevant and detailed material in Magarshack’s papers where, to my delight, his notes included specific lectures and essays about his translation strategy.
Magarshack was born in Riga (then Russia) in 1899 but emigrated to the UK in 1920 in search of a higher education (a right restricted to only a limited number of Jews at the time of Magarshack’s student years). He arrived in the UK with scarcely any English but graduated four years later with a 2:1 in English Language and Literature at UCL. After years of trying to make a living as a crime-writer, journalist, and aspiring newspaper editor, he eventually offered his services as a literary translator to Penguin. His first Penguin book was Crime and Punishment, completed ahead of the scheduled delivery date, perhaps thanks in part to his wife Elsie, a Yorkshire-born, Cambridge-graduate of English. (According to Magarshack’s daughter, Stella, Elsie helped with all his translations, proofreading and correcting, but she is never mentioned in his work. For me, Elsie is something of an unsung heroine; my hope is that my PhD has at least apportioned her some belated fame.)
The more I learned about Magarshack, the more fascinated I became by his commercial approach to translation and literature. With very little money coming in as a journalist, Magarshack was a man under pressure; he had a wife (and in-laws with financial aspirations for their daughter), four children, and a keen sense of pride and ambition. Magarshack comes across in his letters as driven primarily to make his career a success, but also eager to refashion the Russian literature translated by Constance Garnett and keen to match (if not improve!) Dostoevsky.
He represents a rare, modern case study because of the large amount of archival material which stands alongside all the text-based material he left behind; this combination has made it possible to construct a detailed microhistory of his professional life, to shed light for the first time on a man so readily associated in readers’ minds (lay and academic) with Penguin’s Russian literature.
BK: I know you’ve worked extensively with Penguin’s archive and the Magarshack papers in the Leeds Russian archive. Can you speak a bit about those collections? What are the documents like? What kinds of materials? And did you make any new discoveries?
The Penguin archive consists of 2,300 boxes, 500 metres of Penguin titles, and it grows by a metre of shelf space every month: signed books, correspondence, photos, promotional material. It is vast. The Penguin Classics section represents a small part of the entire archive, and the Russian Classics titles amount to just 23 folders in total, spanning from 1950 to 1970, which vary considerably in size. Some contain no more than a couple of letters confirming a print re-run, others contain tens of pages of detailed discussion about deadlines, royalty payments, corrections, correction costs, copyright, translation queries, suggestions for cover design, readers’ letters, etc. Thick files usually bode well, either because there has been a particular working rapport between editor and translator – good or bad! but always with an eagerness all round to produce the best possible text for publication – or because a text has prompted a high level of reader response: from individuals, theatre troupes requesting stage adaptations, the BBC seeking broadcasting permission, and, in the case of the Dostoevsky files, there are repeated requests by academics for permission to use translation excerpts in their psychology manuals. Inevitably, though, archival work is the domain of one-sided conversations which can often lead to unanswered questions, red-herrings, and dead-ends; these all become a bit of an occupational hazard! Just when you think the next letter will neatly conclude an ongoing discussion, the trail runs dry, which is why I ended up pursuing other collections.
Fortunately for me, Magarshack kept large quantities (27 boxes in total) of his letters, reviews, theatre programmes (his play translations continued to be used for decades), copies of his works, notes on translation, which answered many questions, provided new lines of enquiry, but also led me to Magarshack’s daughter Stella and the opportunity for me to interview her about her father’s translation career. I discovered that aside from his translations (not just for Penguin) and biographies (many of your readers will be aware of Magarshack’s Dostoevsky biography), Magarshack also tried his hand at crime-writing, à la Dostoevsky, but without comparable success. The highlight for me, though, was discovering that he had attempted to quantify his translation strategy towards the end of his career. He set down his thoughts and observations of twenty years or so of literary translation practice in preparation for a book he had been commissioned to produce for Victor Gollancz on the principles of translation. Had Magarshack’s book made it to publication, it would have been ahead of his time; he had hoped to offer his strategies on how best to tackle classic translation challenges such as Russian naming practices (a question which appears repeatedly in the Penguin Russian Classics archive and perplexes even today), vernacular dialogue, idiomatic equivalence, register, syntax. It is a great shame, therefore, that Magarshack died before the book could be completed.
The strategies and references he noted in the preparatory material for his book reveal that Magarshack was a man straddling the two cultures and worlds he knew best: Russian and British, and he felt strongly that his Russia and Dostoevsky’s Russia had not previously been satisfactorily conveyed by translators, mainly Constance Garnett. He appears to have felt a huge responsibility to try and address this failing by producing his own translations.
Two of Magarshack’s translations for Penguin Classics (Personal collection of C. McAteer)
BK: One of your chapters examines Magarshack’s translation of The Idiot (1955). This was really the first of the modern translations – the previous translations were all published at least 40 years earlier. What does your research reveal about Magarshack’s translation practice?
CM: As I mentioned earlier, my research has revealed that Magarshack approached his translation work with a keen sense that the ‘real’ Russia had never been accurately conveyed to British readers in preceding translations. In his observations about translation, Magarshack noted with evident concern that Garnett had created a ‘popular notion of the Russian as an incompetent, gloom-sodden, bizarre, and even grotesque figure’, a view ‘so generally accepted that it even colours the views of serious authors on Russian affairs’. Magarshack relates his concern over poor translations even more specifically to Dostoevsky, though; he writes that the realization ‘that, for instance, Dostoevsky’s novels are full of laughter as well as tragedy, has yet to be proved to the English reader’. Magarshack hoped that his translations would reinstate the humour as well as the tragedy. Not all readers would now agree that Magarshack achieved this aim; Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonskaya, for example, claim instead that there is ‘something tame’ about Magarshack’s translation of Brothers Karamazov which replaces the style, tone, and humour of Dostoevsky’s original. The important thing for me, though, is that Magarshack identified what he felt was missing and tried to rectify the shortfall.
Magarshack’s attempt to differ from his predecessors’ efforts (summed up in his notes in a blend of Western and Soviet-style traditions and techniques) relies on a combination of translation devices: he tries his hand at vernacularized dialogue; incorporates Anglicized naming practices (Mr, Mrs, and Miss) and minimizes the inclusion of patronymics; domesticates culture-specific references; avoids all footnotes (he believed they were ‘a translator’s confession of failure’), and he frequently tries to smooth out syntax. The Idiot contains examples of all these effects and, while readers from a modern vantage point may consider his practice unsubtle and somewhat contrived at times, these devices were a novel way to treat Dostoevsky in the mid-twentieth century. Magarshack created a different feel to Garnett’s earlier translations and provided a stylistic talking point for subsequent translators.
BK: And what can Magarshack’s translation of Dostoevsky tell us about Dostoevsky?
CM: Magarshack wanted his translations to speak to a modern audience and show that there was more to Dostoevsky, more depth and colour, than previously thought. Magarshack strove to show that Dostoevsky had all the tragedy as well as the comedy of Dickens. He believed that the absence in previous Dostoevsky translations either of any humour, or of any attempt at full-bodied characterization, presented an anaemic version of the real Dostoevsky. Magarshack felt it was the translator’s duty to serve and reveal the original author by researching the author’s background, social context, morals, literary style, and channel that knowledge into decisions over lexis, idiom, register, voice. Magarshack can be regarded as the first modern translator, therefore, to expose the existence in Dostoevsky of characters who build tension, evoke sympathy, have nicknames and humour, reveal vices and morals, who speak like barrow boys and express credible feelings. Of course, he didn’t succeed on every count (possibly because he was having to work fast to pay the bills). There are always deficits in a translation, some of Magarshack’s decisions irritated readers then and now (for example, Magarshack’s occasional glossing over of culture-specific references and syntax, his occasional omissions, over-domestication of names) but Magarshack has been credited with revealing the polyphony which exists in Dostoevsky’s works, giving voice to a more comprehensive range of Dostoevskian characters who were previously served by Garnett’s one Edwardian voice, for example.
Magarshack and Penguin proved that Dostoevsky was an accessible author who could be appreciated by all lovers of great literature, that he wrote for the everyman and not for an elitist readership after all. Many of Penguin’s archived letters of appreciation confirm as much but I’d like to finish with just one comment from Anthony Powell of Punch. He wrote that ‘David Magarshack has revolutionized the reading of Dostoyevsky’s novels in English by his translations which have appeared during the last few years … for years I was rather an anti-Dostoyevsky man, owing to the badness of the translations, but now there is an excellent translator in Magarshack’ (2 April 1958)’.
Cathy McAteer is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Exeter on the project “The Dark Side of Translation: 20th and 21st Century Translation from Russian as a Political Phenomenon in the UK, Ireland and the USA”, which has just gone live, fresh for 2019. More information is available on Twitter (@Rustransdark) and on the project website. Cathy’s publications include ‘Bringing Books Across Borders – Behind the Scenes in Penguin Books’, Transnational Russian Studies (edited by Andy Byford, Connor Doak, Stephen Hutchings) due to be published later this year, and ‘Translation and the Classic: Russians and Romanticism until 1917’, Routledge Handbook on Translation (edited by Siobhan McElduff, James Hadley, Paul Bandia), publication date tbc.
Fascinating post – thank you! I came to Dostoevsky through these Penguin translations – indeed many of the first Russian volumes I read were translated by Magarshack – and so I have a great affection for them. 😀
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I love Magarshack’s translation of Dostoevsky such as “Break what must be broken.” I had a good chance of reading them. I did not see that quote in Constance Garnett’s translation. I read both Magarshack and Garnett translations.
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Our English literature teacher in college at the University of the Philippines required us to read Russian classics which helped me get introduced to Dostoevsky’s novels. This was around 1968 when I was a sophomore. I still recall her name, Mrs. Felisa Fernandez. I used to make commentaries during our class discussion and a classmate told me later that when I was absent from class, she would usually inquire in jest: “Where’s our thinker?” Very nice complement or comment from our learned teacher to a young teen-ager who was starting to learn literary classics. Thank you, teacher, for the great tutelage. She helped me to continue pursue my studies which inspired me to complete my doctoral degree in education.
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Fyodor Dostoevsky likewise has inspired me to focus on the need for genuine social changes designed to benefit mankind.
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ARE THE BEST LITERARY CLASSICS CREATED FROM SUFFERING?
I believe that the traumatic life experiences among writers such as Dostoyevsky make them the literary geniuses we have come to love and embrace. I certainly find His writing to be intriguing, disturbing and harrowing. If I may be honest, He is able to confront my own life experiences of inner struggle and turmoil. Is His dialogue too close for comfort? Yes, but not in the frighteningly surreal way that Hermann Hesse seems to be able to achieve, almost with relish. Although, ‘notes from the underground’ may be suited to fans of Nietzsche, (something I find attractive when undergoing severe depression), overall Dostoyevsky is able to choose empathy before misanthrope, it is a thin line but he masters this like no other author I have read. I believe this to be a cry for help conceived from the bitterness of a psychological mind game. I admit, the stories are haunting and that at times death must have been regarded as a welcome respite. I speak from my own intimacy with suicidal ideation. Nevertheless, Dostoyovsky is a master of entertainment and I find his books do not exacerbate my melancholy, quite the opposite. He has an uncanny ability to excite ones senses, like Stefan Zweig. He would rather punish himself then blame others for his misfortunes. Many excessive gamblers imbibe in the throes of a manic episode. There is certainly some evidence of symptoms of mental health. For example, the reader is drawn into Crime and Punishment at breakneck speed. Narration is oftentimes verging on the manic, I call them ‘tear out hair times’. I have read David Magarshack and David McDuff comments that Dostoyevsky would rarely proof his manuscripts. Is this an indication of a desire to be constantly moving on? A reluctance to slow down and backtrack, (to relive the unlivable). After all, who could possibly endure the Russian Gulag and be taken out on the pretense of execution only to be spared at the final hour, without suffering some form of mental anguish. However, I must admit that it is possible that my own traumatic events make me more inclined to empathise and even relive events of the past, so it is very likely that my opinions are isolated and not shared with many other avid readers. Dostoyevsky has a power over me, in that he is able to mind read my own suppressed dark recesses. I will always be grateful for the magical art form of David Magarshack’s translations and for making the Fyodor Dostoyevsky books accessible for English speakers.
I enjoyed reading this interview. Very informative. Thanks!