The Pevearsion of Russian Literature
Legend has it that Grigory Potemkin, the chief minister and lover of Catherine the Great, decided to impress her with the prosperity of lands newly conquered by the Russian Empire. So he had the pasteboard facade of houses constructed along the road just far enough away to look real. Ever since, the phrase “Potemkin village” has indicated something that looks authentic and impressive—until one examines it closely and discovers its falsity. Thus it is with the celebrated work of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, who are making a decades-long project of presenting authoritative new English editions of the great works of Russian literature. These are Potemkin translations—apparently definitive but actually flat and fake on closer inspection.
The Pevear-Volokhonsky versions of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Chekhov, and Bulgakov have earned rapturous reviews by James Wood in the New Yorker and Orlando Figes in the New York Review of Books, along with a PEN translation award. It looks as if people will be reading P&V, as they have come to be called, for decades to come.
About the Author
Gary Saul Morson is Frances Hooper Professor of the Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University. Yale University Press published his “Anna Karenina” in Our Time in 2007 and is presently bringing out his book on quotations, The Words of Others: From Quotations to Culture.