'Accursed Questions': Translating Russian Literature

An interview with Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear
Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear. Photograph: Brigitte Lacombe

Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear are renowned contemporary translators of Russian literature. To date, they have collaborated to bring 16 key new editions of Russian novels to the English language, from Tolstoy and Gogol, to Chekhov and Dostoyevsky. And they are currently working on a new translation of Nobel prize winner Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, they share their passion for Russian literature, and discuss some of the practical difficulties of translation. The interview closes with a question about the contemporary relevance of the Russian novel, to which Volokhonsky and Pevear give a wonderfully philosophical answer:
Wall Street Journal: Every culture thinks its literature will stand the test of time. What is it about the Russian novelists that makes us come back to their work again and again?

Mr. Pevear and Ms. Volokhonsky: I think there's the phrase "the accursed questions" attributed to Dostoyevsky: What is the meaning of life, the existence of God, the mystery of death, the big metaphysical spiritual questions? Those questions were central to Russian literature in the 19th and 20th centuries in a way that they had all but ceased to be in Western European literature. The Russians were engaged in portraying a fully human destiny rather than one dictated by class, social position, personal ambition and so on -- which is a vision similar to what we find first of all in Homer, as well as Dante and Shakespeare. We thirst for that vision and are grateful to find it in the great Russians. The aliveness of Tolstoy's heroes may come ultimately from the same wholeness of vision, which is not generalized and abstract, but deep in detail. [Read More]

Their most recent translation, Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, is published by Random House.