10 September 2011

Finding Constance Garnett

I logged several decades as a book-lover before I expanded my horizon to include ebooks close to four years ago. And all book-lovers (with or without an e- up front) spend a certain amount of time in quest of specific books. Ebibliophile may be a neologism the world can live without, but we exist, we are real, and we have our passions. We go to lengths that we do not always disclose, just to be able to download the elusive title in readable form. Some day I may do a more general (very much in the sense of 'general confession') detailing of my quests for individual ebooks. Today, let's talk about just one that's finally available in the U.S. and Canada.

When I was growing up, there was one canonical English translator for 19th-century Russian fiction: Constance Garnett (1861-1946).

True, from the 1950s onward there emerged in Penguin Classics a number of contemporary translators with significant readerships: Rosemary Edmonds, David Magarshack, David McDuff, Ronald Wilks. I've relied on them more than on any other contemporary translators. I'd like to salute them here but leave them out of today's discussion.

Constance Garnett saw almost 40 years of Queen Victoria's reign, then lived on past the end of World War II. But when her detractors refer to her as a 'Victorian' they are not thinking primarily of the fact that her life overlapped with that of many of her authors. As a translator, she sometimes downplayed sexual content, especially in the case of Anna Karenina. Still, for multiple generations of English-speaking readers hers was, and for many still is, the voice of Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov: a beautiful, compelling and (especially in her day) a surprisingly immediate voice. (If it wouldn't open a can of worms, I'd say that her translations were almost comparable in stature to the King James Version of the Bible.) Perhaps the power of her English owes something to the master novelists of the era into which she was born: Thackeray, Dickens, the Brontës, George Eliot, Hardy, Henry James, Conrad....

In recent decades, she's been found wanting by some (but not all) critics who have compared her translations with those of the new kids on the block, the prolific team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. In addition to all their other strengths as translators, Pevear and Volokhonsky have the advantage that she is a native speaker of Russian and he of American English. They are arguably the world's most famous and most decorated living literary translators into English. Their translations are current, precise and authoritative. Some are even bestsellers; their Anna Karenina was a selection of Oprah's Book Club.

My passions in this area, however, remain permanently focussed on Garnett. (Perhaps I'm just one of those birds who mate for life.) And my greatest ebibliophilic quest has been for Garnett's 1904 translation of Leo Tolstoy's masterpiece War and Peace.

Largely because Gutenberg.org chose to digitize the (later) Maude translation, there has been until now no digital access to Garnett's. (Some databases indicate the contrary, but they mistake the Maude for the Garnett.) I've campaigned online for a Garnett War and Peace ebook for years--and suddenly it's here before us. It's so new that even Google as of this writing is unaware of it. (That will change quickly: Google tracks this blog admirably.)

Surprisingly enough, the new ebook is a Barnes & Noble Classics edition (published in print in 2006; with an introduction by Joseph Frank and extensive notes by Lena Lencek) available as of this writing only at the U.S. and Canadian iBooks stores. (This, too, will change, I predict: even if there is no Kindle edition [other books in the series have so far been offered only in EPUB format--the format for most ebook readers except the Kindle], I expect it to crop up as an offering on Barnes & Noble's nook soon. When that happens, I'll post a link.) [UPDATE: nook and Kindle editions of the Garnett translation are now available, as of 9 December 2012, but the price for this Modern Library ebook is more than three times that of the iBooks edition and in what I call the 'gouge zone'; as a rule, I don't provide links to such editions on this blog.]

Here are the iBooks links: for the U.S. and for Canada. Not an iBooks user yet? Well, whenever you're ready, iBooks--and Garnett--will be there. For me, at least, the wait has been worth it.

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