Constance Garnett  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Constance Clara Garnett (née Black) (19 December 1861, Brighton, England – 17 December 1946, The Cearne, Crockham Hill, Kent) was an English translator of nineteenth-century Russian literature. Garnett was one of the first English translators of Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Anton Chekhov and introduced them on a wide basis to the English-speaking public.

Life

Garnett was the sixth of the eight children of the solicitor David Black (1817–1892), afterwards town clerk and coroner, and his wife, Clara Maria Patten (1825–1875). Her brother was the mathematician Arthur Black. Her father became paralysed in 1873, and two years later her mother died, from a heart attack after lifting him from his chair to his bed.

She was initially educated at Brighton and Hove High School. Afterwards she studied Latin and Greek at Newnham College, Cambridge on a government scholarship, where she also learned Russian (partly from émigré Russian friends such as Felix Volkonsky), and worked briefly as a school teacher.

Her husband, Edward Garnett, whom she married in Brighton on 31 August 1889, was a distinguished reader for the publisher Jonathan Cape. Her son and only child, David Garnett, trained as a biologist and later wrote novels.

In 1893, shortly after a visit to Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Yasnaya Polyana where she met Leo Tolstoy, she was inspired to start translating Russian literature, which became her life's passion and resulted in English-language versions of dozens of volumes by Tolstoy, Gogol, Ivan Goncharov, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Turgenev, Ostrovsky and Chekhov. The Russian anarchist Sergei Stepniak partly assisted her, also in revising some of her early works.

By the late 1920s, Garnett was frail, white-haired, and half-blind. She retired from translating after the publication in 1934 of Three Plays by Turgenev. After her husband's death in 1937, she became quite reclusive. She developed a heart condition, with attendant breathlessness, and in her last years had to walk with crutches.

Translations

Constance Garnett translated 71 volumes of Russian literary works, and her translations received high acclaim, from authors such as Joseph Conrad and D. H. Lawrence. Despite some complaints about being outdated, her translations are still being reprinted today (most also happen to be in the public domain).

However, Garnett also has had many critics, notably prominent Russian natives and authors Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Brodsky. Brodsky notably criticized Garnett for blurring the distinctive authorial voices of different Russian authors:

"The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that they aren't reading the prose of either one. They're reading Constance Garnett."

In her translations, she worked quickly, and smoothed over certain small portions for "readability", particularly in her translations of Dostoevsky In instances where she did not understand a word or phrase, she omitted that portion. For his Norton Critical Edition of The Brothers Karamazov, Ralph Matlaw based his revised version on her translation. This is the basis for the influential A Karamazov Companion by Victor Terras. Matlaw published an earlier revision of Garnett's translation of the Grand Inquisitor chapter in a volume paired with Notes From Underground.

In 1994 Donald Rayfield compared Garnett's translations with the most recent scholarly versions of Chekhov's stories and concluded:

"While she makes elementary blunders, her care in unravelling difficult syntactical knots and her research on the right terms for Chekhov's many plants, birds and fish are impressive.... Her English is not only nearly contemporaneous to Chekhov's, it is often comparable."

Her translations of Turgenev were highly regarded by Rachel May, in her study on translating Russian classics.

Later translators such as Rosemary Edmonds and David Magarshack continued to use Garnett's translations as models for their own work.





Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Constance Garnett" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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