professional translator

Constance Garnett: The Most Influential Professional Translator in History

Strange Origins for a Professional Translator

Based on her background, few could tell that Constance Garnett would go on to become the most accomplished professional translator of her time. Born to a coroner and the daughter of a famous mathematician in 1861, Garnett grew up in the seaside resort town of Brighton, England. Despite being educated at the prestigious Newnham College, a subsidiary women’s college of Cambridge University, Garnett didn’t learn Russian until the age of 29.  This is when her husband introduced her to a Russian immigrant named Feliks Volkhovsky at a party held at the Garnett estate. An exiled revolutionary, Volkhovsky was an editor for the Free Russian Press, a socialist journal, and encouraged Garnett to take on the difficult task of learning his native tongue. Garnett eventually found the time to learn during her first pregnancy with the help of another Russian dissident named Sergei Stepnyak and began translating Leo Tolstoy’s famous philosophical essay, “The Kingdom of God is Within You.”  Garnett’s translation of this dense text effectively began her journey into the world of translation services and paved the way for her future translation of other classics of Russian literature such as Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment.

Rise to Prominence of a Professional Translator

In spite of her amateur language training, Garnett’s translations gained a considerable following due to their incredible readability. Previous English editions of Russian novels, such as Clare Bell’s translation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, were based on earlier French translations and thus deprived readers of the true spirit of Russian literature. By contrast, Garnett’s translations came from the original Russian text and attempted to convey the Russian authors’ desired meaning. Garnett also derived her success from having access to the publishing industry through her husband’s job as a publisher’s reader for Jonathon Cape.  This allowed her translations to be published cheaply and to become readily available to the masses.  Perhaps the greatest factor that aided Garnett’s rise to prominence in the professional translating world was her ability to translate documents with great speed. Despite the many ailments she suffered from, which included blindness in the twilight of her life, Garnett was able to translate over 70 works of Russian fiction during her relatively short translation career.

A Controversial, Yet Important Legacy

Nevertheless, Garnett’s translation work has provoked a great deal of controversy within the global translation services community. Particularly in her translations of Dostoevsky, Garnett often skipped over Russian phrases that were difficult to translate into English, essentially eliminating the unique voices of Russian authors. Famous Russian authors, such as Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Brodsky, have also decried the fact her translations often dampen the vitality of the original works. Regardless of these critiques, it’s hard to ignore the fact that without Garnett’s work, most of the English-speaking world would never have been exposed to Russian literature.

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