Books across Borders—Constance Garnett and her Translations

Last Sunday (February 11, 2022), the New York Times featured an article about the growing importance of translated books in the United States. Now that many Americans are becoming used to watching international movies, television, and websites, it’s natural that books from around the world are also becoming more popular. The Author’s Guild and other writers’ associations encourage publishers to acknowledge this importance by including the name of the translator on the front cover of every translated book. We will no doubt see more attention paid to translators in the future, but today I want to pay tribute to a woman whose pioneering work in translation influenced some of the most important English-language writers of the twentieth century, including D. H . Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, and Ernest Hemingway.  

Constance Garnett was born in Brighton, England, in 1861. She was educated at Brighton and Hove High School and then studied Greek and Latin at Newnham College, Cambridge. In 1883, she moved to London and worked as a governess and later as a librarian. In London she met Edward Garnett, who was a reader for a publishing company. The two married in 1889, and two years later, her husband introduced her to several Russian exiles with whom the couple became friendly. The exiles encouraged Constance to try translating some Russian writers into English to make them available to a wider range of readers. Before long, Constance started studying Russian and plunged into the work.

Constance Garnett with her son David

Ivan Goncharov’s A Common Story was Garnett’s first translation to be published, and that was the beginning of a long, industrious career. During her lifetime, Garnett translated works by Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, and Chekhov. Works by these authors had been almost inaccessible to most English-speaking readers until Garnett translated them and they were published in England and then in the United States. By the time her career ended, she had translated and published 71 Russian books. Many of these versions still remain in print, although other translators have produced newer translations.

How did Constance Garnett manage to translate so quickly? She did it mostly by working incessantly. It was her habit to sit in her garden with a pile of Russian manuscripts beside her as she worked. She would translate quickly, seldom stopping to look anything up, and not planning ahead, but somehow she produced readable versions of  books that usually caught the spirit of the original. Her translations have been both praised and criticized by Russian scholars and still remain controversial. A 2005 article in the New Yorker “The Translation Wars” by David Remnick tells the story of some of the arguments and disagreements about her work.

The widespread availability of Russian translations had a dramatic impact on English-language literature during the 20th century.  One result, which is unfortunately no longer available to us, was the appearance of a play called “The Idiots Karamazov” at the Yale Repertory Theatre during the early 1970s. Starring in the role of Constance Garnett was a young student named Meryl Streep. Wouldn’t it be fun if we could find that show streaming on our TV screen and watch it before settling down to read Dostoyevsky?