Imagine a world without Russian classics– a world where the works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov are unknown? If it wasn’t for a woman named Constance Garnett, this kind of world may have existed.
Constance Garnett was a coroner’s daughter. Her background is far from academic. She worked as a governess and a librarian. Her husband was an aristocratic man who worked as a publisher’s reader (a person paid by a publisher or book club to read manuscripts from the slush pile). Garnett did not know Russian. She was inspired to learn the language by a renegade Russians who had escaped Siberia.
‘Once laid up with pregnancy complications, Garnett undertook the mammoth task of learning the notoriously complex Slavic language. One of her first translations was “The Kingdom of God is Within You,” a religious and philosophical tract by Leo Tolstoy. She went on to translate over 70 volumes of Russian literature, including almost everything Tolstoy ever wrote, Chekhov, all of Dostoevsky, and her favorite, Turgenev, among others. In 1894, Garnett took a three-month trip to Russia, and even visited Tolstoy at his estate, Yasnaya Polyana.’
What made Garnett a highly acclaimed translator? In spite of her commitment to familial duties, she worked relentlessly braving health issues and translating one book after another, without respite.
Garnett has been criticized for her speedy translations and for having robbed the translations of the beauty of the original. Yet her achievements are a service to book lovers world over.
Read Nina Renata Aron’s story about how this unassuming British woman unlocked ‘Crime and Punishment’ and many other Russian masterpieces.