Doctor Zhivago lives on!

It is 45 years since David Lean’s film of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago captivated – and perhaps transformed – the lives of countless adolescents. Who cannot recall the snowy landscapes and romantic imagery? Who cannot hum “Lara’s Theme”?

Smuggled out of the Soviet Union and first published in Italy in 1957, Pasternak’s novel was banned in the country of his birth until 1988. In 1958, under intense pressure from the Soviet authorities, Pasternak (photo right) was forced to decline the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In 1958 the first English translation of Doctor Zhivago appeared. Edmund Wilson reviewing the book in The New Yorker (15 November 1958), was moved to write, “Doctor Zhivago will, I believe, come to stand as one of the great events in man’s literary and moral history… a great act of faith in art and in the human spirit.”

Boris Pasternak read the translation and said of its translators Manya Harari and Max Hayward, “Do not blame them too much. It’s not their fault. They are used, like translators everywhere, to reproducing, the literal sense rather than the tone of what is said – and of course it is the tone that matters.”

In 2010, following award-winning translations of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Gogol, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have published their new version of the book. It is an intensely literal translation that allows the reader to hear more of the Russian idiom and cadences than the 1957 version.

In an article in The Guardian, the writer’s niece Ann Pasternak Slater criticises it for “painful ineptitudes” and English that is “prosaic, flabby and verbose”. Citing numerous examples that seem clumsy or badly translated, she comments, “Volokonsky-Pevear are ruled by the principle of literal fidelity, Hayward-Harari by the imperatives of clarity, elegance and euphony.”

“Translation is at best an echo,” was the opinion of English author and linguist George Borrow. That should not prevent readers from (re)discovering the delights of Doctor Zhivago. I, for one, am enjoying getting reacquainted with Pasternak, Zhivago, and the tumultuous events that fatefully coloured a whole century and beyond.


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