When I was allowed to leave the children’s library and join the grown-ups library next door, it was like being let loose in a giant sweetshop, and, for reasons I still don’t quite understand, I felt drawn to a hexagonal bookshelf at the far end of the library. It was full of books with red spines (perhaps that’s what attracted me) and the writers had strange names – Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev. I became a voracious reader of these books, although I often wonder how much of them my young self understood. I did notice that most of those books had been translated from Russian by someone called Constance Garnett, although I had little idea then what translating a novel involved. Only later, when I myself began translating did I come to appreciate the debt we owe to such translators as Constance Garnett, or perhaps particularly to her, since she revealed to non-Russian speakers writers now considered to be an essential part of the canon.

Constance Black was born in 1861, the fifth of eight children. She was exceptionally bright and, at the age of 17, got a place at Cambridge University to study classics. For the first time, she had independence and a room of her own, although the college food, it seems, left much to be desired. She particularly excelled at translation, and her tutor in Ancient Greek would always choose her to translate any particularly difficult passage. She graduated with the equivalent of a First Class degree, for in those days, women were not actually given a degree. Cambridge didn’t deign to do that until 1947! She went on to work as tutor to the children of a wealthy family, and then as a librarian in London. But where did her interest in Russian come from? Oddly enough, her paternal grandfather had commanded the first regular steam-packet between Lübeck and St Petersburg and was just about to embark on a career in the Russian navy when he died suddenly. Constance’s own father, however, although partly brought up in France and Germany, became an accountant in Brighton. No, an entirely chance encounter triggered Constance’s fascination with Russian. Her husband, Edward Garnett, arrived home one day announcing: “I have met a man after your own heart – a Russian exile – and I have asked him down for the weekend.” The man in question was Felix Volkhovsky, an exile from Siberia. He, Constance and Edward became great friends, and he later introduced them to a fellow political exile, Sergey Mikhaylovich Kravchinsky, Stepniak to his friends. This, wrote Constance, was “one of the most important events of my life”. She had already been reading Turgenev in French translation, but Volkhovsky and Stepniak encouraged her to begin learning Russian, and then try her hand at translating a novel by Ivan Goncharov. She wrote this: “The first sentence took hours to puzzle out, but I soon advanced to translating a page a day, writing it out as I deciphered it.” Then, since so few of Turgenev’s novels had been translated into English, Stepniak suggested she begin translating all of them, with him checking her translation as she went along. Constance wrote: “Oh! It is so difficult, I am amazed now at my impudence in undertaking it.” In 1896, Heinemann, the publisher of the Goncharov novel, commissioned her to produce a volume of Turgenev’s novels every three months (an extraordinary rate of production!), and, by 1922, she had produced seventeen volumes.

In 1893, Constance made her first visit to Russia, to St Petersburg and elsewhere. She met Tolstoy, whose treatise ‘The Kingdom of God is Within You’ she had already translated. And although she was disappointed that her speaking and listening skills did not match her reading skills, the visit confirmed her passion for Russian literature. On her return to England, she resumed her Turgenev translations. Her working method was to look up any words she didn’t know, then note down the English in between the lines, just as she had done as a student. She would then set to work translating the whole text, in longhand. When she had translated a few chapters, she would then go through her translation with Stepniak.

When Stepniak suffered a fatal accident, his widow Fanny moved to a cottage near the Garnetts, and, for a time, replaced him as Constance’s Russian consultant. Constance went on to translate Chekhov’s short stories and some of his plays. Of Chekhov she wrote: “…translating Chekhov has given me more pleasure than any other work I have done”. She then moved on to Dostoevsky, and her translations prompted something akin to a Dostoevsky cult. When Constance’s always poor eyesight began to fail, she recruited various other Russian-speaking friends to help her, with them reading out the Russian to her, so that she could then translate it into English. She retired from translating in 1928, but was briefly tempted back to translate three of Turgenev’s plays. Then her increasingly frail health forced her to stop altogether. She died in 1946 at the age of 85, having produced 71 translations.

Others have since translated many of the same Russian classics, and some critics have, inevitably, found fault with Constance’s translations, taking mean delight in discovering blunders or mistranslations. And yet for me, blunders or not, she was the voice of all those great Russians, and still is. I’ll let Constance have the final word:

“The translator has many hours of despondency in which the struggle to adjust the conflicting claims of two languages is seen clearly in all its hopelessness and the resulting compromise seems something too poor and imperfect to be worth the labour. What has given me the courage to persevere all these years in face of the always increasing sense of the difficulty – the impossibility – of successful achievement, has been the hope that contact with the work of the great Russians – even at second hand – must have its influence on the best of the younger generation – that it could not leave them unchanged. That has been my dream all these years.”

Margaret Jull Costa

Margaret Jull Costa has been a literary translator for over thirty years, translating the work of many Spanish and Portuguese writers, among them novelists Javier Marías, José Saramago and Eça de Queiroz, and poets Fernando Pessoa, Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, Mário de Sá-Carneiro and Ana Luísa Amaral.

Constance Garnett

Constance Garnett (1861-1946) was a translator of nineteenth century Russian literature into English. In the first half of the twentieth century, she translated many seminal works, making them accessible to English and American readers for the first time.