Harvill Secker, £20, 513pp. £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Doctor Zhivago, By Boris Pasternak, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

In his introduction to this new translation of Doctor Zhivago, Richard Pevear quotes from a letter written by Boris Pasternak in English: "living, moving reality in such a rendering must have a touch of spontaneous subjectivity, even of arbitrariness , wavering, tarrying, doubting, joining and disjoining elements". Pevear uses this quote to stress his point that Doctor Zhivago is "a highly unusual book". He argues that "to embody the 'living moving reality'", it "had necessarily to be an experimental novel".

For some reason, Pevear refuses to call it modernist, although both Pasternak's words and Pevear's own description of "a feeling of chaos, random movement, chance encounters, sudden disruptions" could very well apply to a modernist author – Virginia Woolf, for example. In the end, it's not what one calls it that matters. What is important is an acknowledgement of the unique features of the novel's structure and style, which combine to create the poet's vision of the Russian Revolution and its consequences.

Pasternak sees this great upheaval as a clash between the inhuman abstractions of a ruthless political order and the indomitable might of life-force. The surname "Zhivago" has the same root as the Russian adjective "zhivoy" –"live", "alive". This sums up the tragedy of the novel's hero, who welcomes the revolution in the hope that it will put an end to injustice, but dies in 1929, unable to live beyond "the year of the great turning-point", as Soviet textbooks would later label it.

Even in 1956, in the atmosphere of Khrushchev's "thaw", the novel was rejected by Soviet publications. However, the manuscript got out and appeared in Italian in 1957. Pasternak's Nobel Prize, in October 1958, led to his expulsion from the Writers' Union, a smear campaign in the Soviet press, and his forced refusal of the prize. This persecution precipitated his death in May 1960, and delayed the novel's publication in Russia for 30 years.

To have an English version ready in time for the award of the Nobel, the translators, Max Hayward and Manya Harari, had to work extremely fast, which led to omissions and simplifications. Moreover, the need to make the book readable often made them replace the rhythm and style of Pasternak's prose with plain, lively English which at times verged on banality.

Their version, published in August 1958, remained the only English Zhivago for 52 years. The blurb of this new translation claims that Pevear and Volokhonsky "have restored the rhythms, tone, precision and poetry of Pasternak's original". They try to follow Pasternak in everything.

Sometimes, especially where the effect depends on the rhythm of the sentence, it works well. Here is the opening: "They walked and walked and sang 'Memory Eternal', and whenever they stopped, the singing seemed to be carried on by their feet, the horses, the gusts of wind". The tone, impersonal and rhythmical, heightening everyday detail, is recognisably Pasternak's. The first sentence of the old translation could be anyone's: "On they went, singing 'Eternal Memory', and whenever they stopped, the sound of their feet, the horses and the gusts of wind seemed to carry on their singing."

However, sticking too closely to the Russian original often takes the translators to the other extreme. The new translation teems with artificial, un-English constructions. The simplest Russian phrases, translated literally, sound awkward, and their meaning is unclear: "What's with me?"; "I am deeply guilty before him". These are the ordinary idiom of everyday Russian. One has to admit that this is a deliberate strategy: faithfulness to the Russian at all costs, even when it implies faithlessness to the English.

What happens, then, when it comes to something more characteristic of this particular novel, like Pasternak's poetry lurking in his prose? Here is a description of the sounds heard by Yuri Zhivago as he leans out of a window, overwhelmed by the beauty of a summer night. Hayward and Harari write: "Somewhere in the vegetable patch they were watering cucumber beds, clanking the chain of the well as they drew the water and poured it from pail to pail". The original word order is slightly changed, but the simple picture remains as evocative and poetic in English as it is in Russian.

Here are Pevear and Volokhonsky: "Somewhere, where the kitchen garden began, beds of cucumbers were being watered, water being poured from one bucket into another, with a clink of the chain drawing it from the well." The passive verbs make the sentence clumsy; the participle near the end renders it nearly incomprehensible. The words and their order painstakingly follow the Russian, but what is the point if the impression the poet was trying to convey is lost?

To get a Doctor Zhivago that would convey Pasternak's genius without sounding foreign, English readers might have to wait for a new translation. We should hope that it comes before another 50 years pass.

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