Constance Garnett: The Imperfect Pioneer of Russian Translation

Published on April 04, 2018

By Kali Faulwetter

Constance Garnett

(19 December 1861 – 17 December 1946)

“Dostoyevsky is so obscure and so careless a writer that one can scarcely help clarifying him.” - Constance Garnett

If you’ve ever picked up an English translation of any classic Russian novel, chances are it is a copy that has once passed through the hands of Constance Garnett. Born in Brighton, England, she is famous for translating the works of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Chekov. Introducing Russian literature on a wide basis to the English speaking public, Garnett has been both praised and widely criticized for her work and career. She is without a doubt a pioneer in the Russian translation community, and whatever may be thought about her translations themselves, her work popularized Russian literature and allowed its ideas to circulate the planet.

  • She has faced harsh criticism for her translations, and her translations are by no means perfect. Where her critics fail to give her credit, she makes up for in ambition. Her work ethic was tireless. Translating scores of volumes for commercial publication, including all of Dostoyevsky’s novels, hundreds of Chekhov’s stories and two volumes of his plays, all of Turgenev’s works and most of Tolstoy’s, as well as selected texts by Herzen, Goncharov, and Ostrovsky. Without her contribution, the popularity of Russian literature would arguably pale in comparison to what it is today. Her approach to translation was the polar opposite of Ursula K. Le Guin, a novelist who translated out of love for the craft. You can read more about Ursula K. Le Guin in our article A Love for Translation...

  • Garnett was the original translation hustler. It is said that she, “would finish a page, and throw it off in a pile on the floor without looking up, and start a new page. That pile would be almost up to her knees, and all magical.” Her work was not perfect, but it did the job. If she didn’t understand a word or phrase while translating, she would leave it out of the translation. Sounds criminal? Refer to her quote in the opener of this article... like any woman would, she did the work she believed was necessary to get the job done.

  • Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Brodsky were among her biggest critics. Nabokov dismissed her translations as "dry and flat, and always unbearably demure." To be fair to Garnett, Nabokov also publicly stated that his ideal translator be male. Brodsky said of her translations that "the reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky is that they aren't reading the prose of either one. They are reading Constance Garnett."

  • In the early seventies, Meryl Streep, as a drama student at Yale Repertory Theatre, played Constance Garnett in the first production of “The Idiots Karamazov”, adapted by the two young playwrights Christopher Durang and Albert Innaurato.

Regardless of her methods, it is impossible to discuss the rise of Russian literature without mentioning Garnett’s name, and we thank her for broadening the non-Russian speaking world with her translation work.


Constance Garnett in numbers:


Number of volumes of literature she translated before retiring in 1934. Twelve volumes of Dostoevsky, five of Gogol, six of Herzen (his complete My Past and Thoughts), seventeen of Tchehov (her spelling), five of Tolstoy, eleven of Turgenev and the list goes on.



Age when Garnett was plagued by enteritis, sciatica, migraines, and a debilitating bone infection that left her unable to walk on her own until she was seven.



Number of months she left her husband and newborn child to go on her first grand tour of Russia to dine with Tolstoy himself. 


For a complete list of Garnett’s translations, click here.


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About This Article

Famous Translators is a MotaWord segment showcasing notable professional translated works and famous linguists from history to the present. We will be researching, compiling and sharing stories that matter to every translator on our blog.

You, too can be published right here on the MotaWord blog site. To help us make this segment more tailored to our community, contribute any comments, ideas for articles, or share your story please contact kali@motaword.com.

Citations: TheNewYorker, Britannica, Timeline, AsymptoteJournal, LitHub, FinancialTimes, NYTimes