Academic journal article TriQuarterly

Tolstoy's American Translator: Letters to Isabel Hapgood, 1888-1903

Academic journal article TriQuarterly

Tolstoy's American Translator: Letters to Isabel Hapgood, 1888-1903

Article excerpt

Isabel Hapgood (1851-1928) was more than just Tolstoy's translator. First of all, she translated more than just his works, and, second, she did more than just translate for him. None of Tolstoy's other translators had her scope: she translated the full range of Russian literature - Gogol, Leskov, Turgenev, Bunin, Gorky, the poets Tiutchev and Nikitin - as well as from the French (Victor Hugo, Ernest Renan) and Italian (DeAmicis). She translated not only Russian fiction and poetry, but memoirs (Veretschagin, Kovalevskaya), biographies (Sergeyenko), folk epics (byliny), and the Russian Orthodox liturgy. She also wrote literary criticism, travel commentary, and general features on Russia for newspapers and magazines. Of all Tolstoy's American translators, only Hapgood knew him personally. She became close to the Tolstoy family (120 letters were exchanged between the Tolstoys and Hapgood),(1) advised Tolstoy's wife and elder daughters on a variety of literary and general subjects, and served as self-designated guardian of the quality of translations and of Tolstoy's public image. Furthermore, Hapgood assisted Tolstoy in alleviating the suffering of Russian peasants during the famine of 1892 by gathering and sending contributions from America. Of all these activities, the most significant remain her translations of his fiction and her memoirs of meetings with him and his family in Moscow and at the family estate in Yashaya Polyana.

Tolstoy's principal British translators, the husband and wife team of Aylmer and Louise Maude, also enjoyed a personal relationship with the Tolstoys. However, unlike Hapgood, the Maudes shared his philosophical beliefs. They easily accommodated Tolstoy's shift away from prose fiction to philosophy, essays, and didactic, moralistic works after 1878. Not so Isabel Hapgood, who came into sharp conflict with the later Tolstoy and ceased translating his works out of moral and religious scruples. A popularizer and interpreter of Russian culture for Americans, she found herself supporting Tolstoy's wife and the interests of the family but not the philosophical and ethical principles of Tolstoy himself.

Isabel Hapgood first wrote to Tolstoy in 1886 to send him a copy of her translation of his trilogy, Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, together with her collection, The Epic Songs of Russia.(2) In this same year Hapgood also published her translations of Gogol's major novel, Dead Souls, his historical novel of Cossack life, Taras Bulba, and a collection of his best short stories.(3) This output was remarkable, given the difficulty of the originals, the uniqueness of the task (there were only a few translators from Russian), and its sheer size (over fifteen hundred printed pages).

The few known details of Isabel Hapgood's early life help to explain how she achieved such a prodigious and unusual output by the age of thirty-five.(4) Born in Boston in 1851 to Asa Hapgood, an inventor and manufacturer, and his wife Lydia, in 1860 she moved with the family (she had two brothers) to the industrial town of Worcester in western Massachusetts, where she spent the next twenty years. The Oread Collegiate Institute, a private school for young ladies in Worcester which she attended from 1863 to 1865, enjoyed a reputation for excellence in the teaching of language and literature. From 1866 to 1868 she studied at Miss Porter's School in Farmington, Connecticut, where she followed the fashionable curricula of French, Latin, mathematics, and the usual English subjects.(5) Her considerable linguistic talents manifested themselves early: a classmate at Miss Porter's recalled, "Words were to her fairy messengers of thought flying at her bidding, clad in any costume: French, Italian, German, Spanish, or English," and added that "her most brilliant achievements were attained through the Russian tongue."(6)

Hapgood apparently began studying Russian after she returned to Worcester to live with her mother upon her father's death in 1868. …

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