Larissa and Richard Translate a Menu

What happens when two of the greats conspire to translate a dinner menu?

“We discuss endlessly and sometimes it becomes a nuisance because we return to it again and again even after the manuscript goes off. But we really don’t quarrel. It would be much more interesting if we did.”

— Larissa Volokhonsky, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal

Over the last several decades, the married translation team of Richard Pevear (native English speaker) and Larissa Volokhonsky (native Russian speaker) have proceeded through the masterworks of Russian literature from Dostoyevsky to Pasternak with ruthless efficiency, skill, and finesse. But one morning, the couple embarked on an audacious new project that threatened to tear them apart: that of the Sandovar restaurant. (What follows is wholly invented, of course.) 

R: Good morning, darling. How does it feel to be a member of a superstar translation team?

L: As wonderful as a smoothly rendered idiom, Richard, my love.

R: What Chekhovian grace! But enough pleasantries. Today, we begin translating Samovar—the Anna Karenina of restaurant menus.

L: True. And what an undertaking! To quote your introduction: “No menu has described blini with such Tolstoyan breadth.”

R: Indeed. And if you permit me a jocular reference: this menu is certainly unhappy, as it is unlike any other.

L: Shall we begin? You start with appetizers, and I’ll dig into the main courses.

R: An excellent idea, my little golubtsi—or as we would say in English: “cabbage roll.” But perhaps I could “dig into” the main courses as well? I feel my work on Gogol has prepared me for the task.

L: I don’t doubt it, but might I suggest the “Pickled Herring” section for you instead? Surely such a poetically tart dish—though but a starter—would give you ample room to display your considerable linguistic gifts.

R: Don’t pull this shit again, Larissa. I deserve to translate a main course.

L: Eh bien, mon prince

R: I’m serious. This is just like the time you wouldn’t let me work on any of the battle scenes from War and Peace.

L: Ha! You? The retreat from Moscow? You don’t even speak Russian!

R: I might not speak Russian but you translate like a Cossack.

L: Better a Cossack than Constance Garnett.

R: You monster—to utter that name in this house!

L: I spit in your muzhik face! Your sullying of my native tongue has shamed me…

R: Okay, Babushka, let’s cool it. We’re forgetting that we love and respect one another very much.

L: You’re right. I was rash—my fiery randiness is to blame.

R: Oh, I know that passion well… Again, to repeat for didactic—as well as flirtatious—purposes: I know that passion well.

L: Understood. But no sex until we win another translation prize. You know this.

R: Got it.

L: I’ve got an idea. Let’s work on “Beef Stroganoff” together.

R: A fine dish for a fine wife.

L: You’re too kind. How do you like “Delicious, broadly faced pasta asea in glutinous mushroom mush”?

R: Nice start. It’s admirably assonant, but “delicious” is entirely too pedestrian for such a menu; “Rubenesque noodle” has a better ring; and perhaps “bathed in earthy decadence” more appetizingly describes the plate?

L: As you wish. Tsar Richard.

R: Don’t pout, Larissa. You know this is a team effort. Your grammatical and tonal infelicities are nothing to be ashamed of!

L: You dare speak to me of shame? You, who makes mistress of Google Translate?

R: Go find some train tracks, tin-eared crone! Google Translate is a perfectly valid way to make a first pass (and besides: “reliant on” is more colloquial than “makes mistress of”).

L: Mudak! [Translator’s Note: Unprintable, but you get the idea.] The great Richard Pevear, hero to PEN International, nothing but a computer donkey!

R: Say one word to PEN and I show our Knopf editor your first drafts. We’ll never work again. They’re more stilted than Nabokov’s Onegin.

L: American philistines all! Mock on, but know you’d smash something so simple as a delectably chilled “Olivye Salad” without me.

R: Damn it, Larissa, “mangle” works better in this context! Do you even read our final translations?

L: Of course not. Take the “Borscht” section and be gone with you.

R: Fine, but I will have “Chicken Kiev,” the garlicky prince of breaded cutlets. As a man, I can insist on no less. Also, find it in your heart to let me translate the “Zefir” dessert. I beseech you—such sumptuous swirls of marshmallow delight!

L: Ach, you’re impossible, groveling like the underground man. May you choke on your chicken and fluffy treat.

R: Oh that I could! I’m not worthy of you. If to translate is to betray, let me at least be faithful to you. Allow me to sit at your feet while you work on the fanciful “Caviar” descriptions. I’ll dry my tears on your soiled stockings and content myself with the workmanlike prose in the “Pirozhki” section.

L: My darling!

R: My love!

L: Place your lips upon those of my face!

R: Yes! Yes! Though perhaps “Kiss me, you fool” would work better?


Matt Seidel is a writer and freelance editor living in Durham, NC. He received a Ph.D. in English literature from UC Berkeley and wrote his dissertation on comedic coming-of-age novels (Waugh, Beckett, Roth). Before heading to graduate school, he worked as a literary agent at the French Publishers’ Agency in New York, where he was a tireless crusader for translated works and a hopeless negotiator. He is currently a staff writer at The Millions.