The translator’s dilemma, advance copy readers, and General Grant as public writer: newsletter, December 16, 2022

December 16, 2022 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, history, newsletter, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2, 491) on Friday, December 16, 2022.


This month brings to a close my four-and-a-half-year tenure as the writer-in-residence for the Blount County Public Library. This association with what has to be one of the best local libraries in the nation has been one of the highlights of my life.

My love of libraries dates back to my childhood, a common characteristic among those of us who love books, writing, and language. As much as I have been inside libraries during my life and career, I had never been privy to any of the internal operations of a library. Knowledge about that is one of the many things that I have gained in my time as writer-in-residence.

The staff of the BCPL and the members of the Blount County Friends of the Library, which has supported the writer-in-residence program, have been invariably kind, encouraging, and supportive of anything and everything that I have attempted to do.

It is time for me to step aside, however, and to allow someone else to contribute their ideas and skills to advance the library’s mission. I am excited to see who that person is and what he or she may be doing in the near future. Meanwhile, I can simply say to the BCPL thank you for giving me such a great opportunity.

Have a great and literate weekend.


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Constance Garnett and the translator’s dilemma

When we read a book or see a play that has been written in another language and translated into English, what exactly are we reading or hearing? Are they the words of the author or the words of the translator?

This is the eternal dilemma of translation. Each language has its own words, phrases, structure, and expressions—not to mention idioms. Often, there are no exact equivalents for these in another language.

In addition, language inevitably changes over time. The expressions used by Victorian English and Americans are not the expressions that are common in 21st century English. Nor should they be. Language is a dynamic, organic being. It is not something that is “set in stone.”

So what is a translator to do? What obligations must she fulfill?

The life and work of Constance Garnett is a good case in point. Garnett was born Constance Clara Black in 1861 in Brighton, England. She grew up to be an attractive but sickly girl who suffered from health problems throughout her 84 years.

She attended Newnham College in Cambridge, where she read classics and math. Both of these subjects required concentration and precision. Interestingly, she did not take up the Russian language, which was to become her great passion, until she was nearly 30 years old. After graduation, Constance worked for a time as a governess, and then as a librarian at the People’s Palace Library in London. During that time she met Edward Garnett, and they were married in Brighton in 1889.

She and her husband settled in London, and became part of a bohemian culture that included many Russian exiles. It was from these exiles and immigrants that she began learning Russian and understanding the great literature that was being produced by Russian authors. She began working with Sergius Stepniak, a Russian exile, and his wife, Fanny, on translations of Russian stories, one of which was by Leo Tolstoy, into English.

She made her first trip to Russia in 1894, visiting Moscow and St. Petersburg and eventually meeting Tolstoy himself. During all of this time, she developed an interest in Russian language and literature, and began to devote all of her energies to making the works of great Russian writers available to English readers.

During the next four decades, she translated more than 70 volumes of works of Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, and Chekhov, among many others. Her husband, Edward, who had steadily risen to prominence in the publishing world, was instrumental in getting many of these works into print.

When they first appeared, the translations by Garnett were highly praised by readers such as Joseph Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, and Ernest Hemingway. Her use of Victorian English to express the ideas of Russian authors was easily accepted and appreciated by those eager to read the Russians.

In fact, her work was so groundbreaking, popular, and influential that many of her translations are still in print.

But Garnett was also the target of a great deal of criticism, especially by some who knew the Russian language better than she did. Russian authors Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Brodsky were especially tough on her. Nabokov called her translations “dry and flat, and always unbearably demure.” Part of his criticism was due to his bias that translators should be male rather than female.

By the 1930s, Garnett’s ill health had caught up with her, and she retired after the publication of three plays by Turgenev. Her husband died in 1937. Her heart began to fail, and she spent her last years trying to walk with crutches. She died in 1946 at the age of 84.

She was not forgotten, however. Her work continued to draw both praise and criticism. She was accused of numerous translation sins, including not understanding the Russian language and smoothing over difficult passages with Victorian phrasing. 

In the early 1970s, she was the subject of a satirical play, The Idiots Karamazov, that was produced by the Yale Repertory Company. The lead in the play was a young Meryl Streep. She depicts Garnett as a woman who at times is utterly flummoxed by the Russian language, and one memorable line has her translating “hysterical homosexual” as simply “Tchaikovsky.”

Despite these continuing criticisms, Garnett is still recognized today as the woman who introduced Russian literature and many great Russian authors to the English-speaking world. Author Sara Wheeler has recently written the following for

When I read Garnett’s translations I feel I am responding to paragraphs penned by Turgenev and Tolstoy themselves, not to someone else’s version of them. Her work gives the lie to Cervantes’s assertion that reading a translation is like looking at a Flemish tapestry from the wrong side: Although the figures are visible, they are obscured by bits of thread.

Garnett’s monumental efforts continue to astonish those who truly recognize the myriad difficulties of translation.

Volume 2 of Heads and Tales

The second volume of Heads and Tales is nearly complete. (Pictured here is the cover of the first volume.) This second volume features an all-female writer’s cast. There are about 30 entries, all about female writers. Some of them you know, and some have been completely overlooked.

In getting the book ready for publication, I am trying something different. I am using advanced copy readers. These readers have access to a Google document that contains the book, and they will have limited editing access. That is, they can correct technical mistakes (such as spelling errors). They can also note where there are questions about missing words, bad syntax, and the like.

I am now calling for volunteers. If you would like to be an advanced copy reader, you can let me know by replying to this newsletter or by emailing me at I will explain the process more fully. The deadline for finishing will probably be around January 30. The reward will be that you are named in the introduction, and you will get an autographed copy of the book when it is published. I would like to have about five advanced copy readers, so please consider volunteering.

Below are what some of the pages will look like in the new volume:


The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.”


From the archives: Ulysses Grant: writing and dying—in public view

His memoir was eagerly awaited by the public while he was still writing it.

His death, for several months before it occurred, was tracked almost daily by the newspapers of the time.

Both occurred at the same time in the spring and summer of 1885.

 For more than a century after his death, the presidency of Ulysses Grant rated barely one-star with most historians. His generalship had been a major factor in defeating the Confederate forces of the South during the American Civil War and thus preserving the Union. He had been honored as a hero of the Republic and had been swept into the presidency by an adoring public in 1868.

But he was a political neophyte, and some of the men whom he appointed as president betrayed him with their avarice. Grant was an honorable man. No one has ever believed that he personally benefited from the graft that occurred during his administration. But he assumed the honor of his friends, something he should not have done.

In the past few years, historians have reassessed Grant and found him to be more than just an honorable neophyte. His actions in support of voting rights for Blacks and against the actions of the Ku Klux Klan have led current biographers to cast his presidency in a more favorable light. Ron Chernow’s Grant has given the general many benefits of doubt he rarely ever received. (Chernow’s book was reviewed in the New York Times by former president Bill Clinton, which makes the review fascinating in itself.)

Grant’s life had been filled with extraordinary acts and events. During his post-presidency, Grant had tried to do what he had always done—live a quiet life and gain financial security for his family. He had vowed many times that he would never write his memoirs because he believed that no one would be interested in them. Indeed, for a time, he might have been correct in that assumption.

But by the 1880s, situations had changed. There had been a revival of interest in the Civil War, and many of the participants were publishing books or magazine articles about their experiences. In 1885, one of the major surviving participants who had never been heard from was Ulysses Grant. His personal situation had also changed. Grant had been involved in business dealings that had gone sour, and he was in debt. He had to do something to relieve the debt and secure his family’s future.

Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), a friend of Grant, had urged Grant to write his memoirs for some several years, and when the time was ripe for Grant, Clemens offered him a contract that would guarantee his wife’s future security. At around the same time, however, Grant began to feel a scratchiness in his throat. He had rarely been without a cigar for much of his adult life, and the habit was catching up with him. His doctors eventually concluded that what was causing his discomfort was a tumor, that it was malignant, and that it would get worse—much worse.

Grant began working on the memoirs in his Wall Street office in New York City in late 1884 and continued there through the spring of 1885. Word had gotten out that he was writing his autobiography, and newspaper reporters latched onto the story. Grant had become a revered figure in America—even in many parts of the South—and what he had to say about the war stoked speculation and anticipation.

Grant had a couple of research assistants who provided him with the documents he needed. He found the writing somewhat easier than expected, and he was able to make substantial progress. But the pain in his throat grew, and he got weaker, especially within such a busy environment as New York City. Grant moved to his house near Saratoga. He tried various treatments to relieve the pain, none of which were satisfactory. He received visitors and visited with family. 

Through it all, he continued to write.

It was as if he willed himself to live until he could satisfy himself that he had finished the memoirs. When that finally happened, he took his leave from his family and died on July 23.

The memoirs were hugely successful both with critics and with the public. Historians have praised them for their simplicity and straight-forwardness. Grant’s unadorned and unassuming writing style mirrored the way in which he presented himself throughout his life. Here is the section where he describes Robert E. Lee in his meeting at Appomattox Courthouse to accept the surrender of the Confederate Army in April 1865.

What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassable face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us…

Great dignity and power exist in such writing. In that, Grant won a final victory.

His memoirs, published in two volumes, became an immediate best-seller and ultimately netted the Grant family $450,000 (about $12 million in today’s dollars). They are highly valued by historians and have been in print since they were first published, more than 130 years ago. Grant did all of this, as he had done much of his adult life, in public view.

Illustration: The New York Times story about Grant’s illness on March 1, 1885, four months before he died. The story is a highly-detailed—and not always accurate—account of the president’s condition and activities.


Group giveaways for December

Kill the Quarterback is part of five group giveaways during the month of December:

December Crime, Thriller, Suspense Giveaway

December Crime Newsletter Promo

December’s Free Mysteries

Free Thrilling Mysteries

Mystery Giveaway

Each of these giveaways includes more than 20 books of various sub-genres. You can download any or all of them in exchange for your email address. The email address will be shared among all authors participating in the giveaway. The purpose of these giveaways is to get books into the hands of readers and to increase email lists for the authors.


Check out last week’s newsletter

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: Two sisters

Best quote of the week:

If I can do no more, let my name stand among those who are willing to bear ridicule and reproach for the truth’s sake, and so earn some right to rejoice when the victory is won. Louisa May Alcott, writer and reformist (1832-1888)

Pray-as-you-go podcast

If you are looking for a quiet, meditative, non-theological but scriptural podcast to start or close your day, try The podcasts are 10-12 minutes long, and they feature beautiful music, a scripture reading, and a very short devotional. It’s a great respite from an otherwise all-too-noisy world.

If you are interested in reading scripture, either the Old Testament, the New Testament, or both, you might be interested in the videos, commentary, and podcast of the The people who work on this site have done some deep and thoughtful reading of the Bible, and the videos they have produced (generally shorter than 10 minutes) are both entertaining and enlightening. They view the Bible as a single entity with a single purpose, and their approach is both delightful and refreshing.

Helping those in need

Fires in California, freezing weather in Texas, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief ( is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: Dominick Dunne, holiday traditions, advance copy readers, and the woman who was too small to be a spy: newsletter, December 9, 2022



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