Dostoevsky Translations Part I

The issue of Dostoevsky translations arose recently, so here are some comparative samples for anyone interested:

The Possessed or The Devils translated by Constance Garnett. This is available free on the kindle:

 Chapter 1:

In undertaking to describe the recent and strange events in our town, till lately wrapped in uneventful obscurity, I find myself forced in absence of literary skill to begin my story rather far back, that is to say, with certain biographical details concerning the talented and highly-esteemed gentleman, Stepan Trofimovitch Verhovensky. I trust that these details may at least serve as an introduction, while my projected story itself will come later.

I will say at once that Stepan Trofimovich had always filled a particular role among us, that of progressive patriot, so to say, and he was passionately fond of playing the part–so much so that I really believe he could not have existed without it. Not that I would put him on a level with an actor at a theatre, God forbid, for I really have a respect for him. This may all have been the effect of habit, or rather, more exactly of a generous propensity he had from his earliest years for indulging in an agreeable day-dream in which he figured as a picturesque public character. He fondly loved, for instance, his position as a “persecuted” man and, so to speak, an “exile.” There is a sort of traditional glamour about those two little words that fascinated him once for all and, exalting him gradually in his own opinion, raised him in the course of years to a lofty pedestal very gratifying to vanity.

Here’s the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation (which I think is worth the price plus you get a foreword & translator’s notes):

The Demons

Chapter One-Instead of an Introduction:

In setting out to describe the recent and very strange events that took place in our town, hitherto not remarkable for anything, I am forced, for want of skill, to begin somewhat far back–namely, with some biographical details concerning the talented and much esteemed Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky. Let these details serve merely as an introduction to the chronicle presented here, while the story itself, which I am intending to relate, still lies ahead.

I will say straight off Stepan Trofimovich constantly plays a certain special and, so to speak, civic role among us, and loved this role to the point of passion–so much so that it even seems to me he would have been unable to live without it. Not that I equate him with a stage actor: God forbid, particularly as I happen to respect him. It could all have been a matter of habit, or, better, of a ceaseless and noble disposition, from childhood on, towards a pleasant dream of his civic stance. He was, for example, greatly enamoured of his position as a “persecuted” man and, so to speak, an “exile.” There is a sort of classical luster to these two little words that seduced him once and for all, and, later raising him gradually in his own estimation over the course of so many years, brought him finally to some sort of pedestal, rather lofty and gratifying to his vanity.

To be continued….


Filed under Dostoevsky, Fiction

11 responses to “Dostoevsky Translations Part I

  1. You know I’m interested in this and of course, I had to find the French equivalent. The translater isn’t mentioned. It is really similar to the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation.

    So, here it is:
    “Pour raconter les événements si étranges survenus dernièrement dans notre ville, je suis obligé de remonter un peu plus haut et de donner au préalable quelques renseignements biographiques sur une personnalité distinguée : le très-honorable Stépan Trophimovitch Verkhovensky. Ces détails serviront d’introduction à la chronique que je me propose d’écrire.

    Je le dirai franchement : Stépan Trophimovitch a toujours tenu parmi nous, si l’on peut ainsi parler, l’emploi de citoyen ; il aimait ce rôle à la passion, je crois même qu’il serait mort plutôt que d’y renoncer. Ce n’est pas que je l’assimile à un comédien de profession : Dieu m’en préserve, d’autant plus que, personnellement, je l’estime. Tout, dans son cas, pouvait être l’effet de l’habitude, ou mieux, d’une noble tendance qui, dès ses premières années, avait constamment poussé à rêver une belle situation civique. Par exemple, sa position de « persécuté »et d’« exilé »lui plaisait au plus haut point. Le prestige classique de ces deux petits mots l’avait séduit une fois pour toutes ; en se les appliquant, il se grandissait à ses propres yeux, si bien qu’il finit à la longue par se hisser sur une sorte de piédestal fort agréable à la vanité.”

  2. leroyhunter

    After initial skepticism I’m a convert to the P/V translations. “Notes from Underground” did it for me.

    Of the 2 examples, I wouldn’t reject the Garnett, but it does “sound” to me like someone taking a deep breath and intoning the words; whereas the P/V snippet “reads” quite cleanly and efficiently. Quite different qualities. As to which is truer to the original Russian, well now we’re into the intractable mire of translation philosophy and preference.

    • I asked someone who translates Russian to look at two examples of a Dostoevsky and tell me which one was ‘truer.’ The P/V was selected.

      I agree that these two selections don’t seem so wildly different, but there’s more to come, and I think these will nail the decision. Except for the free thing, of course.

  3. I’m not going to read this in English but I have a feeling the recent German translations must be among the best. For older translations I always preferred the French over the German. The German title is “Böse Geister”, meaning “Evil Spirits or Ghosts”.

  4. It’s amazing how much more graceful and readable the second selection is–almost musical in its cadences. Mary

  5. Thanks for that. Given my lack of lingusitic skills and my interest in literatures other than English, I really am very dependent on translators, but it is impossible for me to tell which translations are the good ones, and which aren’t. I suppose no single translation could bring out all aspects of a work, and therefore, if I like a particular work well enough, it’s best to read several different translations. It’s like recordings of classical music: no single performance of a Beethoven sonata, say, is going to capture all aspects of it, but once you get to hear a few different interpretations, you get a better idea of the various different aspects of the work.

    I first read Dostoyevsky in the old Penguin Classics translations by David Magarshack, and have re-read Crime & Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov in the current Penguin Classics editions translated by David McDuff. I can’t really comment n the accuracy. From what I gather, the prose both of Tolstoy and of Dostoyevsky was often deliberately awkward, and a smoothly flowing rendition is not an accurate reflection of the originals. Certainly, both the McDuff translations, and what i have read of the Pevear-Volokonsky versions, convey this sense of awkwardness. However, I do get the impression that Pevear & Volokonsky provide knotty prose even when that is not required: their recent translation of Doctor Zhivago, for instance, was not well received.

    I get a bit worried when I hear the Pevear-Volokonsky translations described as “definitive”. I am sure much of their work is very good indeed (I have read their translations of Gogol’s short stories, and of Anna Karenina), but surely, just as there can be no “definitive” peformance of a Beethoven piano sonata, no translation of a major work of literature can ever be “definitive”!

  6. I used to be all sniffy about new translations. Well I worked in academia and saw enough in the way of opinion de jour to last me a lifetime. P&V sold me and really changed my mind on the issue of the merits of new translations. That’s not to say they are the only game in town. Marian Schwartz is also excellent, excellent, excellent. As is Mc Duff and Hugh Aplin and many other names that don’t immediately pop into my head.

    I agree the word ‘definitive’ leaves a bad taste in my mouth too.

    I’ll be putting up some more comparisons later when I have the time. Cheers!

  7. The P&V is easier to read, for me anyway. Midway through the final para of the Garnett I found myself rather bouncing off it. The P&V had a much more flowing quality.

    Now, on to your follow-up post.

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