Dostoevsky Translations Part II

Here are two more passages comparing translations of Dostoevsky’s The Demons

The Constance Garnett translation free on the kindle:

Part I, Chapter 5–The Subtle Serpent:

Varvara Petrovna rang the bell and threw herself into an easy chair by the window.

“Sit here, my dear,” She motioned Marya Timofyevna to a set in the middle of the room, by a large round table. “Stepan Trofimovitch, what is the meaning of this? See, see, look at this woman, what is the meaning of it?”

“I …I …” faltered Stepan Trimovitch.

But a footman came in.

“A cup of coffee at once, we must have it as quickly as possible! Keep the horses!”

“Mais, chere et excellente amie, dans quelle inquietude…” Stepan Trofimovitch exclaimed in a dying voice.

 “Ach! French! French! I can see at once that it’s the highest society,” cried Marya Timofyevna, clapping her hands, ecstatically preparing herself to listen to a conversation in French. Varvara Petrovna stared at her almost in dismay.

We all sat in silence, waiting to see how it would end. Shatov did not lift up his head, and Stepan Trofimovitch was overwhelmed with confusion as though it were all his fault; the perspiration stood out on his temples. I glanced at Liza (she was sitting in the corner almost beside Shatov). Her eyes darted keenly from Varvara Petronova to the cripple and back again; her lips were drawn into a smile, but not a pleasant one. Varvara Petronova saw that smile. Meanwhile Marya Timofyevna was absolutely transported. With evident enjoyment and without a trace of embarrassment she stared at Varvara Petronova’s beautiful drawing-room–the furniture, the carpets, the pictures on the walls, the old-fashioned painted ceiling, the great bronze crucifix in the corner, the china lamp, the albums, the objects on the table.


Here’s the Pevear/Volokhonsky version. Part One Chapter 5: The Wise Serpent:

Varvara Petrovna rang the bell and threw herself into an armchair by the window.

“Sit down here, my dear,” she motioned Marya Timofeevna to a seat in the middle of the room, by the big round table. “Stepan Trofimovich, what is this? Here, here look at this woman, what is this?”

“I … I…” Stepan Trofimovich began to stammer …

But the footman came.

“A cup of coffee, now, specially, and as quickly as possible! Don’t unhitch the carriage.”

“Mais, chère et excellente amie, dans quelle inquiétude …” Stepan Trofimovich exclaimed in a sinking voice.

“Ah! French! French! You can see right off it’s high society!” Marya Timofeevna clapped her hands, preparing rapturously to listen to conversation in French. Varvara Petrovna stared at her almost in fright.

We were all silent, awaiting some denouement. Shatov would not raise his head, and Stepan Trofimovich was in disarray, as if it were all his fault; sweat stood out on his temples. I looked at Liza (she was sitting in the corner, almost next to Shatov). Her eyes kept darting keenly from Varvara Petrovna to the lame woman and back; a smile twisted on her lips, but not a nice one. Varvara Petrovna saw this smile. And meanwhile Marya Timofeevna was completely enthralled; with delight and not the least embarrassment she was studying Varvara’s beautiful drawing room–the furniture, the carpets, the paintings on the walls, the old-style decorated ceiling, the big bronze crucifix in the corner, the porcelain lamp, the albums and knickknacks on the table.


Filed under Dostoevsky, Fiction

22 responses to “Dostoevsky Translations Part II

  1. Here is the French :
    “Barbara Pétrovna sonna et se laissa tomber sur un fauteuil près de la fenêtre.
    – Asseyez-vous ici, ma chère, dit-elle à Marie Timoféievna en lui indiquant une place au milieu de la chambre, devant la grande table ronde ; – Stépan Trophimovitch, qu’est-ce que c’est ? Tenez, regardez cette femme, qu’est-ce que c’est ?
    – Je… je… commença péniblement Stépan Trophimovitch.
    Entra un laquais.
    – Une tasse de café, tout de suite, le plus tôt possible. Qu’on ne dételle pas.
    – … gémit d’une voix défaillante Stépan Trophimovitch.
    – Ah ! du français, du français ! On voit tout de suite qu’on est ici dans le grand monde ! s’écria en battant des mains Marie Timoféievna qui, d’avance, se faisait une joie d’assister à une conversation en français. Barbara Pétrovna la regarda presque avec effroi.

    Nous attendions tous en silence le mot de l’énigme. Chatoff ne levait pas la tête, Stépan Trophimovitch était consterné comme s’il eût eu tous les torts ; la sueur ruisselait sur ses tempes. J’observai Lisa (elle était assise dans un coin à très peu de distance de Chatoff). Le regard perçant de la jeune fille allait sans cesse de Barbara Pétrovna à la boiteuse et un mauvais sourire tordait ses lèvres. Barbara Pétrovna le remarqua. Pendant ce temps, Marie Timoféievna s’amusait fort bien. Nullement intimidée, elle prenait un vif plaisir à contempler le beau salon de la générale, – le mobilier, les tapis, les tableaux, les peintures du plafond, le grand crucifix de bronze pendu dans un coin, la lampe de porcelaine, les albums et le bibelot placés sur la table.”

    Still very close to the second English translation. See how the “…” replaced the “Mais, chère et excellente amie, dans quelle inquiétude” showing that the others couldn’t understand French. (Is that right? I haven’t read the book)

    • Whooaa! This is tricky! You are comparing your French translation to these two English translations of a Russian text…and the Russian text, as is usual with novels from then and there, is filled with French! (People make outrageous statements about War and Peace – “Half of it is in French!!” – it’s more like 3 or 4 percent, I think, but it does begin with a French letter!)

      I don’t know if your versions use of the ellipsis signals that the other characters don’t understand French or if they avoid the knotty problem of how to present French, from a Russian text, in a French translation. The point certainly is that the woman understands French, at least a little, and wants to make it clear to everyone that she does. I think that in Russia then, French was what English is to the educated and elite of Russian or India now.


      • I don’t even remember there were so many passages in French in War and Peace. Usually, when there’s French in the original text, the translator puts a * or a (1) at the end of the sentence and says in a foot note “En français dans le texte”.
        So I’m a little surprised to see that the French disappeared here.

        Aren’t these parts in French translated in footnotes in your English versions? I’ve just finished a book with Italian phrases, that’s what the author did.
        I hate when there are sentences in a foreign language in a book without the translation. Like Latin in The Name of the Rose. I take it as an awful way to put aside less educated readers. Very elitist.

        I’ve improved in changing from one language to another by typing quotes in 2 languages in my posts. Finding the exact word in a Balzac quote that I have a good chance to translate in English the same way as the translator and thus be able to find in the novel the translation of the quote I want include in my post has become a real sport.

        • I think perhaps too much can be made of the French passages in War and Peace. In the last edition of th enovel that appeared within tolstoy’s own lifetime, Tolstoy himself translated all the French passages back into Russian. Of the available translations, only Pevear & Volokonsky retain the French, and translate them in footnotes. And the version published recently by Oxford of the Maudes’ translation revised by Amy Mandelkar does the same. All other versions translate everything into English.

          There is a similar issue in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, in which one chapter is virtually entirely in French. the older translation by Helen Lowe-Porter kept it in French without offering a translation in footnotes: I remember that really stretched my knowledge of French ! The more recent translator, John Woods, sensibly offers English translations in footnotes.

    • Stepan Trofimovich (the one speaking French) is a tutor who’s almost like the personal pet of the wealthy widow Varvara. At one point she had plans to found a magazine in St Petersburg with Stepan in tow.

      I think in the passage Stepan is nervous and just showing off (he has pretensions of being a ‘great thinker.’). The other characters should have known some French (emphasis on some). Just guessing that from their social status.

      • Stephan Trofimovich is a pretentious little bugger. I’ve read it in both translations, but preferred the newer one, as even the title is more true to the original Russian.

  2. Came across this thoughtful and balanced appreciation of Garnett’s work:

    As a literary achievement, Garnett’s may have been of the second order, but it was vast… She translated seventy volumes of Russian prose for commercial publication…A friend of Garnett’s, D. H. Lawrence, was in awe of her matter-of-fact endurance, recalling her “sitting out in the garden turning out reams of her marvelous translations from the Russian. She would finish a page, and throw it off on a pile on the floor without looking up, and start a new page. That pile would be this high–really, almost up to her knees, and all magical.”
    Without Garnett, the nineteenth-century “Rooshians,” as Ezra Pound called them, would not have exerted such a rapid influence on the American literature of the early twentieth…

    Among the most astringent and authoritative critics of Garnett were Russian exiles, especially Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Brodsky. Brodsky …once said, “The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either one. They’re reading Constance Garnett.”

    Garnett’s flaws were not the figment of a native speaker’s snobbery. She worked with such speed, with such an eye toward the finish line, that when she came across a word or a phrase that she couldn’t make sense of she would skip it and move on. Life is short, “The Idiot” long. Garnett is often wooden in her renderings, sometimes unequal to certain verbal motifs and particularly long and complicated sentences. The typescripts of Nabokov’s lectures, which he delivered while teaching undergraduates at Wellesley and Cornell, are full of anti-Garnett vitriol…

    • I have heard translator Robert Chandler (translator of Vasily Grossman and Andrey platonov) say in a lecture that while Constance Garnett’s translations were often done in a rush (she worked at quite an extraordinary speed, apparently) and contain some bad mistakes, she often captured the tone of the original better than some more modern versions.

  3. Thanks for this.

    I can understand the Russians being the most critical. I read The Cossacks through a Garnett translation and I thought it was horrible. I contacted a prof of Russian lit in Translation and he’d never read it–which I thought was odd as you’d think someone like that would have read the whole damn lot. He was rather dismissive of it and said that Garnett’s translation was accepted as the best (under the circumstances) and that she stayed with the Tolstoys, blah blah.

    Even I–non Russian speaker that I am, picked up some strange things in The Cossacks. Now I’ve read that she if there were passages or phrases she didn’t understand, she just removed them.

    It’s admirable that she made the effort, really admirable, but on the other hand it’s pathetic that some of the works haven’t been translated because there’s the Garnett translation, so why bother? I see that being a factor with the free kindle versions to be honest, and I wouldn’t blame people at all. Why not get the free version?

  4. It’s admirable that she made the effort, really admirable…

    But there’s something distinctly 19th century about it, don’t you think? Like those ‘comprehensive’ almanacs, world histories, surveys of culture, that rot in library basements now, and are, more often than not, utterly mediocre. The eternal trade-off of quantity and quality…

    I read a little-known Balzac novel that was recently translated (again), The Wrong Side of Paris, I think, and the translator commented on this. He said he was in awe of those people who set themselves the task of doing ALL of Balzac, while he sweated over one slim volume!! Still, I’d rather read his version, and I only read those old, factory versions as a last resort. If cost is an issue, I’d rather just put it off until the newer translation becomes available at a low, used price… Cheap, you know.

    • I’m in awe of Scott Moncrieff who managed to translate ALL the books of In Search of Lost Time and I don’t know how many others books including the Red and the Black. It seems translating Proust could take a lifetime. And the quality is good even if I noticed Proust was sometimes bowdlerized.
      (I’m starting to know by heart names of English translators of French books. Crazy. Blogging in another language can really lead to strange things)

      PS : Lichanos, isn’t your French good enough to read Balzac without a translation?

      • My French is good enough to read the parts of War and Peace pretty well, although it was a sort of French I rarely see, aristocratic chat and epistolary style, but in context not too bad. And yes, the translation certainly had notes with all the text in English (the P&V). I could probably do okay with Balzac, but I’m lazy. I just read a short story and a poem or two now and then. It’s too much work – I do enjoy reading the original French of works that I’ve read so many times I sort of know them by heart. It definitely adds to my love of the text because then I really understand the subtleties of the language.

  5. That’s something to think about when it comes to quality–the sheer volume of these translations. I don’t see P&V cranking them out.

    I’ve read The Wrong Side of Paris. New (er) translation. It’s been a while.

    I read that one of the complaints about Garnett is that she merges voices into 19th C staid.

    Have you seen that Chekhov’s The Duel is out on DVD next month? It had a pitiful showing at the cinema circuit.

  6. I still prefer the P&V. Interesting. Don’t unhitch the carriage is much better than keep the horses (which I barely understood).

    Have you done any comparisons with McDuff? It’s between him and P&V for me. I suspect both are excellent and it may simply be a matter of personal taste.

    • Yes I have some Macduff on the shelf. I’m going to make some more comparisons when I have time, and as you say it may be a matter of taste (preference for style).

  7. Trish

    Your two articles on Dostoevsky translations were good to read and useful for me as a translator. Thanks.

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