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Best Dostoevsky translations?
January 7, 2012 7:05 AM   Subscribe

What are the best translations into English of Dostoevsky's: 1. Brothers Karamazov, 2. Crime and Punishment, 3. Devils (or is it Demons or is it Possessed?), and 4. Idiot? I am going to have another go at these and am really confused by all the different English versions. Thank you!
posted by bukvich to Media & Arts (29 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
Pevear and Volokhonsky's translation of The Idiot is the way to go, from my limited sampling.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:07 AM on January 7, 2012


I love P&V's translation of the Brothers K.
posted by philosophygeek at 7:33 AM on January 7, 2012


P&V's translations are what pretty much everybody is going to say, I would guess. They're the only reason I made it through the Idiot, and the fourth time I read through the Brothers K I read the P&V version and it was so much better.
posted by kingfishers catch fire at 7:59 AM on January 7, 2012


> P&V's translations are what pretty much everybody is going to say, I would guess.

This attitude really irritates me. Yes, that's what pretty much everybody is going to say, and that's primarily because they've had a huge and continuing blast of publicity thanks to the clout of their publisher (and presumably agent). They are not especially good translators (see this LH post, with comments, and this Commentary article). Obviously there are people who really like their translations, and that's fine, but the idea that they are better than others on any objective grounds (other than personal preference) is hogwash.

My advice is the same I always give for questions like this: sample as many translations as you can (easy in these days of "Look inside the book") and get the one you find most pleasurable to read. If that turns out to be Constance Garnett, go for it; she gets a lot of crap because subsequent translators always feel obliged to crap on earlier ones to establish the need for their own version, but she's a perfectly good translator. At any rate, you can assume that all translations are going to make their share of blunders, so there is no "best" translation in terms of accuracy, and for your purposes the best is the one that will give you the best reading experience.

(One reason I dislike P&V, aside from their obnoxious attitude and undeserved fame, is that they insist on retranslating books that already have a zillion translations and don't need another. Compare the superb translator Marian Schwartz, who generally works on modern texts that wouldn't exist in English without her efforts. This also means she can't cheat by swiping words and phrases from earlier translations she will then mock in interviews.)
posted by languagehat at 8:30 AM on January 7, 2012 [11 favorites]


So languagehat could you please volunteer which of the translations of those four novels you most enjoy reading?

(It's OK if one of 'em was done by one of your buddies.)
posted by bukvich at 8:38 AM on January 7, 2012


+1 for Pevear and Volokhonsky. My recognition is based on hunting through different translations of Bulgakov's Master and Margerita. P&V seem to preserve the quirks of the Russian mind. Subsequent readings of other translations have born this out.

It'd be interesting to hear what a bi-lingual Russian speaker would say.
posted by halatukit at 8:47 AM on January 7, 2012


I haven't read any other translations but my bilingual Russian boyfriend got me this edition of Crime and Punishment (translated by Jessie Coulson, with George Gibian for notes and annotations) and I found it very well-written from my point of view and he enjoyed it as well. It's comprehensively annotated with lots of footnotes to clarify subtle shades of meaning and essays at the end as well, maps to make the layout of St. Petersburg clear etc. So I would highly recommend, FWIW.
posted by peacheater at 8:57 AM on January 7, 2012


I'm currently reading the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of the Brothers Karamazov, and I'm loving it. When reading Russian lit I usually gravitate towards their translations if applicable--I found their translation of Anna Karenina to be so much more readable and enjoyable than the Garnett, but YMMV.
posted by bookwibble at 9:00 AM on January 7, 2012


I haven't read P&V (or any other translations), but I've read some of criticism of their work and their responses. I've also read the above Dostoevsky novels and War&Peace in Russian.

Here's a quote from P&V's response in NY Times comments:

Bill Keller finds that the expressions “Why so?” and “What’s with you?” are not colloquial English (they “feel like Russian” to him). That surprises me. I’m a tenth generation Yankee and have been using them all my life.

To me, that's incredible. The two russian phrases are perfectly normal, common language. They are as common as saying "Why?" and "How are you?" or "What happened to you?" in english. P&V translations sounds much less like normal spoken language to me, especially the second one.

Another criticism I've seen is that P&V translated "golubushka" as "my little dove". Again, in russian it's as common as using "sweetie" or "honey" in english. Can you imagine literally translating english "honey" into a language where it's never used in this manner? Hi Maple Syrup, happy to see ya!

I hope you can see the pattern here.. It seems like an easy trick for a translator to make their work appear more flashy and more "local-flavory" and thereby make it more entertaining to read. I imagine it's also easier for the translator since he's going word-by-word rather than by sentence or paragraph. It's closer to google translate than what translators have to do.

The only problem is.. when Dostoevsky or Tolstoy do use unusual or quirky or incorrect language, it's used for a reason. In P&V, such instances will drown in the sea of made-up quirkiness.

To be fair, since I haven't read a full translation, it may be that most of them aren't as bad. But these examples appear to be cases of sloppy, rushed translations, and when I see how many complex books they've done in relatively short time, it kind of makes sense.
posted by rainy at 9:55 AM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


I greatly enjoyed David McDuff's translation of Crime and Punishment.

I tried to read P&V's translation of The Brothers Karamazov and found it vaguely difficult to get into. And when I later compared the first few pages of Crime and Punishment between the McDuff and P&V versions, I much preferred McDuff's version. I just found the style and word selections a lot smoother and more enjoyable to read. For that reason, I plan to get McDuff's translation of The Brothers Karamazov. I suspect I will enjoy it more this time.

So, like languagehat says, definitely sample different translations (before assuming that P&V is the best choice).
posted by Bokmakierie at 10:03 AM on January 7, 2012


This should be understood by anyone who reads P&V translations, from comments of Timothy D. Sergay on the same NY times blog:

As I see it, the main problem with the “literalism” or perhaps better, the “glossism” practiced by the Pevear/Volokhonsky team is that it fails to distinguish effectively between how Russian says things and how the individual author says things: it does not distinguish “marked,” original, distinctive authorial usage and tropes from the “unmarked” background fund of general usages, the common coin of phraseology and “worn metaphors” characteristic of the source language as a whole. Mr. Pevear tends to treat everything as marked, and thus he produces translations that suggest misleadingly that the original author wrote in a surprisingly overexcited, semantically overloaded, “rough,” “bumpy,” curious idiom, an idiom that somehow went unnoticed or was concealed, smoothed into blandness, “domesticated” by all preceding translators.
posted by rainy at 10:44 AM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Commentary link languagehat posted is paywalled to me. Here is a free version.

Yikes!
posted by bukvich at 10:51 AM on January 7, 2012


Actually, I was wrong in regard to "So what's with you?". One commenter assumed it's translated from "Chto s vami?", but in fact it was translated from "Tak ti chto zhe?", meaning that translation is not that far off.

Generally, the issue is that whenever there's no "perfect" translation, P&V tend go for overstated, flashy, "rough", "bumpy" (as Timothy Sergay put it), and when questioned, they counter that an alternative would be more polished than the original.

I agree with Pevear that 'melodious', etc is not a good translation for 'prozrachnie', but 'transparent' is not that good, either.

I think a perfect translation would be to have a more polished version in such instances but include notes that also give literal translation and indicate whether usage is more or less unusual in the source language. You need a mini-essay of notes for almost every paragraph of translation!
posted by rainy at 11:14 AM on January 7, 2012


Alan Myers' translation of The Idiot is fantastic.
posted by jeudi at 1:22 PM on January 7, 2012


In high school, I forced myself to simultaneously (chapter by chapter) read the Garnett, P&V, and Ignat Avsey (Oxford Classics) translations of The Brothers Karamazov. It was my favorite book.

Avsey's is the translation I kept when I left home.

I thought that Garnett's translation was too flat - it seemed like she was translating the words as they were meant, but not necessarily as they were felt, or at least like she was translating them in a way that would have resonated more for English speaking readers in 1912 than in 2002. (Then again, maybe I should revisit her translation - it's hardly 30 years removed from when Karamazov was originally published, and still read! Damn. I'd forgotten that).

P&V - I hardly recognized the characters in their translation. I actually appreciated this, to some extent. They bring out a lot of color, even humor that's hard to notice in other translations. But while I was reading it, I sometimes wondered if they weren't putting a satiric wash on things that weren't intended to be read that way (or maybe this was an impression born in my adolescent self-seriousness).

I liked Avsey's simply because it came down in the middle. It didn't feel archaic, but it also seemed like the translator took the text at face value.

But really, languagehat is right - you should go read through the first couple pages of a bunch of different translations on Google Books or Amazon and decide which one you like best based on your own criteria.
posted by bubukaba at 1:30 PM on January 7, 2012


> So languagehat could you please volunteer which of the translations of those four novels you most enjoy reading?

I'm afraid I read 'em in Russian these days. Back when I read them in English, I read whatever was assigned/available: Magarshack's Brothers K, the Carlyles' Idiot, I don't know about the others. As for P&V, rainy has them dead to rights:

> It seems like an easy trick for a translator to make their work appear more flashy and more "local-flavory" and thereby make it more entertaining to read. I imagine it's also easier for the translator since he's going word-by-word rather than by sentence or paragraph. It's closer to google translate than what translators have to do.

Again, if you enjoy their work, great, but please don't assume it's closer to the Russian because it reads oddly. They just like translating oddly.
posted by languagehat at 2:36 PM on January 7, 2012


Oof. This is a hard one... as a bi-lingual reader I don't like ANY of the translations. I would strongly steer you away from Constance Garnett. Her translations are rubbish. They soften the imagery too much.

I have P&V on my shelf at home because they had just come out and were in vogue when I was in college. They are OK.

Here are a couple of samples from the first page of C&P to give you a comparison:

Garnette: He had successfully avoided meeting his landlady on the staircase. [stilted language]

MacDuff: He had succeeded in avoiding an encounter with his landlady on the stairs. [ok, slightly odd phrasing]

P&V: He had safely avoided meeting his landlady on the stairs. [non standard english usage -- "safely avoided" scans oddly to me]

Original: Он благополучно избегнул встречи с своею хозяйкой на лестнице.

Literal translation, contemporary language: He successfully avoided running into his landlady on the stairs.

Another set:
Garnette: This was not because he was cowardly and abject, quite the contrary; but for some time past he had been in an overstrained irritable condition, verging on hypochondria.

MacDuff: Not that he was particularly timid or cowed -- quite the opposite, indeed; but for some time now he had been in a tense, irritable state of mind that verged on hypochondria.

P&V: It was not that he was so cowardly and downtrodden, even quite the contrary; but for some time he had been in an irritable and tense state, resembling hypochondria.

Original: Не то чтоб он был так труслив и забит, совсем даже напротив; но с некоторого времени он был в раздражительном и напряженном состоянии, похожем на ипохондрию.

Literal translation, contemporary language: It's not that he was so cowardly and beaten down, it's actually quite the opposite; but for a while now he had been irritable and tense, like a hypochondriac.

Try looking up the first page off all three translations on Amazon and pick the one that scans most like English to you!
posted by LittleMy at 6:05 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


The pushback against P&V's hype campaign is interesting. The only other translation I'd read of The Idiot was from Eva Martin, and I had handily preferred the P&V to her work.

That said, I don't see what's at all non-standard or even "bumpy" about phrases such as "safely avoided," "why so," "what's with you," and "my little dove." The last one is archaic, but suited to Dostoevsky's era. All the other phrases seem completely normal to me.

It sounds like "just pick the one whose first few pages you like the best" is probably the best advice overall.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:34 AM on January 8, 2012


There's no problem with "my little dove" as long as you're reading in English. But when you look at the text in Russian, it says "golubushka". "My little dove" would be something like "moy malenkiy golub'". In Russian, "golubushka" is a standard, common intimate expression, while "my little dove" sounds like a unique nickname that might be used only in the family circle.

If you are an author, and you've used an expression like "sweetie-pie", and had an editor replace it with "dearest pigeon-bird", would you be happy? If you expressed any reservations, an editor might argue that "dearest pigeon-bird" sounds like fine English and is more interesting, unusual and "lively" (as some P&V readers described their work).

From LittleMy examples, "timid or cowed" is infinitely a better translation than P&V's "cowardly and downtrodden". It's like they can't tell Dostoevsky from Chernishevsky! And these are the two most important adjectives that set up the events of first part of the book.

"Even quite the contrary" is a great example how P&V make language artificially bulkier and bumpier for the sake of literalness, "quite the contrary" of Garnette is the best of three, it's as smooth and compact as the original, although it doesn't capture the argumentative "dazhe".
posted by rainy at 11:46 AM on January 8, 2012


> Garnett: He had successfully avoided meeting his landlady on the staircase. [stilted language]

See, I don't find it "stilted" at all; it reads fine to me (and seems to me the best of the renderings you quote). This is why everybody needs to decide for themselves.

And I agree with rainy that "my little dove" is an awful attempt to translate golubushka, which is a perfectly normal endearment. It's like translating Спокойной ночи as "Peaceful night" rather than "Good night," or Добро пожаловать! as "You have granted your presence well!" (or however you'd render that elliptical expression literally) rather than "Welcome!" It would read all exotic and grab your attention, but would be a completely unacceptable translation.
posted by languagehat at 1:46 PM on January 8, 2012


But "my little dove" is an established term of endearment. It is nothing at all like calling someone "Maple Syrup" or "Pigeon-Bird" or saying "Peaceful Night." A cursory googling reveals thousands of instances of using the phrase as a general term of endearment, in addition to quite an amount of Twilight fanfic. I have no particular affection for "my little dove" over "honey" or "sweetie-pie", but it's neither nonstandard nor idiosyncratic.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:02 PM on January 8, 2012


It's a fairly rare, unique usage. It's a few orders of magnitude removed from how common "golubushka" is.

But the point is that the only reason they translated it as such is because that's the literal meaning of "golubushka", even though in Russian it does not raise associations with "golub'" (dove). It's an expression that is so far removed from the word it originated from that I might have heard it thousands of times before I even realized it had anything to do with pigeons!

It would be perfectly normal to use "my little dove" for a pet pigeon in English, but in Russian it would produce cognitive dissonance and could only be a weird joke.

There is a very wide range of how common or obscure a term may be in any language, and in these books, unusual and incorrect language is deftly used by authors for deliberate effect.

It's not to say that P&V are hacks but there's something gimmicky about their approach and publicity, and I'm afraid most people get the impression they're closer to the original while in fact they're farther away, in some cases disastrously. Read and enjoy them but keep in mind they use an exaggerated and overstated approach to the original works.
posted by rainy at 2:19 PM on January 8, 2012


It would be perfectly normal to use "my little dove" for a pet pigeon in English, but in Russian it would produce cognitive dissonance and could only be a weird joke.

Or for a person. People use "my little dove" as a term of endearment for actual people. Not pigeons. Just like how people use the term "honey" for things other than bee excretions. Do a cursory googling of the phrase - English-speaking people use the phrase. It's neither incorrect nor nonstandard, nor even all all that unusual. Maybe it's a regional thing? As I said before, it sounds a little archaic to me, like 100-150 years ago archaic, but it's still an easily recognizable phrase being used properly.

Getting back to the actual question: if the most heated argument over a translation is whether or not the usage of "my little dove" is insufficiently comparable to a more common term of endearment, then it's mostly coming down to what you subjectively prefer as a clear, enjoyable reading experience, with no seriously objective "best" among the major translations.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:38 PM on January 8, 2012


> But "my little dove" is an established term of endearment. ... it's neither nonstandard nor idiosyncratic.

I don't even know what to say. It boggles my mind that anyone could think this. I just asked my wife if she could imagine a speaker of modern English using "my little dove" as an endearment equivalent to "honey" or "sweetheart" and she answered immediately and firmly "No." I took you up on your offer and googled the phrase; the regular Google hits seem to refer to some song, and the Google Books hits are nineteenth-century except for one that refers to an actual bird and one that is the name of a Cherokee maiden. I have no idea why you are insisting on this implausible idea, but it's just not true.

That said, I certainly agree with your conclusion that it comes down to "what you subjectively prefer as a clear, enjoyable reading experience, with no seriously objective "best" among the major translations."
posted by languagehat at 2:45 PM on January 8, 2012


I disagree that it's not unusual. I've read hundreds of books in English and I don't believe I've seen it used. I don't think I've seen it used in any TV shows or movies. It is nonstandard, perhaps archaic as you say, perhaps regional. Also note that the in Russian it's a single word, while their translation is three - rhythm and flow of a sentence are quite important, too, and P&V don't seem to care about that.

But my point in the sentence you quoted was that in Russian, it's purely an expression of endearment for a person, and a common one, while in English it's far more literal and would be more likely used for an actual pet bird, so they're not equivalent in the least.

Finally, I don't claim that this one example might ruin the book (although 'cowardly and downtrodden' for Raskolnikov, eeek.. wow.. really!?); the bigger point is that it's just an example of the mistake they seem to make very often, and that can change the feeling of a book greatly.
posted by rainy at 2:57 PM on January 8, 2012


I don't even know what to say. It boggles my mind that anyone could think this. I just asked my wife if she could imagine a speaker of modern English using "my little dove" as an endearment equivalent to "honey" or "sweetheart" and she answered immediately and firmly "No." I took you up on your offer and googled the phrase; the regular Google hits seem to refer to some song, and the Google Books hits are nineteenth-century except for one that refers to an actual bird and one that is the name of a Cherokee maiden. I have no idea why you are insisting on this implausible idea, but it's just not true.

It's used in Sweeney Todd, which is modern enough for me ("I think we shall not meet again my little dove, my sweet"). It's used in a common lullaby. I saw at least two Flickr photos where people were using the phrase "my little dove" in a general way. And apparently it's relatively often used in Twilight fanfic, which suggests that it is perhaps a term intended for minds more literary than our own, and that's the last I'll say on the topic, my little dove.

Either way, we all agree on the general points about the translations, so that's that.

For what it's worth, from the C&P excerpt, I do find P&V's phrase "even quite the contrary" to be a bit weird. Why not just quite the contrary?
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:10 PM on January 8, 2012


Sticherbeast, because in Russian, 'zhe' (even) is used, and that's how they like to translate, word by word.
posted by rainy at 3:15 PM on January 8, 2012


Sorry - dazhe, not 'zhe'.
posted by rainy at 3:15 PM on January 8, 2012


I see. That helps show the downside of their method.
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:34 PM on January 8, 2012


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