Translated by David McDuff. New York: Viking. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Alfred A. It strengthened my resolve to be a writer and inspired me to learn Russian so I could read the novel in the original.
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Translated by David McDuff. New York: Viking. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Alfred A.
It strengthened my resolve to be a writer and inspired me to learn Russian so I could read the novel in the original. But I never did. It had all stayed too fresh in memory. Finally, some 30 years later, in order to review these two new translations, I read it in Russian and was back in that world of dark staircases and ax murders.
Of course, the original read at the age of 50 could never shake you like a translation read at Translations are never perfect, but they can be excellent. The work of translation is a series of thousands upon thousands of judgments. The translators of the two new versions of "Crime and Punishment" -- David McDuff, a British poet and translator, and Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, who have previously collaborated on a version of "The Brothers Karamazov" -- differ even on how to spell the author's last name.
If those individual judgments are well made and well integrated, the result is a successful translation. As the number of gaffes and clunkers rises, however, the value of the translation declines, because each minor outrage breaks the spell that is literature. There are all sorts of theories about translation, of course, but any good reader knows there are certain common-sense principles involved.
Thought must resemble thought, speech must sound like speech, and a curse should be as real on the page as it is on your lips when you stub your toe badly. Raskolnikov stands outside the pawnbroker's door, an ax inside his coat. In a moment he will put his theory -- that great men are exempt from morality -- into practice by bringing that ax down on the head of the old woman.
As he is about to ring her doorbell, Raskolnikov thinks, in Mr. Pevear and Ms. Volokhonsky's translation: "Am I not pale. McDuff's version has the ease of the natural: "Don't I look terribly. Later on, Raskolnikov is revolted by his crime, though more by its banality than its criminality. In one of those self-lacerating torrents of consciousness that are a Dostoyevsky specialty, Raskolnikov exclaims: "Oh, the vulgarity of it! Oh, the baseness! McDuff -- or "Oh, triteness! Oh, meanness! I cannot imagine a Russian murderer thinking: "Oh, triteness!
This sort of rendering betrays a lack of skill, ear and editor. The word the translators have rendered as either "vulgarity" or "triteness" is "poshlost" in Russian, a word so rich that Vladimir Nabokov devoted 12 pages to it in his page biography of Nikolai Gogol.
In essence, "poshlost" denotes spiritual tackiness; it pains Raskolnikov more that he has proved to be mediocre, banal, even vulgar, than that he has taken life. McDuff's "Oh, the vulgarity of it! Oddly enough, Garnett, translating in an era when "Ohs," one assumes, seemed less dated, chooses a different syntax entirely, one that is itself exclamation without first signaling that it is such.
She says: "The vulgarity! The abjectness! The other word Dostoyevsky used, engaging in a little alliteration, was "podlost," a more common word than "abjectness" ever was. This is one instance in which the problem has yet to be excellently resolved.
Words not only have meanings, but also histories of their own. Since , when "Crime and Punishment" was published, some words have had fabulous careers and none more so than "glasnost.
Garnett could not know the luster and connotation that the word "glasnost" would attain by now; she simply has Svidrigailov say "a few years ago, in those days of beneficent publicity. Here Mr. Volokhonsky found a reasonable, if syntactically tinny, solution: "a few years ago, still in the days of beneficent freedom of expression.
McDuff's version: "a few years ago, when we were still in the era of beneficent glasnost. Precisely because the word has such a long lineage in Russian, it should not bring the last seven years so vividly to mind -- Mikhail Gorbachev's birthmark, champagne on the Berlin wall.
It would have been better covered in a note at this point, as Mr. Volokhonsky chose to do. However, both of the new translations have too many notes, that is, too many interruptions of the reading by an asterisk or a number, sometimes as many as five on a page.
McDuff thinks it important enough to break the spell of the narrative by flagging "Zimmerman's" in the following line: "This hat had been one of those tall, round affairs from Zimmerman's.
Petersburg hat manufacturer in whose shop Dostoyevsky himself once bought a hat. Though Garnett makes this same mistake, she bests her two future competitors by working nearly all such footnotable information into the text itself or by simply assuming that the reader will understand that Zimmerman's is a store that sells hats.
Nothing, however, is as crucial in translation as the rendering of speech. In novels, as in life, people spend a good deal of time talking, and nowhere more than in Russian novels, or Russian life.
If too much of the dialogue strikes the ear as impossible English, the game is lost. Marmeladov, for example, confesses his depraving passion for alcohol to Raskolnikov in a tavern where they meet by chance.
When Marmeladov relates the depths to which he has fallen in regard to his wife, Mr. Volokhonsky have him say: "I even drank up her stockings. Did he start drinking champagne from her slipper and somehow end up imbibing her stockings? Or is this some perversion that managed to elude both Krafft-Ebing and Oprah Winfrey?
All poor Marmeladov means is that he filched her stockings, sold them and used the money to buy vodka -- a sequence that is quite clear in both the McDuff and Garnett versions.
ALL translations of Dostoyevsky still seem bedeviled by the "devil," a word I myself have never heard a living person use as a curse. Volokhonsky have a peasant exclaim: "Ah, go to the hairy devil! McDuff has one character say, in what could be called classic Russian literature translatese: "The devil, there's nothing to be done! It is not on the presence of such lapses but on their frequency that one assesses the value of a translation.
More than a few, however, is too many. McDuff's Dostoyevsky survives its too frequent lapses and its too frequent notes. The American public will inevitably be baffled by certain British isms "let him winkle them out".
Still, on the whole, Mr. McDuff's language is rich and alive. The version presented by Mr. Volokhonsky does not cover the full distance to English. The way to preserve some of Dostoyevsky's roughness is not by publishing a rough draft.
Books Raskolnikov Says the Darndest Things. View on timesmachine. TimesMachine is an exclusive benefit for home delivery and digital subscribers. To preserve these articles as they originally appeared, The Times does not alter, edit or update them. Occasionally the digitization process introduces transcription errors or other problems; we are continuing to work to improve these archived versions.
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The Translation Wars
You will receive an email from our web orders team confirming that your order has been processed. We thank you for your support and your patience at this challenging time. Raskolnikov, an impoverished student living in the St. Petersburg of the tsars, is determined to overreach his humanity and assert his untrammeled individual will. When he commits an act of murder and theft, he sets into motion a story that, for its excruciating suspense, its atmospheric vividness, and its depth of characterization and vision is almost unequaled in the literatures of the world. Award-winning translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky render this elusive and wildly innovative novel with an energy, suppleness, and range of voice that do full justice to the genius of its creator. The Den is temporarily closed.
Crime and Punishment
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Raskolnikov Says the Darndest Things
Constance Garnett. Poor Mrs. Translators suffer a thankless and uneasy afterlife. Or they never get that far: until the King James commission, English translators of the Bible were sometimes burned at the stake or strangled—or, as in the case of William York Tyndale, both. Translators are, for eternity, sent up, put down, nitpicked, and, finally, overturned. The objects of their attentions dread their ministrations.