Sunday 15 December 2013

Lost in Translations

My Classics Club spin #4 is The Brothers Karamazov.

I have the Constance Garnett translation on my epad and a Penguin Classic book with David McDuff's translation.

The matter of translation seems to have stalled my start.

The Brothers K is such a chunkster, I don't want to read the 'wrong' translation after all!

When one starts to research the matter of translations, it is easy to get caught up in "original materials restored", "the rhythms, tone, precision, and poetry of the original", "cross-checked references" and "Russified English".

But, of course, the whole thing is really quite simple in the end.

You read the version - the translation - that works for you.

So to help me work out which translation will work best for me - I give you Constance & David below with the first paragraph of chapter one.

Constance Garnett's translation:

ALEXEY Fyodorovitch Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov, a landowner well known in our district in his own day, and still remembered among us owing to his gloomy and tragic death, which happened thirteen years ago, and which I shall describe in its proper place. For the present I will only say that this “landowner” — for so we used to call him, although he hardly spent a day of his life on his own estate — was a strange type, yet one pretty frequently to be met with, a type abject and vicious and at the same time senseless. But he was one of those senseless persons who are very well capable of looking after their worldly affairs, and, apparently, after nothing else. Fyodor Pavlovitch, for instance, began with next to nothing; his estate was of the smallest; he ran to dine at other men’s tables, and fastened on them as a toady, yet at his death it appeared that he had a hundred thousand roubles in hard cash. At the same time, he was all his life one of the most senseless, fantastical fellows in the whole district. I repeat, it was not stupidity — the majority of these fantastical fellows are shrewd and intelligent enough — but just senselessness, and a peculiar national form of it.

David McDuff's Translation:

ALEXEY Fyodorovitch Karamazov was the third son of a landowner in our district, Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov, so noted in his time (and even now still recollected among us) for his tragic and fishy death, which occurred just thirteen years ago and which I shall report in its proper context. All I shall say now about this 'land-owner' (as he was called among us, though for most of his life he hardly ever lived on his estate at all) is that he was a strange type, one that is, however, rather often encountered, namely the type of man who is not only empty and depraved but also muddle-headed - belonging, though to the class of muddle-headed men who are perfectly well able to handle their little affairs, and, it would seem, these alone. Fyodor Pavlovitch, for instance, began with practically nothing, was a landowner of the very least important category, went trotting around other people's dinner tables, aspired to the rank of sponge, but at the moment of his decease turned out to possess something to the tune of one hundred thousand roubles in ready money. And yet at the same time he had persisted all his life in being one of the most muddle-headed madcaps in the whole district. I repeat: here there was no question of stupidity; the bulk of these madcaps are really quite sharp and clever - but plain muddle-headedness, and, moreover, of a peculiar, national variety.

Muddle-headed madcap or abject, vicious & senseless?

Gloomy & tragic or tragic & fishy?

Toady or sponge?

Certainly with the McDuff translation I'm more likely to view Alexey in a sympathetic light. While Garnett is clearly telling me I shouldn't like him at all, no way, not now, not ever!

At this point I'm leaning towards McDuff.

If any of you out there in blogger land have another translation of The Brothers K to hand and you'd like to share the first paragraph of chapter one with us, then please do, in the comments below, and, let us know what is your preferred translation (I'm already writing like Dostoyevsky after only one chapter. Poor Mr Books could be in for a very tiresome and madcap Christmas!)


  1. Anonymous15/12/13

    Your post got me thinking on translations, so I Googled around, and I found several discussions wherein various posters say that the Garnett translation is "outdated," as the language is quite Victorian. This is fine, I think, if the reader is comfortable with that. But they go on to say that the Garnett translation was translated in such a way as to not offend the Victorian reader, changing or removing bits as deemed prudent. I can not attest to the accuracy of these statements, as I haven't read the Garnett (or any other) translation.

    Many people also refer to the Pevear & Volokhonsky translation as being good. (Two translators worked on one edition.) I don't know if you can view (US) where you are, but the edition here - - is the Pevear/Volokhonsky, and there is a "look inside" option for the book. Reading the first paragraph, the translation does seem pretty smooth, and yet again the word choice is a bit different from either you quote above, although it is more like the McDuff than the Garnett. ("dark and tragic death", "worthless and depraved" instead of "empty and depraved", yet still "muddleheaded", and "tried to foist himself off as a sponger.")

    I think, based on this brief extract, that I like the P/V translation best at this point. I think I'll try for this one when I finally get the gumption to get back to The Brothers K! The ISBN-10 is 0374528373 / ISBN-13 978-0374528379.

    1. Thank you finding the P & V version online.

      Curiously it's the last few words from this paragraph that are swaying me right now.
      "a peculiar national form of it" or "moreover, of a peculiar, national variety" or "even a special, national form of it".

      I like the McDuff phrasing (middle example).

      Other translators I've come across for this book are: Robert Maguire, David Magarshack, Ralph Matlaw, Ignat Avsey & Andrew MacAndrews.

    2. And I've just come across another translating duo - Louis Hechenbleikner and the Princess Alexandra Kropotkin - although their edition is old and out of print.

  2. I agree, that this is a tough one. I really like Garnett's prose; the sentence structure is excellent, the flow is smooth and it is interesting. McDuff's version is certainly more modern but I find it choppier and the structure is not as good. That said, there is also the issue of content and how close each is to the original Russian? This is difficult because, I'm told, there are a number of words in Russian that are really untranslatable, so the translator is just going to have to rely on instinct. I read the Pevear-Volhonsky translation for Anna Karenina but found the sentences short, the style simplistic and ….. well, I didn't really like it. They are supposed to be the "go-to" Russian translators of the moment but I've read from some academics that they are good marketers of themselves and not necessarily the best translators.

    Really, I would google the translations to get opinions, try to narrow it down to the top three recommended and then read a little of each yourself to see what you like best. And you don't always have to choose the one who sticks strictly to the original. For example, when I read The Divine Comedy, I had the luck of having opinions from an Italian professor on translations. While she thought Mandelbaum was the closest to the original, she really loved Ciardi because, even though he took liberties with the translation, she said he was the one who captured the "flavour" of Dante above all others. So I went with Ciardi.

    It's really making the best of an imperfect situation. And if you choose one and later on down the road, find another translation that you think is better, you can always read it again! **** ducking, in case you are throwing things at me **** ;-)

    1. Ha ha ********************<##@O!!
      Imperfect situation is correct! I thought it would be a simple matter of finding the translation that read the best for me, right here and right now. Trouble is, as I read more translations, I can see the benefits and flaws in all!

      Eventually I will just have to get started and make the best of it :-)

    2. Hee hee! You have nailed it, Brona! There are benefits and flaws to all of them.

      I like the MacAndrews version you posted.

      As another alternative, if you have a university in your area, you could find the prof who teaches Russian Lit and ask him/her. Although you may get more information than you bargained for and be really confused. ;-)

  3. I've found a copy of the Andrew MacAndrews translation. It goes like this...
    "Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov, a landowner in our district who became a celebrity (and is remembered to this day) because of the tragic and mysterious end he met exactly thirteen years ago, which will be described in its proper place. For the moment, I will only say of this "landowner" (as they referred to him here, although he spent hardly any time on his land) that he belonged to a peculair though widespread human type, the sort of man who is not only wretched and depraved but also muddle-headed in a way that allows him to pull off all sorts of shady little financial deals and not much else.

    Fyodor Karamazov, for instance, started with next to nothing; he was just about the lowliest landowner among us, a man who would dash off to dine at other people's tables whenever he was given a chance and who sponged off people as much as he could. Yet, at his death, they found that he had a hundred thousand rubles in hard cash. And with all that, throughout his life he remained one of the most muddle-headed eccentrics in our entire district. Let me repeat; it was not stupidity, for most such eccentrics are really quite intelligent and cunning, and their lack of common sense is of a special kind, a national variety."

    I must confess to liking the use of brackets and the choice of words "eccentric" and "common sense" in this translation. I can see the benefits of making it into 2 paragraphs too.

    Curiouser and curiouser!

  4. Anonymous17/12/13

    Translations are tricky things - I read many Russian and French novels twenty odd years ago - and to be honest never considered the translation (oh how naive I was) . Now however it is something that would concern me I particularly like the first paragraph you quote - the language and sentence structure appeals for some reason. Happy reading which ever you choose.

  5. I probably should have put more thought into the translation. I ended up living it regardless! It is a beast though.


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