Posts Tagged ‘Dostoyevsky’

You Can’t Judge a Translation by Its First Sentence, Can You?

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2016

A few weeks ago I finished reading Brothers Karamazov in Russian. Only took me a year. But I’m a patient man, never lost the thread, and I was reading a lot faster toward the end. Naturally, I consulted my Russian-English dictionaries constantly. Yesterday, I thought I’d take a look at what kind of selection I’d have had in translation. Below you will see the original Russian, my translation, and five translations in books currently available. I was surprised at what I found just in this first sentence.

My comments follow the selections. [AK] and {FK] stand for the names Alexei Karamazov and Fyodor Karamazov. Initials of translators are used to identify them in the discussion. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that all of these translators know Russian better than I, but I only had one sentence to work on (with their renderings before me), while they had to deal with something over 800 pages. I was able to access some of these translations using the “Look Inside” feature for books on

Dostoyevsky, Russian original
[AK] был третьим сыном помещика нашего уезда [FK], столь известного в свое время (да и теперь еще у нас припоминаемого) по трагической и темной кончине своей, приключившейся ровно тринадцать лет назад

I. Andrew MacAndrew (AM), Bantam
[AK] was the third son of [FK], 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

II. Constance Garnett (CG), various editions (public domain)
[AK] was the third son of [FK], a land owner 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

III. David McDuff (DM), Penguin
[AK] was the third son of a landowner in our district, [FK], so noted in his time (and even now still recollected among us) for his tragic and fishy death, which occurred just thirteen years ago

IV.  Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky (PV), Farrar, Straus and Giroux
[AK] was the third son of a landowner from our district, [FK], well known in his own day (and still remembered among us) because of his dark and tragic death, which happened exactly thirteen years ago

V. Ignat Avsey (IA), Oxford World Classics
[AK] was the third son of [FK], a landowner of our district, extremely well known in his time (and to this day still remembered in these parts) on account of his violent and mysterious death exactly thirteen years ago

VI. Me (BE)
[AK] was the third son of [FK], a landowner of our district who was notorious in his time (and still remembered here even today) for his tragic and murky demise, which occurred exactly thirteen years ago

The first thing I would like to call attention to is that two of the translators (III-DM and IV-PV) follow the word order in the original Russian in the first part of the sentence:

III-DM says “[AK] was the third son of a landowner in our district, [FK], so noted in his time …”,


IV-PV say “[AK] was the third son of a landowner from our district, [FK], well known in his own day …”

I believe this is a case where something is to be gained by changing word order. In the Russian there is no ambiguity about who was “noted” or “well known,” because of the word endings which distinguish the cases. In English, I think there is a slight ambiguity with this order. Is it [AK] who was well known etc. or [FK]? It was certainly [FK], and the other translators change the word order to eliminate or greatly reduce ambiguity.

Perhaps some slight ambiguity remains n V-IA’s rendering, despite the changed word order.

V-IA says “[AK] was the third son of [FK], a landowner of our district, extremely well known in his time …”

II-CG changes the word order and eliminates the possible ambiguity, but she doesn’t stop there. She alters the sentence further, thereby introducing a problem.

II-CG says “[AK] was the third son of [FK], a land owner well known in our district in his own day,…”

This change by II-CG alters the meaning, restricting the landowner’s notoriety to “our district,” a restriction not found in the Russian, and which, as it turns out in the story, was far from the case. Even without that foreknowledge, the parenthetical mention of [FK]’s memory being alive among the locals, even thirteen years after his death, would seem to imply that his fame has not lasted elsewhere, but had spread beyond his district “in his time.” But this contrast is not present in II-CG’s rendering, which presents [FK]’s fame as a local phenomenon in the first place.

I think the versions of I-AM and VI-BE eliminate the ambiguity without doing any damage in the process.

I-AM says “[AK] was the third son of [FK], a landowner in our district who became a celebrity…”.

I may be making too much of the possible ambiguity of reference in these translations. How many people would be confused? Even more relevantly, how many readers of this first sentence will not already have some knowledge that the story involves the murder of the father of the brothers Karamazov? Still, the fact remains that in the Russian there is no possibility of getting confused about who died, so I think that total certainty should be maintained in the English version, and it’s easy enough to do.

All of the translators, save II-CG, keep the parenthetical remark in parentheses, which brings up another point. The narrator of the novel claims to be someone who was around for the events he describes. Part of the time he is writing as an actual witness. Part of the time he is passing on what he has been told. Part of the time he has completely evaporated to become an implausible “omniscient observer” without a personality, all depending on Dostoyevsky’s whim. But, at the start of the novel, as in the story of the trial, there is no doubt. This is supposed to be a real person, relating a history of events in his district. In that sense, he is a character himself, and his idiosyncratic writing style is something the translation needs to convey. II-CG rides roughshod over this idea.

OK, let’s pick a couple of nits.

I-AM says “… landowner in our district who became a celebrity…”

There’s nothing in the Russian text about becoming. He just was. Celebrity? Maybe, but that makes me think of someone gaining fame while still alive, which isn’t the case here. It also sounds like something more positive than being murdered, probably by your son.

Worse than that, in my opinion, I-AM makes the opposite mistake from II-CG by not implying the ongoing memory of [FK] is restricted to the narrator’s locale.

I-AM just says “(and is remembered to this day)”

All of the other translators restrict the continued memory in some way.

IV-PV say “(and still remembered among us)”, using the same wording as II-CG, but in a way that I think contrasts the local nature of the ongoing memory to the notoriety in [FK]’s time. III-DM uses “among us” also.

V-IA goes even further in stating the local nature of the memory by saying “(and to this day still remembered in these parts).”

I suppose the Russian “у нас” could mean among us Russians, not just those of us “in these parts,” but I think the fact that the ongoing memory is placed in parentheses argues for the local memory interpretation. I went with “here,” which is similar to “in these parts,” but with room for a bigger “here.”

Now we’ve come to the phrase that every translator rendered differently, describing the reason for [FK]’s notoriety. Here they are:

I-AM “because of the tragic and mysterious end he met”

II-CG “owing to his gloomy and tragic death”

III-DM “for his tragic and fishy death”

IV-PV “because of his dark and tragic death”

V-IA “on account of his violent and mysterious death”

Vi-BE “for his tragic and murky demise”

First let me note that all of the translators save one include “tragic” as one of the adjectives. V-IA chose “violent” to render that word. I’m sure he would make a case for for it, but based on the narrator’s choice of a word (трагической) that cries out to be translated “tragic,” instead of other available words he could have chosen to say violent, I can’t accept it. I think “tragic” conveys the idea of suddenness, and the notoriety already mentioned would lead a reader to guess it was not an ordinary accidental death. There is also the factor of maintaining the narrator’s voice to be considered. He said tragic. Beyond that, the story of Dmitri Karamazov can only be seen as a tragedy, notwithstanding the attempt to mitigate it in the epilogue, so [FK]’s death was especially tragic for Dmitri.

The other adjective (темной) is subject to interpretation. It indicates a lack of light or clarity, literally or figuratively. Four translators, taking into account the details of the story, chose a word that carries the notion of uncertainty in the circumstances of [FK]’s death, which was indeed what gave it such widespread interest. “Fishy” it was, but somehow that word just doesn’t sound right to me. “Mysterious” to me introduces the notion of there being doubt as to what caused the death, which was not the case, the only thing in question being the identity of the murderer. I submit that “murky” is perfect, given the uncertainty in the details of the murder, and I expect all future translations to use it (no royalties required).

“Gloomy” is terrible in my opinion. What makes a violent death gloomy? “Dark” is not as bad, and it carries with it the idea of an evil deed, but it does miss the notion of uncertainty which all the other translators picked up on. It is perhaps not a coincidence that these two translations felt the need to invert the Russian word order, making “tragic” come last. Maybe “tragic and dark” and “tragic and gloomy” would have left the weakness of dark and gloomy more exposed.

Four translators note that [FK]’s death occurred “exactly thirteen years ago.” III-DM says “just” instead of “exactly.” I assume he meant that to be the equivalent, but “just thirteen years ago” is more likely to be interpreted as “only thirteen years ago,” which wasn’t meant, as far as I can tell. II-CG just ignores the word, thus modifying the narrator’s voice once more.

Finally there is the word most translators rendered as “death.” I-AM chose “end,” and VI-BE chose “demise.” Obviously, they all leave [FK] dead as a doornail, but I would argue that “demise” is best in keeping with the narrator’s voice, just based on the evidence of my Russian dictionaries. The Russian word is translated “demise” in both my dictionaries, not “death.” My English to Russian dictionary maps “demise” back to the Russian word in question, but not to the usual word for death. There are other words the narrator could have chosen, and I think he characteristically chose the one we call demise.

I would not have imagined that translations of a single opening sentence would have so many differences. I also hadn’t thought about all the ways a translation could go wrong, especially in subtle ways. It was fun to compare the translations and try to better them. I have a feeling I may do some more of it.