In Translation: The Devil, as Always, is in the Details.


Dostoevsky vs. Dostoevsky Photo by Lisa Asanuma, Creative Commons License.

Recently (or not recently at all, really, if we’re being honest, or you look at my Goodreads) I’ve taken it upon myself to read through all of Dostoevsky. All of him. Everything I can find that he wrote. Or, all his fiction, at least, as I don’t really know if he wrote essays or anything like that.

A little background: I took a course in college about Dostoevsky, mainly because I had read Crime and Punishment in high school and loved it. LOVED it. C&P is one of my all-time favorite novels. For so many reasons. None of them being that the main character is sympathetic. Which is another reason I love that book—because he really, really isn’t.

I did not remotely make it through most of his books during my college course, though. In fact, all I can confess to actually finishing is his short stories (I think) and again, Crime and Punishment. Getting through two short-story collections and three whoppers of novels is intimidating at best—much more so for Russian Lit. (Have you SEEN The Brothers Karamazov? My copy is well over 600 pages.) (That said, it reads like a Whodunnit mystery. Still, I didn’t finish due to time-constraints.)

I decided also, to start on what was to me, the least enticing of his novels. The Idiot. Actually, I was very curious about The Idiot because of a little fad I like to follow in my classic reading. I like reading novels about characters that the novelist themself has deemed as remarkably good. For example, Anne Elliot in Persuasion, or Mary Garth in Middlemarch, another monolithic tomb I love.

So I set out on The Idiot. But I did so when I couldn’t get my hands on a physical copy, and at the same time, was experimenting with the Kindle app on my phone. Needless to say, my progress was slow-going. Dostoevsky is hard enough to swallow when it’s on a few hundred pages, not to mention 12,000+ tiny screens pages. Even if the quality of the writing is the same (my example of this is 13 Little Blue Envelopes, also read half on my phone, half in real book form).

In this case, though, the quality of the writing was not the same. Dostoevsky is Dostoevsky, right? Wrong.

This is actually another something I learned in that same college course: the quality of the translator is, while not everything, a lot. In fact, when I took classes where books were read in translation (EG: my Dostoevsky class and another Russians class*… what? I like Russians) I would often purposefully check a copy out of the library rather than buy the one prescribed for class, because then I got to see and hear some of the differences in the text that the translators made (also I was dirt poor, but anon…)
I had come to the conclusion in that class that each translator offered a somewhat different portrayal… but often they were just as rich in different ways. This experience with The Idiot, however, did not match up, and it’s all down to the fact that when I went to Kindle to test the book out, I naturally tried the free edition. Dostoevsky’s not around to collect a royalty check, so I didn’t feel too bad about it.
I picked the book up and put it down a lot, then put it down for a long time when I didn’t really have enough space for the Kindle app on my phone, then checked the book out from the library, and tried to go back to swapping back and forth between the two.
It would not do. And I’ll tell you why.
Here is an exerpt from my library copy of the book translated by Constance Garnett (my own is still tucked away in a box somewhere in Southern California):
Nina Alexandrovna looked about fifty, with a thin and sunken face and dark rings under her eyes. She looked in delicate health and somewhat melancholy, but her face and expression were rather pleasing. At first word one could see that she was of an earnest disposition and had genuine dignity. In spite of her melancholy air one felt that she had a firmness and even determination. She was very modestly dressed in some dark colour in an elderly style, but her manner, her conversation, all her ways betrayed that she was a woman who had seen better days.
Now compare this to the description in the Kindle version, translated as you can see above by Eva Martin (a note on this, my professor knew the translators by name, and could tell us a little of their histories and his preferences, which I still find most impressive. Garnett, now that I see her name, was his favorite, I think):
The lady of the house appeared to be a woman of about fifty years of age, thin-faced, and with black lines under her eyes. She looked ill and rather sad; but her face was a pleasant one for all that; and from the first word that fell from her lips, any stranger would at once conclude that she of a serious and particularly sincere nature. In spite of her sorrowful expression, she gave the idea of possessing considerable firmness and decision
Her dress was modest and simple to a degree, dark and elderly in style; but both her face and appearance gave evidence that she had seen better days.
Not only is the first excerpt more concise, it has a lot more in the way of aesthetics to it. When I went from reading the passage in the Garnett version to reading the Martin translation, and I was surprised by how much the Martin didn’t measure up.
So if you’re reading something in translation, don’t just pick the first copy you find. Sit down for a minute and browse… make sure the translation you get is the one you want. It will make for a nicer experience, and maybe stop you from prematurely thinking that some author who wrote in another language had no idea what they were doing.
*I also took a class on Hungarians, but didn’t check out Hungarian stuff from the library because let’s face it, there wasn’t many options to choose from (Read: that was the only translation there ever had been, or probably would ever be).
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One thought on “In Translation: The Devil, as Always, is in the Details.

  1. Very interesting! Not something I ever gave much thought to, but it makes sense. Translation is an artform. Especially in literature. You have to keep the meaning alive, while not doing a word to word. There is much to be said about rhythm and style that can be lost.

    A good friend of mine took a Russian course in college and did a lot of classic reading. I’m going to ask her if she read any Dostoevsky! And now of course, I have to put Crime and Punishment on my TBR list. :)

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