The energetic Dolce Belleza is hosting a readalong of The Brothers Karamazov (1879). I have resisted joining in, for reasons that are not too interesting, but I started reading the novel and that was that. So I guess I'm reading along.
I read, long ago, Constance Garnett's 1912 version of the novel, when I had no idea who she was. I wanted to try something more up-to-date, so this time it will be Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhnsky's 1990 translation, for no better reason than it was in the library.
The English-speaking world owes a great debt to the indefatigable Garnett, who in some sense introduced it to Russian literature. When I read about her habits, though - her suspect rapidity, or the skipping of difficult bits - I become nervous. Perhaps worse, she makes every Russian writer sound vaguely similar, or so I remember. She makes them all sound like Chekhov. I greatly admire her Chekhov.
I have done some spot-checks of Karamazov, some Garnett vs P&V. It's surprising how often they are nearly word for word identical. But why shouldn't they be? The problems come in the difficult patches, not the easy ones.
A single passage (from I.iv.):
It was Gregory who pointed out the "crazy woman's" grave to Alyosha. He took him to our town cemetery and showed him in a remote corner a cast-iron tombstone, cheap but decently kept, on which were inscribed the name and age of the deceased and the date of her death, and below a four-lined verse, such as are commonly used on old-fashioned middle-class tombs. (Garnett)
The "shrieker's" grave was finally pointed out to Alyosha by the servant Gregory. He took him to our town cemetery, and there, in a remote corner, showed him a cast-iron marker, inexpensive but well tended, on which there was an inscription giving the name, social position, age and date of death of the deceased woman, and below that even some sort of four-line verse chosen from the old cemetery lore commonoly used on middle-class tombs. (Pevear and Volokhonsky)
P&V make this passage much weirder. Or they allow it to be weirder. The "crazy woman" becomes a "shrieker," and "old-fashioned" becomes, sort of, "from the old cemetery lore," whatever that is. That last long phrase looks like one of those rough patches that Garnett would simply smooth out. This is one way the peculiar voice of Dostoevsky becomes ordinary in Garnett.
Worse, perhaps, is Garnett's "cast-iron tombstone." That cannot be correct. It is not English. It is an example of what Vladimir Nabokov called a "howler," presumably because it made him howl with laughter. I presume that the Russian word can be translated as tombstone, but surely not when modified by "cast-iron." It is an offence to the ear.
So I don't trust Constance Garnett. One can do better.
Good luck to all of the Karamazov readers. Back to that passage for just a second, the P&V version - please do me a favor and keep an eye on that "our" (who?) and that "some," not present in Garnett.