Thursday, April 1, 2010

The case of the cast-iron tombstone - comparing translations of The Brothers Karamazov

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.


  1. I will be joining in this also-like you many years ago I read pretty much all the Garnett translations and we without Russian are very lucky to have the new translations-I cannot wait for the latest translations of the short novels to come out in paper back-

  2. I'm reading the Pevear/Volokhonsky as well, partly because I was convinced of their competence by the hype around War and Peace, but more because I enjoyed their versions of Dead Souls and all the Gogol stories I have read. The howlers like the one here were the scariest thing about Nabokov's monograph on Gogol, and I feel reasonably—not totally, but reasonably—safe from them with P&V.

    Of course, I haven't actually started The Brothers Karamazov yet, even though I may have helped bully you into reading it.

  3. Oh, I'm happy you're joining in! You have an unlimited storehouse of knowledge (at least to me!) which will be so greatly appreciated. I, for one, was interested in the reasons you resisted joining even if you claim they're not too interesting. But, should you share them or not, it will be wonderful to have you along. I do love Russian literature, being more familiar with Tolstoy than any of the others. I can feel a Russian Literature Challenge coming on... ;)

  4. I too do not trust Garnett. Dostoevsky should be devastating, not "smoothed out"!!

  5. mel - that's very true. I hadn't thought of it that way. In fairness, though, Garnett's readers were lucky to have her - what an improvement over translations from bad French translations, or no translation at all.

    nicole - Get going! What's the hold up!

    Colleen has identified one source of resistance, perhaps - I never find Dostoevsky devastating. I find him ridiculous. A true descendant of Nikolai Gogol. This may be a defense mechanism - I'll save that thought.

    Otherwise, Dolce Bellezza, there were just the ordinary concerns about taking on too many big books at once, especially ones which are not on my current reading paths. Plus, something I just wrote a bit about.

    A new Russian Reading Challenge is a fine idea. Are you going to adopt my Scottish Challenge rules? For some reason, no one seems to have done that yet.

  6. I think Dostoevsky is most devastating as your commitment to Christianity increases as his work is a reaction to that-I agree he is most admired as a source of wisdom not literary excellence-reading Ford's Parade's End is a pure delight of one wonderfully crafted sentence after the other-I want to join in on the read along but I sort of want to read the P/V translation of Dead Souls first-

  7. The Dost. readers are have in mind are not Christians so much as existentialists, who seemed to find Dostoevsky plenty important. They're the ones I'm always looking at askance.

    Dostoevsky's Christianity seems so - well, I should keep my mouth shut until I get to the relevant parts of the book. I'll bet I never understood them.

  8. good point-I see existentialists as a fill in a void type over view of life -for sure that is what it seems in the case of Japanese existentialists who (of course) were not christians-they needed the void of the fall of Japan filled in just like Sarte etc needed a void filled-just my thoughts from long ago philosophy classes!

  9. Now that I've got started on this myself, I've realized what a "shrieker" is and in turn how sadly inadequate "crazy woman" is. Dostoevsky's narrator mentions it is a "feminine nervous disorder." The "shrieker" is, more specifically, the "klikushi" I encountered the other week in The Kreutzer Sonata. According to Pozdnyshev, a woman can become a shrieker from acting as "expectant mother, wet-nurse and mistress all at the same time," which "she doesn't have the strength for": "You don't need great powers of observation to see that these klikushi are never pure young girls, abut always grown women, women who have husbands."

    Note that in Tolstoy on peasant women are actually called "klikushi," but women of his class can have the same nervous disease.

  10. Thanks for the research - the shrieker is more interesting than I had guessed.

  11. Good to know that Garnett is under suspicion....I'm reading the P&V of Crime and Punishment right now.