Friday, August 12, 2016

Crime and Punishment translations - comparing Ready and Garnett

How different is the new Oliver Ready translation of Crime and Punishment from other translations?  I don’t know!  It felt different.  Zippy.  I read Constance Garnett long ago.  Let’s take a look.

There was a momentary silence.  Pyotr Petrovich slowly took out a cambric handkerchief reeking of perfume and blew his nose with the air of a virtuous man who has suffered a wound to his pride and who, moreover, is determined to receive an explanation.  (IV.2, 277, Ready)

A moment’s silence followed.  Pyotr Petrovitch deliberately drew out a cambric handkerchief reeking of scent and blew his nose with an air of a benevolent man who felt himself slighted, and was firmly resolved to insist on an explanation.  (Garnett)

Both versions are hilarious.  What a nose-blowing.  Both are similar, as is typical with translations of novels.  Most of the different choices by Ready are in the same direction – “slowly” replaces “deliberately,” “perfume” replaces “scent,” “virtuous” replaces “benevolent,” and so on.  Case after case, Ready chooses the word more commonly used today.  It is just an update, the language of my time instead of that of a hundred years ago, and as a result I find, however accustomed I am to reading English from that time, that the book is lighter on its feet.

Whether Ready is correcting or introducing errors, I can’t say.  But I can see the modernizing.  I also find “virtuous” funnier than “benevolent,” but I will bet just because it is closer to my natural English.

A bit of Raskolnikov’s confession to Sonya, a scene of great intensity that would likely stand up to some pretty incompetent translation.  Raskolnikov’s mention of a spider invokes his evil dream double Svidrigailov, who is often linked to spiders:

“Nonsense!  I just killed.  I killed for myself, for myself alone; and whether I’d become anyone’s benefactor or spend my entire life as a spider, catching everyone in my web and sucking out their vital juices, shouldn’t have mattered to me one jot at that moment!...”  (V.4, 393, Ready)

“Nonsense!  I simply did it; I did the murder for myself, for myself alone, and whether I became a benefactor to others, or spent my life like a spider catching men in my web and sucking the life out of men, I couldn’t have cared at that moment…”  (Garnett)

Is “did the murder” a little fussy?  Otherwise, the only issue in Garnett is the odd repetition of “men” when “them” would be unambiguous.  Is Garnett being a literalist here, reproducing a hiccup in the original?  Or is Ready thinking it’s normal Russian and should sound like normal English?

A little more of the spider, from Svidrigailov’s great chapter:

Waking up, flies attached themselves to the untouched portion of veal on the table next to him.  He looked at them for a long time and eventually began trying to catch one with his free right hand.  He tried and tried, but with no success.  Finally, catching himself at this peculiar task, he came to his senses, shuddered, got up and walked straight out of the room.  (VI.6, 479, Ready)

Some flies woke up and settled on the untouched veal, which was still on the table.  He stared at them and at last with his free right hand began trying to catch one.  He tried till he was tired, but could not catch it.  At last, realizing that he was engaged in this interesting pursuit, he started, got up and walked resolutely out of the room.  (Garnett)

The last line, in Garnett, is bizarre.  “Interesting pursuit” sounds like a sarcastic comment from the narrator.  I find Ready’s choices – “tried and tried,” “shuddered” – more frightening, a better fit with the nightmarish tone of the dreams (and reality) of the chapter.

Translation of novels are mostly quite similar.  The differences between Ready and Garnett are numerous but, choice by choice, small.  Taken together the differences somehow lift a bit of the weight off the novel, or add a little more energy.

I sincerely hope that Ready is encouraged by the success of this translation to translate not more Dostoevsky, of which we have plenty, but other old books that have never made it into English.


  1. Thank you for your careful comparison. Decades ago people were warning me away from Garnett with the claims that she had removed some sensual scenes that she disliked and that she had skipped over phrases she did not understand. She churned out her translations with greater celerity than Trollope did his novels.

    But think how much the literary world owes to her and her early translations! I do prefer Ready, but I suspect he spent more time burnishing his words.

  2. It did not occur to me to look at scenes with sexual content. They are fairly veiled, though, in this book.

    The speed with which Garnett translated does give me pause.

    I do love her Chekhov, the sound and feel of her Chekhov.

  3. "Waking up, flies attached themselves to the untouched portion of veal on the table next to him."

    I don't like sentences that open with present progressive participles, although I have lost that battle; even the best writers these days do it. But twice in one paragraph is twice too often. I think he's going to irritate me. But it is "contemporary."

    I bought this new translation because of your blog. I was distressed when it arrived today and the back cover is illustrated with a Mad Magazine-like depiction of the most horrific moment in the book and maybe in all of fiction--the scene involving the horse. Will you be addressing that scene? I think you should...

    I also was surprised to see Raskolnikov looking more like a slightly younger Ebenezer Scrooge than a down-at-heels Russian student type. I need to re-read the book as soon as I can.

  4. I put up the back cover two posts ago, actually, although anyone who was quick enough to read it in the first ten minutes - well, I forgot to include the image. But then I remembered.

    I glanced at the scene more than I addressed it.

    A Harvey Kurtzman-illustrated Crime and Punishment is an opportunity wasted by someone. Raskolnikov commits a murder to see if he is a Nietszchean Superduperman.

  5. My apologies. I believe somehow I overlooked that entire post. And my mind is torn between Cooper and Scott right now as I try to finish up all of the works listed on the Authors card game that I was obsessed with as a child. I was drowning in Loch Katrine with Ellen the last five days and now I'm working on The Talisman. I need to concentrate. But I also want to work my way back through Dostoyevsky in the next few years; at sixty I now think I'm truly old enough to understand him.

  6. All of Scott - that would be pretty interesting.

    My pass through Dostoevsky has gotten me a long ways, but I would not yet use the word "understand."

  7. Otherwise, the only issue in Garnett is the odd repetition of “men” when “them” would be unambiguous. Is Garnett being a literalist here, reproducing a hiccup in the original?

    No, there are no "men" at all in the original, which is literally "or all [my] life, like a spider, would have caught all/everyone in [my] web and from all/everyone sucked out the living juices." I like Garnett in general, but her choice here is bizarre.

    The last line, in Garnett, is bizarre. “Interesting pursuit” sounds like a sarcastic comment from the narrator.

    It's a literal translation; the Russian is "поймав себя на этом интересном занятии" 'having caught himself at this interesting occupation/pursuit/pastime.' (The verb is the same one as for catching flies; kudos to Ready for reproducing that.) Russians use интересно 'interesting' more widely than we do (where we say "I wonder..." Russians are likely to say "Interesting [to know]..."), and often sarcastically; it's an interesting point whether one should reproduce the literal meaning, as Garnett does, leaving it sounding odd in English, or whether one should use a more natural-sounding word (like Ready's "peculiar") and lose the narratorial irony. I agree with Christopher Lord that "Waking up, flies attached themselves..." is awful; "Проснувшиеся мухи" 'having-woken-up flies' is perfectly normal Russian, but you have to translate it as normal English -- Garnett's "Some flies woke up" is fine.

    One of the main reasons I started my mad campaign of reading through all of 19th-century Russian literature is so that I could finally read Dostoevsky in Russian with real understanding; I'm up to the mid-1850s now, and am eagerly awaiting his return from exile!

  8. Yes, in Russian, in order, with Frank's biography on that side. Outstanding! It has been a pleasure to follow your progress.

    Thanks for the notes on the Russian. Without the language - sometimes even with it - a translation comparison is like working out a backwards puzzle, solution-first. What problem was the translator trying to solve here?