Translation comparison: The Gambler
I think some literature teachers and readers who had missed Barry Scherr’s comparison of different translations of Oblomov found their way to it here, and I’m going to try to post on such comparisons whenever I find them. Today it’s Boris Dralyuk on Dostoevskii’s The Gambler (Игрок, 1866).
Dralyuk compares translations by Constance Garnett (first published in 1917, I think), Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (2005), and Ronald Meyer (2010). His main purpose is to review Meyer’s translation, which he finds “excellent” and “perfectly suited for classroom use.” The issue he spends the most time on is how they handle cases when Dostoevskii uses the same Russian word (or closely related ones) several times in a short passage.
Sometimes it sounds natural to repeat a word in English, and then there’s no problem. But translators often use synonyms (to avoid stiltedness) or entirely different words (when the Russian word has multiple meanings that no one English word has). Synonyms cause a connection in the text to be lost, as identical words are replaced by non-identical ones; but being very strict about preserving repetitions can make the translation sound odd in a way the original didn’t. There are a lot of judgement calls, tradeoffs, and flawed solutions.
Meyer believes in erring on the side of repeating more, and he respectfully criticizes Garnett for smoothing repetitions over too much. “Criticize” is too strong a word: he notes that the English reader’s expectations have changed from 1917 to 2010, so that he doesn’t need to feel as constrained as Garnett did to use synonyms instead of the same word or to shorten paragraphs. Dralyuk, however, shows that Garnett “seems to have made a concerted effort to reproduce Dostoevsky’s repetitions” in The Gambler, while Meyer is ironically guilty of occasional “infidelity to Dostoevsky’s repetitions.”
In one case Dostoevskii uses the adjective dostoinyi and four forms of the noun dostoinstvo in such a way that it’s very hard to use one root for them all in English:
Вы только предположите, что я, может быть, не умею поставить себя с достоинством. То есть я, пожалуй, и достойный человек, а поставить себя с достоинством не умею. […] Я даже согласен, что я не только формы, но и достоинств никаких не имею. Объявляю вам об этом. Даже не забочусь ни о каких достоинствах. (from chapter 5)
Here’s Garnett, as quoted by Dralyuk:
You simply take for granted that I don’t know how to behave with dignity; that is, that perhaps I am a man of moral dignity, but that I don’t know how to behave with dignity. […] I’ll even admit that I have no manners, no moral qualities either. I tell you that. I don’t even worry my head about moral qualities of any sort.
Dralyuk rightly sees Garnett’s solution as clever: you can’t say “dignities” in the second part of the passage, but by adding an adjective and saying “moral dignity” in the first part she manages to tie “dignity” to “moral qualities” in the second part. Here’s Pevear and Volkhonsky:
Just try to suppose that I may not know how to behave with dignity. That is, perhaps I’m a dignified man, but I don’t know how to behave with dignity. […] I even agree that I have not only no form, but also no merits. I announce that to you. I don’t even care about any merits.
And Meyer, still as quoted by Dralyuk:
You simply assume that I might not know how to behave with dignity. That is, though I may be a dignified person, I don’t know how to behave as if I were. […] I’ll even agree that not only do I not have form, but I do not have any virtues whatsoever. I declare that to you. I won’t even worry about any virtues.
And it wasn’t relevant to Dralyuk’s review, but I’ll throw in the same passage as translated by Frederick Whishaw in 1887:
But supposing that I can’t behave with dignity? That is, I may be a most worthy individual and yet cannot behave with dignity; […] and, to tell you the truth, I don’t believe I have either outer form, or inner worth either; in fact I don’t care a hang whether I am ‘worthy’ or not. (197-98)
Both recent translations sacrifice the link between the dostoin- words in the two halves of the passage, preferring a more precise English usage, while the earlier translators go to some lengths to make the connections transparent. (Dralyuk did highlight this passage because it shows Garnett caring about keeping a repetition, and it may not be typical.)
Overall Dralyuk has some words of praise for Garnett but considers Meyer’s translation an improvement on hers, as it corrects some errors and does in fact reinstate “some of Dostoevsky’s repetitions.” He also gives Pevear and Volokhonsky credit for correcting Garnett’s errors while following her good choices. His brief quotations give me the impression that Pevear and Volokhonsky’s dialogue sounds less like what real people (of our era or Dostoevsky’s) would say aloud than either Garnett’s or Meyer’s:
Вы зарапортовались и потеряли вашу нитку. (from chapter 5)
You have been talking till you don’t know what you are saying. (Garnett)
Your tongue ran away with you and you lost your thread. (Pevear and Volokhonsky)
You’ve been letting your tongue get away from you so that you’ve lost the thread of what you were saying. (Meyer)
Whishaw here has “The fact is, you’ve been talking nonsense and lost the thread of what you were saying.” I quite like Pevear and Volokhonsky’s “Your tongue ran away with you,” but I can’t stand “you lost your thread,” which sounds unnecessarily cryptic. (Word for word, line for line, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth…) “Lost the thread of what you were saying” seems more idiomatic in 1887 and 2010. Nothing else bothers me in these four versions except Whishaw’s “talking nonsense,” which seems excessive; one can get carried away and say too much without it being nonsense.
See Dralyuk’s review of Meyer’s translation in Slavic and East European Journal, 56.1 (2012): 115-17 (no link).