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Translation comparison: The Gambler

August 21, 2012

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.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 21, 2012 10:19 am

    Meyer believes in erring on the side of repeating more,

    As do I! If there’s one thing I hate, it’s translators using elegant variation where the original has deliberate repetition (and with any decent author, one has to presume repetition is deliberate). Sure, there are times when it just won’t work, but you do your best (and Garnett was indeed clever there).

    And I will add that these excerpts just provide more fuel for my dislike of P&V. They’re not awful, but they’re not great either, and the constant drumbeat (fueled, of course, by their own self-mythologizing public statements) of how they’re greater than anything that came before and everyone should throw away their bad old translations and only read P&V… well, I don’t like it, no sirree.

    • April 13, 2013 7:54 pm

      I couldn’t agree more about the self-mythologizing of P&V. When it comes to Dostoevsky and especially Chekhov, I’d pick Garnett’s work over theirs, warts and all, for readability. She saw herself as a craftsman rather than an artist, and she never tried to pretend that she — or any translator — could achieve perfection. The one interview she gave about her career, shortly before her death, is refreshingly down-to-earth about how she approached her work. My sense is that she was both clever and thoughtful. The only regret she expressed was wishing that she had not begun her career with Turgenev’s novels, soon after learning Russian; she greatly admired his prose style in Russian and felt she had not done it justice. Of course P&V have chosen not to translate Turgenev at all because (and I’m paraphrasing from one of their interviews): “Not everyone can be Mrs. Garnett.” The snark drips off the page.

  2. August 21, 2012 10:51 am

    If there’s inelegant repetition in the Russian and the translator chooses inelegant repetition, that’s all to the good. But I’m pretty sure the stylistic rule against repetition is stronger in English. When there’s elegant (or neutral) repetition in Russian, which reproduces it better in English, elegant (or neutral) variation or inelegant repetition? I think the answer changes from case to case – as you say, you do your best. You want words that are the same to stay the same, but you also want constructions that are unmarked to stay unmarked.

  3. ryokan1973 permalink
    May 28, 2022 2:05 pm

    I read the translation by Hugh Aplin and I absolutely loved it. In fact, I loved it so much, that I didn’t feel the need to compare other translations. However, I do like the examples of Ron Meyer that have been provided in this post. As a rule of thumb, I avoid P&V translations like the plague. Their translation methodology is utterly hopeless. It’s quite amazing how millions of people have fallen for this marketing hype.


  1. Dostoevsky’s The Gambler Translations Comparison | My Blog

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