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Translation comparison: Crime and Punishment

June 19, 2013

Via Languagehat and Alexander Anichkin, here’s a 1992 review in The New York Times by Richard Lourie of translations of Crime and Punishment. He’s officially reviewing David McDuff’s and Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translations, but brings in Constance Garnett too.

“Thought must resemble thought, speech must sound like speech, and a curse should be as real on the page as it is on your lips when you stub your toe badly.” That rings true to me, although it’s too cute of Lourie to call it a common-sense principle, as opposed to theory — what could be more theoretical? It might explain everyone’s objections to Pevear and Volokhonsky. They make perlocutionary force a lower priority than people like Lourie want, and put more emphasis on word-by-word literalism. Non-specialists have faith in the possibility and virtue of literal translation and are easy to sell on the P&V approach, which infuriates people who’ve considered its costs.

Take curses. Lourie’s right that P&V’s “go to the hairy devil” doesn’t sound like anything an angry native speaker would say. A translator might want to leave the devil out altogether and put in something else.

Let’s defend the hairy devil for a moment. If you’re the kind of reader who wants to look closely at where devils appear in the novel, which characters say the word and which never do, whether there are chapters with both “God” and “devil” in them, and so on, you might be better off with P&V. Except that even with P&V, you can’t count on every English devil being a Russian черт ‘devil.’ Or even a бес ‘other kind of devil.’ Here the original is А чтобы те леший, elliptical fast speech for ‘may a wood goblin take you.’ Unless you want to go all the way and have the man beating the horse say “May a leshy take you” with a footnote on Slavic mythology, you might as well give up the goblin and find a curse an enraged peasant might have used (in that particular scene I can only think of, but couldn’t bring myself to use, “damn your eyes”).

The pendulum can swing too far toward using the curse you’d actually use if you stubbed your toe. I remember a translation seminar when, for “бог с ним” in Tolstoi’s diary, a student proposed “to hell with him,” which in some contexts really might be what an English speaker would say, but since бог с ним word by word is “God with him,” “to hell with him” won’t do.

Here’s Lourie on гласность:

Words not only have meanings, but also histories of their own. Since 1866, when “Crime and Punishment” was published, some words have had fabulous careers and none more so than “glasnost.” Though I knew the word had a long lineage, I was still startled to find it in “Crime and Punishment,” where Dostoyevsky used it to refer to a historical phase already past. Garnett could not know the luster and connotation that the word “glasnost” would attain by now; she simply has Svidrigailov say “a few years ago, in those days of beneficent publicity. . . .” This is a version that has only lost meaning with time, as “publicity” has acquired shades that connect it more closely with “poshlost” than with making things public knowledge.

Here Mr. Pevear and Ms. Volokhonsky found a reasonable, if syntactically tinny, solution: “a few years ago, still in the days of beneficent freedom of expression.” Mr. McDuff’s version: “a few years ago, when we were still in the era of beneficent glasnost.” That was bold on his part, but an error. Precisely because the word has such a long lineage in Russian, it should not bring the last seven years so vividly to mind — Mikhail Gorbachev’s birthmark, champagne on the Berlin wall. It would have been better covered in a note at this point, as Mr. Pevear and Ms. Volokhonsky chose to do.

I agree with Lourie all around, but reading this 1992 review in 2013, I was surprised that no one opted for “transparency.” Is that because “transparency” was so much in vogue in Anglophone political discourse in the aughts?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 19, 2013 9:11 am

    Yes, “to hell with him” is far too aggressive for бог с ним, which is more ironic and dismissive, the verbal equivalent of the gesture described by махнуть рукой; “forget about him” or “who cares about him?” are better.

    • June 19, 2013 10:00 am

      Черт с ним and бог с ним are roughly equivalent, but I agree with Hat, chort is more aggressive. I wouldn’t replace god with devil just out of superstition. ‘Forget about him’ is good.

    • June 19, 2013 11:15 am

      With the right intonation, I can get an ironic, dismissive “(ah,) to hell with him,” but I take your point, Hat. The point I wanted to make is precisely that one might not want to “replace god with devil” in a translation, even if one could find a situation where sociolinguistically analogous Russian and English speakers would use “god” and “hell,” respectively. Even as sound a principle as Lourie’s “a curse should sound like a curse” can’t be made an absolute rule.

  2. June 19, 2013 10:11 am

    The problem with devil, which exists in Russian in at least three overlapping forms, chort (чёрт), bes (бес) and дьявол (devil), is that, when used as a curse, it more corresponds to ‘hell’ (что за черт? – what the hell?) or ‘damn’ (черт с тобой, ладно! – damn you, ok!) in English than to ‘the devil.’ And when used to describe a personality, it has the shades of meaning that can only be understood in context. ‘The Devils,’ ‘ The Demons’ and ‘The Possessed’ all capture part of what Dostoyevsky put in ‘Бесы’ but none is as voluminous.

  3. Steve permalink
    October 29, 2013 10:45 am

    Really like the site. I wish you;d do something on Coulson’s translation of C&P. I’ve always liked it and I believe Norton still used it for their critical edition of the novel..

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