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Dralyuk on translations of Crime and Punishment

October 20, 2015

Via Robert Chandler on SEELANGS, here is a review of Oliver Ready’s new translation of Crime and Punishment by translator Boris Dralyuk, who compares Ready’s work to earlier efforts by Constance Garnett, David McDuff, and Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky:

The challenges that [the] polyphony [of Crime and Punishment] poses to a translator are staggering. The brave soul must shuttle back and forth between the gestalt — the great unwieldy whole — and its parts, sinking into scenes of violence and casual terror, into fever dreams, into the dramas — little and big — of conversations in tenements and police stations. Ready, who has a practiced ear for Russian dialect and a natural grace with English, is exceptionally deft at navigating these challenges. I’ll point to one instance in which a translator must take note of a number of elements (the structure of dream logic, the use of dialect and folkloric reference, and vividness of imagery) and be honest to them all without bursting the reader’s suspension of disbelief — without, as it were, waking the reader up. In Part I, Chapter 5, Raskolnikov dreams of a scene from childhood — a cart-driver has overloaded his cart with passengers and is beating his nag, urging her to move when she clearly can’t manage:

“Daddy! Daddy!” he shouts to his father. “What are they doing, Daddy? Daddy, they’re beating the poor little horse!”

“Come on, boy!” says the father. “Just drunken idiots fooling around: off we go, boy, don’t look!” — and tries to lead him away, but he breaks free of his grasp and, quite beside himself, runs to the horse. But the poor little horse is in a bad way. She’s struggling for breath, stops, gives another tug and almost falls.

“Flog ‘er till she drops!” shouts Mikolka. “She’s asking for it. I’ll flog ‘er dead!”

“Where’s your fear of God, you mad beast?” yells an old man in the crowd.

A great deal goes right in Ready’s treatment of this nightmare, which continues for another two pages. The father’s pained and abashed dismissal, “Just drunken idiots fooling around,” which he delivers in choked-off fragments in Russian (“пьяные, шалят, дураки”), sounds far fresher and produces a far more poignant effect than previous efforts: “They are drunken and foolish, they are in fun” (Constance Garnett, 1914); “They’re drunk, playing mischief, the fools” (David McDuff, 1991); “They’re drunk, they’re playing pranks, the fools” (Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, 1992). “They are in fun,” is, of course hopelessly dated, while “playing mischief” and “pranks,” though close translations of the verb “шалить,” are not really appropriate to the situation or to the father’s register or mental state.

The “mad beast,” too, is an inspired choice. The Russian original has the old man calling Mikolka a “леший (leshii),” that is, a “wood demon” — a creature from the Russian pagan past, which worked its way into the syncretic faith of the village but, by the 19th century, was, for the most part, an element of idiomatic speech. For instance, to send someone to the wood demon is to send them to hell. Under certain circumstances, where the wood demon’s attributes are central to the exposition of a scene, a translator might want to preserve his presence — but here, where he is very much part of an idiom, suggesting wildness and inhumanity, Ready’s rendition works perfectly, allowing us to speed through the passage nervously, just as we ought to.

I love the criteria Dralyuk uses to judge the translations of шалить (cf. Joe Peschio on the broadness of that word’s meaning, and mid-century authors’ disapproval of cruel шалости). Ready’s “mad beast” is not Pevear and Volokhonsky’s “hairy devil” — it’s the other instance of леший in the horse-beating scene — but it’s interesting to compare Richard Lourie reviewing McDuff’s and Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translations in 1992 and Dralyuk reviewing Ready now. Dralyuk makes the new translation sound wonderful. I’m intrigued to read that Ready handles Porfirii Petrovich’s speech especially well. The first Russian novel I read was Crime and Punishment in what must have been Garnett’s translation, and I remember having trouble getting a handle on that character.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. kaggsysbookishramblings permalink
    October 20, 2015 9:33 am

    Thanks for the heads up – I’ve been considering a re-read and wondering which translation to go for!

  2. October 20, 2015 9:59 am

    Good article, wasn’t it? I hope to try Ready’s C&P next year sometime. It’s been 25 years since I last read the novel.

  3. October 21, 2015 8:17 am

    Dralyuk is a national treasure. As for C&P, published in 1866, at my current rate of reading I won’t get around to it for at least a couple of years, but I am about to start Pisemsky’s Тюфяк!

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