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Katz and Pasternak Slater on translating Crime and Punishment

June 15, 2018

A while back the folks at The Bloggers Karamazov ran interviews with two translators of Crime and Punishment, Michael Katz and Nicholas Pasternak Slater. It’s interesting to see where their impressions overlap — both mention Dostoevskii’s humor and pick Svidrigailov as the most misunderstood character — and where they don’t. They also touch on two of the problems I keep coming back to when I think about translation.

First, here’s Pasternak Slater on characters’ voices, especially those with a culture-specific marking for class or social group:

The most difficult part of the novel to translate, but at the same time one of the most rewarding, is the dialogue. Almost all the characters in Crime and Punishment have an individual ‘voice’ which carries over from one episode to the next. I have tried to copy their distinctive voices as faithfully as I could, while making each character’s speech seem natural in English. At the same time, the colloquial speech, while sounding normal to the modern ear, must not be too colloquial – it would never do to have palpably twenty-first-century expressions intruding into this nineteenth-century novel. Yet nor does one want old-fashioned Victorian English. What the translator has to look for is a kind of neutral speech that sounds natural when spoken, without being too specifically redolent of England (or any other English-speaking nation, but I write as a British translator); one has to remember that the story is about Russia. – When Dostoevsky uses outspokenly lower-class or peasant expressions, it becomes even more difficult. Some translators have had recourse to Cockney (London) slang to render demotic Russian, and this sometimes works, though it can be treacherous. Regional provincial English is even more of a minefield, and best avoided I think.

What is to be done? On the one hand, speech should sound neutral and natural and not have specific associations with a time after the nineteenth century or a place other than Russia. On the other hand, it should sound like the speech of an individual person from a particular group, and different from the other characters’ voices that are also rendered in neutral, non-anachronistic, non-place-specific English. Existing varieties of non-standard English are either “best avoided,” or in the best case, ”treacherous.” This sounds like an admission that there’s no good solution, but perhaps when I read his translation I’ll see how he threaded the needle.

On repetition, Katz succinctly says “the Russian ear tolerates repetition – of long names including patronymics and certain words and phrases,” and this for me gets at the heart of the problem. Preserve every repeated word or name or root, and you’re violating the rules of English style more than the Russian ones, which may not feel any pressure to substitute synonyms at all. But if you don’t, you’re erasing connections that existed in the original between the phrases and sentences with repetition.

Here are the first, second, and third parts of the interviews. See if you can guess which scene they choose as their favorite. Or compare the recent translators’ remarks to these comparisons of older translations of Crime and Punishment: Richard Lourie on McDuff, Pevear and Volokhonsky, and Garnett, or Boris Dralyuk on those three translations plus Ready’s.

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 16, 2018 6:30 pm

    Nice to see you posting again! I’m about three-quarters of the way through my reading of C&P, so I’ll wait till I’m done before investigating the links (spoilers!).

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