Saturday, 26 October 2013

On translating Dostoevsky

I first read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment when I was a student. I just picked up the Penguin Classics edition from a second hand book shop. I didn’t think about the translation at all, partly because I knew just about as much Russian at that time as I did Chinese. A little later I read the Brothers Karamazov in the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation. There was something on the cover about it being a new translation. I read it and, insofar as I thought about the translation, liked it. But how could I judge? Well of course I couldn’t really. I still didn’t know a word of Russian. 

I began learning Russian, more or less by chance some years ago. I found that setting myself goals, short term and long term was an aid to motivation. My long term goal was to read Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin in Russian. It took me five or six years. When I first tried to read Russian literature after a couple of years study, I gave up. I could read adapted texts reasonably well and could speak fairly fluently, but whenever I tried reading one of the 19th century classics, I was faced with a barrier. The first barrier was that I just did not know enough words. I would look up nearly every word on the first page, which meant that I would struggle to read one page in an hour. But even when I had looked up every word I still struggled, because the grammar of literary Russian was almost totally unfamiliar to me. It was full of grammatical constructions that are almost never used now in everyday speech. These constructions had been glossed over by my teachers, who were focussing on getting their students to talk. So after struggling through a couple of pages of a novel, I would give up. Eventually I thought the task was quite impossible. I learned Hebrew instead and found it on the whole easier than Russian.

After a couple of years off I came back to Russian literature with a new found determination. I picked a short Russian novella that I liked “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” and read it in conjunction with an English translation by David McDuff. I think by this time I had read his translation of Dostoevsky’s Idiot which I liked. What struck me about ready Lady Macbeth was how different the Russian text was from the English text. McDuff had produced a readable translation, even a very fine translation. But at times it read like a paraphrase. There were times when in my struggles to understand the Russian text, the translation was not particularly helpful. I could sometimes not find in the translation the sentence I was trying to understand.

But I persevered. I read another short Russian novel; The dawns are quiet here by Boris Vasilyev and then thought I was ready for Pushkin. I picked Nabokov’s translation as my aid. I’d read Onegin in a verse translation by Charles Johnson. But I realised from the beginning that this translation would not help me for despite its merits as poetry it was too distant from Pushkin to be of much help.

The problem of translation struck me then. Pushkin is a truly great writer. But in reading him in English I would not be reading any of Pushkin’s words. Think about translating Shakespeare into Russian. Shakespeare knew no Russian, so not one of Shakespeare’s words would make it through. Some of Shakespeare’s themes and plot would get through, but what of the beauty of Shakespeare’s language? None of that would survive. It could be recreated perhaps, but only if the translator was Shakespeare’s equal. But that hardly seemed likely. Well Shakespeare, at least, in Russian was translated by Boris Pasternak. So at least his translator was a good poet even if he was not a Shakespeare. In finding a translation of Pushkin, I reasoned that I needed someone who fully understood the Russian text, but also was a very good writer of English. But wasn’t Nabokov just that. He had written some fine novels in English. He was one of the few writers who could write novels in a second language. 

His translation of Onegin is a work of genius. It is so close to the Russian text that I was able almost to see a correspondence between every English word and every Russian word. He enabled me to read Pushkin in Russian and his translation acted as my guide. Of course his translation had faults. He sometimes used unreasonably obscure English words as if showing off his erudition and vocabulary. But perhaps the biggest problem for someone who doesn’t know any Russian is that Nabokov’s Onegin does not and really does not attempt to convey much of Pushkin’s poetry. It is written in verse, but Nabokov can hardly be said to write great verse when he translates Pushkin. To paraphrase Robert Frost, the poetry has been lost in his translation. Is there any point in someone reading Nabokov’s Onegin? As an aid to helping someone understand the Russian it is brilliant, but for someone who knows no Russian it doesn’t really come close to Pushkin. It gives a good idea of the plot of Onegin, but the plot really is of small consequence. The only thing that matters about Pushkin is the beauty of the language and Nabokov does not even attempt to reproduce that.

Having finished Onegin, I began to gain some confidence. I had reached my goal. I read slowly, sometimes very slowly, but I could read Russian. I read some stories by Turgenev, some long novellas by Tolstoy, but I began thinking about reading a long Russian novel. My reading speed had increased and I thought of the possibility of reading The Brothers Karamazov. I tried out a page or two and thought the task not impossible. For the translation, that would help me on my way, I chose the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation. I’m very glad that I did. For the most part, this translation follows Dostoevsky’s text very closely. 

My method of reading had developed somewhat since I began seriously reading Russian. To begin with when I read Lady Macbeth, I had read the English sentence first and then translated the Russian with the aid of a dictionary. When my confidence improved I began to read the Russian text first and then checked my understanding with the translation. After I improved still more I only checked the translation when I struggled. So I didn’t read everything that Pevear/Volokhonsky had written in English. But when Dostoevsky’s grammar defeated me, when he used archaic vocabulary or old-fashioned slang or words that simply were not in the dictionary, I turned to their translation. It almost always provided me with help.  I would say that their translation is about as close to Dostoevsky’s text as it is possible to get. No doubt this is partly to do with the combination of a native Russian speaker and a native English speaker combining to produce the translation. Of course the translation is not completely literal. People who know no Russian are perhaps not always aware of quite how far Russian is from English. To try to produce a word for word literal translation would be senseless, leading to sentences like “To me is twenty years” rather than “I am twenty”. Nevertheless Pevear/Volokhonsky seem to strive to produce as literal translation as possible. Moreover they succeed.


The benefits of this sort of translation are obvious to someone like me, who wants to read the Russian text, but who still finds the Russian original at times fairly difficult. But what about someone who knows no Russian? Here it depends on what you are looking for.  The problem remains that Dostoevsky is a great writer, but the translator, unless he is a great writer, can not reproduce this greatness. The plot and the ideas in Dostoevsky can be reproduced, but the greatness of Dostoevsky also consists in the language that he wrote. In reading Dostoevsky a reader wants a faithful translation, but he also wants one that is well written. There is a balance. A very close translation that gives the reader clunky English prose can hardly be said to be faithful to the aspect of the original, which is its literary and linguistic brilliantness.

It’s here that Pevear and Volokhonsky sometimes fail. Because I read Russian slowly, I have sometimes read their translations without checking the Russian original. When I read their translation of Chekhov's stories I found little in the translation which suggested to me that Chekhov was a great writer. Likewise, I’ve found some of their translations of Dostoevsky, which I have not yet read in the original, tough going and rather dull. Whether it's Dostoevsky or Pevear, Demons and Notes from Underground are horribly written.

All translation is more or less paraphrase, especially with Russian. In striving to be as literal as possible, it maybe that Pevear/Volokhonsky sometime sacrifice style for the sake of being literal. This is of great benefit to people like me. I would always choose their translations precisely because I know that they will stick to the text. But just as Nabokov’s translation misses Pushkin’s poetry, so Pevear/Volokhonsky don’t really give me the sense that Dostoevsky produced anything more than brilliant ideas and insights into human nature. They don’t show me a great novelist. Perhaps no translator can do this. But we can not learn every language. So other than giving up in despair we have to find the translator who is the best writer.

Pevear, is not supposed to be a particularly competent Russian speaker and could not translate Dostoevsky on his own. His wife translates literally while Pevear produces a paraphrase. It could be that this method is itself partly the reason for the rather clunky English that sometimes results. A translator really has to be able to understand the text that he is translating, otherwise he is only really seeing as through a glass darkly. The traditional translator, who knows both languages fluently, at least grasps the nuances himself.

I will continue to use Pevear/Volokhonsky as they serve my purpose. But for those who know no Russian it might be worth finding the translator who is the best writer. That way you might at least approach what made the writer a great writer in the original. Translation must be a balance between literalness and style. If I were to read Shakespeare in Russian I would prefer to read someone who in translating produced beautiful Russian, than someone who in seeking to be as literal as possible spelt out every pun and made Shakespeare dull and ugly.

Translations serve different purposes and each has its virtues and its defects. I am grateful to Pevear/Volokhonsky for what they have done. They are brilliant in the way that Nabokov was brilliant, but they are not beyond criticism and there are other translators worthy of being read.