found in translation

3 January 2011 § Leave a comment

A friend of mine asked over Christmas whether I was reading all the Dostoevsky novels in Russian or in translation, and she questioned whether it is possible to appreciate or understand a book without reading the original.

In theory, I agree wholeheartedly; I would prefer to be able to read something direct from the author’s pen, without the intermediary of a translator and I do try to do this where I can. I blame my poor knowledge of French literature on the fact that I feel particularly ashamed of reading French books in English so therefore don’t get round to reading anything at all until I get suitably motivated (usually about once a year). I also feel that Pushkin should only be read in the original because his Russian is so beautiful and elegant, and this is apparent even to a novice student of Russian. Poetry, of course should always be read in the original – I’m only really talking about prose here.

In the case of Dostoevsky, however, I shamelessly admit to reading in translation.  It’s partly a question of practicalities –  it would take me an infinite amount of time to read the big novels in the original, and I don’t think I would actually gain anything from it as I probably wouldn’t pick up on all the subtleties of the Russian text.

In further attempts to justify my laziness, I would argue that I probably get far more out of a translation where I can read fluently, press ahead with the story, and get deeply involved with the characters than when I’m ploughing slowly through, losing the thread because of stopping to look things up in the dictionary. I did read Crime and Punishment in Russian, whilst living in Moscow, but I don’t remember gaining any deeper insights from the Russian text and it was a bit of a cheat because I already knew it so well in English. I don’t particularly think that Dostoevsky’s Russian is what makes him a great writer; it’s his stories, his psychological illuminations and his philosophy that make him great and all this can be rendered perfectly well in translation.

I also imagine that most of the people reading this blog, and anything that may come out of it, will not be Russian experts, and will also be reading Dostoevsky in translation. It’s easy to overlook the translator, but this is a good time to pay tribute to them and the fabulous work they do. I owe an eternal debt of gratitude of course to David Magarshack for bringing Dostoevsky to me, but my life would also be much poorer without, for example, William Weaver (Umberto Eco),  Lucia Graves (Carlos Ruiz Zafon) and the various translators of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A good translation is a precarious balance between the author’s original words and something that works in the final version. I think Magarshack does particularly well because when I read his English texts, they still have a distinctly Russian flavour.

That said, I have just starting reading Poor Folk in Russian using the annotated text at – I will report back on how I get on!


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You are currently reading found in translation at Notes from an Idiot.