The Karamazov Brothers

3 July 2012 § 7 Comments

In Russian, the title is Братья Карамазовы (Bratya Karamazovy) – that’s the way the word order goes in Russian, simple as that – same as it does in most other European languages, for that matter. Constance Garnett, the first English translator, left the Russian word order, and the novel’s standard English title has been The Brothers Karamazov pretty much ever since.  Newer editions, most notably Ignat Avsey’s excellent translation, are returning to the correct English word order, thus correctly removing any misleading sense of the exotic. We’re supposed to think, at the outset at least, that this is an ordinary tale of simple Russian folk, a straightforward family saga, and we only gradually discover the true scale and ambition of Dostoevsky’s work as we become immersed in the story. For this to work, the title itself needs to be understated, not something that looks deliberately foreign, or like an advert for a circus. Likewise, I prefer The Devils over The Possessed because it’s clean, unfussy, and neutral.

So I’m going to do my bit to encourage use of the re-ordered title, and will go with The Karamazov Brothers, whilst offering up a prayer to the god of search-and-replace.  I’m reading Ignat Avsey’s translation of The Karamazov Brothers at the moment, and enjoying it very much, as well as finding it quite an interesting experience. The effect is rather like that of listening to a piece of music that one knows really well: each performance is undoubtedly of the same work – if that is in doubt then the performance is a failure –  but changes in speeds and different orchestral colourings and phrasing create something subtly new each time. And so, reading a new translation, I’m noticing slight changes of emphasis, and odd details that had escaped me before. It might be because the change of rhythm slows down my reading, or it could be down to each translator’s choice of words and sentence structure. There’s also the whole question of language; of tone and register:  Avsey’s translation feels much more contemporary than Magarshack’s, and I think for the modern reader his language delineates the characters a little more sharply, changing them from smudgy pencil sketches to crisp inked outlines. Rakitin is even more vicious, Katerina even more controlling. I assume that this probably gives us a better sense of how Dostoevsky’s Russian might have felt to his first readers – but then again, we don’t feel the need to re-write Dickens or Hardy just because their prose is rooted in the 19th century. I still find that Magarshack’s text is the more fluid (I can’t comment on which is more accurate), but Ignat Avsey’s is immensely enjoyable and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone, whether or not you have a battered old Penguin Classics Magarshack copy to hand.


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§ 7 Responses to The Karamazov Brothers

  • tomsimard says:

    I really enjoyed that.

  • Thank you! Always nice to know that people are reading.

  • tomsimard says:

    I shall be coming here often.

    I absolutely love Russian literature. I only wish I had stuck with that class in intensive Russian all those years ago.

    I reread The Idiot a few years ago. (I’d originally read the Constance Garnett translation in the early 80s.) This time I chose the one by David McDuff. It was a completely different experience. I’m still uncertain whether this was the result of the translation or of my having aged.

    I’m thinking of rereading The Devils. Is there a translation you especially like?

    • New post for you Tom! As regards translations, my default is to recommend Magarshack wherever possible – his translation is still the current Penguin version I think. I was interested to see what you said about McDuff, as I’ve never been very impressed with him, I find his translations a bit dry and soulless. Oneworld have a newish translation by Michael Katz, which I don’t know but I might check it out next time I read the Devils. Oneworld editions are also very good for background material, which may be useful for you.

      • tomsimard says:

        Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll get the Magarshack translation..

        Reading The Idiot was a very weird experience. A little earlier or later I reread War and Peace (Rosemary Edmonds) and found myself every bit as engaged as I was the first time. But with McDuff, the work seemed lifeless, not at all the book I remembered.

  • Yes, that’s McDuff! No soul at all. I don’t know what Penguin were doing, replacing such excellent translations with his. Fortunately the old Magarshack ones can now be found fairly easily on Amazon, and Avsey (Oneworld) is pretty good too.

  • Kristel says:

    Thank you for this post on the differences of translation. I briefly considered buying the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation since it’s the more recent, but I haven’t found any reason to dislike the Avsey yet.

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