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.


Humiliated and Insulted

8 April 2011 § Leave a comment

Or, All Men Are Bastards.

This is brilliant – and a fabulous starting point for anyone who might be tempted by what I’ve said about Dostoevsky’s story-telling, but put off by the prospect of all the heavy theology and philosophy. It’s been out of print in English for many years – I’ve been reading a new translation by Ignat Avsey published in 2008 and I don’t understand why it’s been so neglected.

It’s not great literature, in the way that the Big Four novels are, but it’s a cracking good story, and Ignat Avsey’s translation is lively and fresh (although I wonder how it will stand up over the years, as some of the language seems too sharply contemporary, so it may date. But maybe the same is true of all translations).

“Humiliated and Insulted” was Dostoevsky’s first major novel, and it begins to explore some of the themes and characters that he develops in the later works. It’s set in the slums of St Petersburg and features an utterly doomed love affair, an impoverished, abandoned orphan girl rescued by the narrator from prostitution, a fallen woman, and an utterly evil, depraved aristrocrat. We have a useless, spoilt young princeling torn between two beautiful young girls, both of whom are desperately in love with him, despite all his obvious faults. Oh and a splendidly cynical, drunken private detective. If you enjoy Dickens, or Wilkie Collins, read this, it’s wonderful. Keep a hankie to hand though, it made me cry.

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