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.


Dostoevsky on screen

7 March 2012 § Leave a comment

Last week I watched the first part of a film adaptation of  The Idiot. I think it was the first time I’ve ever seen anything by Dostoevsky existing outside my own head, and I found the experience slightly unsettling to begin with. Once I’d got over the shock of actually seeing real people being Myshkin, Rogozhin and the rest, I began to enjoy it. Dostoevsky is essentially a dramatic writer, and the big set-piece scenes and the intense conversations transfer wonderfully to the screen.

What does get lost though is the inner drama and torments, and of course the meat behind the dialogue. The long speeches have to be cut, and there’s only so much you can do with agonised facial expressions and creepy music, so I did wonder how much sense the film would make to anyone who hadn’t read the book. It was, however, a Russian film (made in 1959 – IMDB link here so of course the idea that anyone watching it might not have read the book probably didn’t enter the producers’ minds.

And the fact that it was in Russian contributed to the unsettling oddness. Of course there should be nothing strange at all about watching Dostoevsky in Russian, but his novels have rooted themselves so firmly inside my head, that it was almost a surprise to hear the characters speaking familiar lines in perfect Russian, and to hear all the names pronounced without my dodgy Russian accent. The familiarity of it all does at least allow me to con myself that I’m understanding all the Russian perfectly!

The lead characters, Prince Myshkin (Yuri Yakovlev) and Nastasya Filippovna (Yuliya Borisova) were perfect. They’re both pretty hard acts to pull off, but they got the perfect, dangerous beauty of Nastasya and the otherwordliness of Myshkin just right. Ganya was good too, and anyone who has ever been bullied and harangued by a bossy, matronly khoziaika will immediately recognise Liza Prokovyevna Yepanchina.  Rogozhin on the other hand was too wild, as if he’d just got off a train from Siberia, not Europe. Yes, he’s mad, but there has to be some reason why Nastasya is so attracted to him, and there was absolutely none that I could see.

I think the film may only be the first part of the book – I’ve watched 90 minutes and we’ve only got to Nastasya’s birthday party – I’ll update this when I’ve finished watching it. Now that I’ve broken the ice, perhaps I need to find some more Dostoevsky adaptations to watch – any recommendations? The 2002 BBC adaptation of Crime and Punishment is on YouTube. I wonder if I dare watch it.

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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