The Idiot 1: Lost and found in translation

24 May

The mirror to ourselves that is Dostoevsky’s great novel The Idiot was held up by me to me recently. It had been a long time since I’d read it and I’d thrown it onto my e-reader casually some time before. An eye operation sent me to the device as I could read larger type and I scrolled through the many offerings and hit on it. Why not?

Like so much with Dostoevsky, there is a challenge to any writer in reading him, and for English-language writers that starts with the translation. Russian is a strange language for those not familiar with Cyrillic alphabets, and even for those who are, it has problems not found even with German, a language with some characteristics similar to Russian.

Perhaps this is the reason why there have been so many translations of Dostoevsky’s works. No one is ever quite satisfied. There are no less than ten of The Idiot.

There is more to it now, courtesy of a Yank and his Russian wife, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky. P & V, as they are often termed, seemed to have ushered in a new era of fine translations if you believe their press and some of the laudatory features and reviews written about them.

As someone far from fluent in Russian, I can hardly comment on the adequacy or lack of it of P & V from a translator’s perspective. One comment on the net suggests that the best thing to do with any book in translation where more than version  is available is to dip into all of them, and take the one that “feels” the best. This is good advice.

P & V don’t get such an easy out. Gary Saul Morson ripped into them in a famous article in Commentary. Morson, who translated Dostoevsky’s magazine Writer’s Notebook in a judicious and scrupulous edition, said he was approached by professional writers seeking guidance about the pair’s work, as they found Dostoevsky and other Russians as rendered by them puzzling: how could a great writer be so unreadable? Morson took the translators to task for their method, which amounts to a literal translation by V then rendered into “better” English by her husband, who is not by any stretch a fluent Russian speaker. Their method has been praised in the past, but even before Morson’s critique it seemed to me on reading their claims to superiority because of their working method  to be on the contrary a recipe for disaster.

My unease was confirmed for me while researching my novel The Russian Idea. I read background material that included excerpts from The Adolescent, earlier published as A Raw Youth translated by the author of a book of criticism. The only complete edition I could find was P & V’s. The extracts had made me keen to read it; P & V’s translation made me keen to finish it, as if Dostoevsky did not write it – they did.

This partly comes to mind now because the translation of The Idiot I have just read is by someone who seems never to figure in these translation wars, Eva Martin (1883-1940). Online research suggests this is the only translation she did. What information I’ve been able to get about her is that she was born in India to British parents and brought up in England. Her translation was published in 1915, when she was 32.

Eva Martin’s translation is available online free as it is out of copyright, and is cheap in print, so it is both ubiquitous and “e-ubiquitous”. It would be nice to know something about her and to know what people like Morson think of her version.

As it is I can say is that I howled with laughter at much of this book. People think Dostoevsky is a pessimist, and depressing, but this view is a travesty of a very complex mind, and there is no question that he is among the funniest writers ever. One particular section is an extended farce that had me holding my sides and gasping for breath.

There is a lot more to be said about this amazing novel, so I’ll put it in a further post.

Thanks for reading this one.




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Posted by on May 24, 2015 in Uncategorized


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