The Ways That You Know: A Point of Translation in Brothers Karamazov

by Steve Dodson

For quite a few years now, one of my main interests has been reading Russian literature in the original, and I often report on it in my blog Languagehat.  Back in 2012, after a spate of 20th-century reading, I wrote that I had decided to reverse course and go back to the beginning of modern Russian literature, the most basic motive being “a desire to get to Dostoevsky sooner rather than later.”  I got to Dostoevsky and read my way through all his novels and stories, and I have finally reached The Brothers Karamazov — a real thrill!  I am a detail-oriented reader, and I often find myself spending a fair amount of time trying to get to the bottom of a word or allusion.  This one, I think, has implications beyond the specific usage.

At the end of Part One (Book Three, Chapter 11), after a hard day of dealing with difficult people Alyosha offers up a prayer asking God to have mercy on them all that includes the words “У Тебя пути: ими же веси путями спаси их.” Most of this seems clear enough: ‘Thine are the ways (or ‘paths’); by them … by the paths save them.’ But the word веси is impenetrable; in modern Russian it represents various declined forms of the noun весь ‘village,’ which makes no sense here.

However, the text in prerevolutionary spelling has вѣси, and if one has any acquaintance with Old Church Slavic, that is the vital clue: it is the second person singular of the irregular OCS verb вѣсти/вѣдѣти ‘to know,’ whose present-tense forms are вѣмь, вѣси, вѣсть, вѣмы, вѣсте, вѣдѧтъ (modern Russian, of course, has replaced it with the regular знать).  And the preceding ими же is the instrumental plural form of the OCS relative pronoun иже, and is equivalent to modern которыми. So the final clause of the quoted sentence means ‘by the ways that you know, save them.’

Unfortunately, Constance Garnett misunderstood веси as a form of весь ‘all’ and translated “All ways are Thine”; David Magarshack followed her lead, as did Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (“All ways are yours”). David McDuff has “by those same paths then save them”; apparently he chose to ignore веси altogether. Ignat Avsey has “You know the true path and will lead them all to salvation,” which is even farther from the Russian.  (I have not been able to check the versions by Andrew R. MacAndrew or Julius Katzer.) None of them seems to have noticed that веси could not possibly be a form of the word for ‘all.’  And even Victor Terras in his magisterial Karamazov Companion, which goes practically line by line through the novel and explains many difficult aspects of the Russian, completely ignores this, and I have to think he didn’t notice it.

Of course, this would be trivial if it were just a matter of the one phrase; the translations may be incorrect, but they don’t materially change the sense of the original.  But it is a reflection of a larger issue.  Similar phrasing is found in a number of traditional prayers, e.g. “Единый, Ты Сам точию можеши, аще восхочеши, спасти нас ими же веси путями и судьбами,” and it was used, for instance, by Leskov in Некуда (Господи! ими же веси путями спаси его) and Соборяне (Господи, ими же веси путями спаси!).  And in general, OCS forms are common in prerevolutionary literature, especially when it deals with the Orthodox church; any Russian with a religious education was steeped in the psalms, gospels, and prayers read in church, and they were in Church Slavic.  In The Brothers Karamazov, even the gleefully irreligious Fyodor Pavlovich throws around OCS terms like вознепщеваху (‘they thought’) when he feels like it, and Alyosha and the monks frequently use Slavonicisms.  It seems to me that any translator working on authors like Dostoevsky and Leskov, who deal with religion at every turn, should make a point of acquiring at least a basic knowledge of OCS so that they will not be bewildered by passages like the one I deal with here.

As a dramatic example of ignorance on that score, I discovered that Terras in his Companion says of the title of Book Six, Chapter 2, “the whole title is in Church Slavonic.” Here’s the title: “Из жития в бозе преставившегося иеросхимонаха старца Зосимы, составлено с собственных слов его Алексеем Федоровичем Карамазовым.” It is not in Church Slavonic, though bits of it are OCS in origin; for example, the phrase “в бозе” is taken from OCS (бозе being the locative case of бог), but the phrase is familiar and frequently used in modern Russian, usually in the fossilized phrase почил в бозе, and it’s just as much a part of Russian as, say, “à la carte” is of English.  Real OCS is almost as incomprehensible to Russian speakers as Old English is to English speakers, and it needs to be studied, not just treated as equivalent to “archaic-sounding Russian.”


Steve Dodson is a linguist manqué, an editor by profession, and a lover of all things Russian.  Having grown up in Japan, Thailand, and Argentina and put down roots in New York City, he now lives in Western Massachusetts with his wife, two cats, and 5,000 books.

2 thoughts on “The Ways That You Know: A Point of Translation in Brothers Karamazov

  1. Excuse me for being dense, but how is “в бозе” instrumental case? It has been decades since I studied OCS, and I am too exhausted from the day to search for my Lunt, but I always thought that “житие в бозе” meant “life in God.” I would appreciate any reply!

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