The First Greek Translation of Crime and Punishment: Introducing a New Poetics to Modern Greek Literature

by Christina Karakepeli

The first translation of Crime and Punishment was published in Athens in 1889. At that point, the Greek nation was no more than half-a-century old. Until 1830 and for the past 400 years, Greece had been part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1830, after a ten-year long war waged against the Ottoman Empire and won with the assistance of Britain, France and Russia, Greece was recognized as an independent and sovereign nation. After its independence, Greece was trying to re-imagine itself as a modern European nation. In the 1880s, the capital of Athens was at the centre of this radical transformation. As a result of economic growth and rapid industrialization, its population was growing steadily, and income was rising along with literacy levels. At the time, newspapers were the main medium through which literature was circulated and read. Publishing houses were still scarce and while there was a growing middle class, those that could afford to buy books were quite few. Instead, the new readership avidly read newspapers, consuming everything that the editors thought would be popular and increase revenue. This was mostly translated literature.

At the time, production of national‚ÄĒmodern Greek‚ÄĒliterature was low. After Greece became independent, the question of what modern Greek literature should look like‚ÄĒwhat should be its goals, language, style and themes‚ÄĒwas constantly debated. Literary critics dismissed Greek literary works written at the time as a passive mimesis of European literary models that did not reflect the realities of modern Greek society. For newspaper editors, publishing imported‚ÄĒmostly French‚ÄĒliterature was easier and more profitable. Daily newspapers of the time featured regularly in their pages the works of popular French authors. Not everyone was in favour of French literature though, especially Greek literary critics, who saw French novels as superficial and morally detrimental lamenting their popularity with the Greek audience.

The answer to French romanticism was to be found in Russian literature, which was promoted at the time as a model for everything that modern Greek literature aspired to be. In one of the first introductory texts on Russian literature in Greece, Russian literature was presented as an alternative to the ‚Äėwrinkled‚Äô and ‚Äėexhausted‚Äô literatures of European nations.[1] Russian literature was praised for its ‚Äėoriginality and national colour‚Äô; the ‚Äėyoung and vivacious‚Äô literature of the Russians, as the author described it, could be a prototype for an ideal national literature: inspired by the life of the common people, written in their language, with a stated purpose of social reform‚Äô. The dissemination of Russian literature in Greece could be ‚Äėinvigorating [‚Ķ] for [the] perishing Greek literature‚Äô, the author wrote. From the 1860s on, a steady rise in translations of Russian works attested to the fact that Russian literature was not only favoured by literary critics but also very popular with Greek audiences.[2] The most translated Russian authors of the time were Ivan Krylov, Alexander Pushkin, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy and Mikhail Lermontov. Of Dostoevsky‚Äôs works, only five works were translated in the 19th century: two Christmas short stories, two excerpts from A Writer‚Äôs Diary, and Crime and Punishment.

The first Greek translation of Crime and Punishment was published in April 14th, 1889 in the daily newspaper Ephemeris, translated into Greek as ‚ÄėTo egklema kai e timoria‚Äô [The Crime and the Punishment]. It was serialized in 106 instalments that run for four months. The translation was published on the first and second page of the newspaper following the format of French newspaper literary supplements. The source of the text was the first French translation of the novel by Victor Der√©ly published five years before. Der√©ly‚Äôs French translation was the intermediate text for many European translations of Crime and Punishment, among them the first translation of the novel in English by Frederick Whishaw published only three years before the Greek translation. The translator was not named, as was the usual practice at the time.

A day prior to its publication, Crime and Punishment was introduced by the writer Emmanouel Rhoides in an article titled ‚ÄėDostoevsky and his Novel ‚ÄúCrime and Punishment‚ÄĚ‚Äô. Rhoides was an author and critic who had lived and studied in Europe and he was the one who suggested to the editors of the newspaperto publish Crime and Punishment in order, as he wrote, to finally ‚Äėeradicate the quite widespread belief that literary works are divided into those that can be enjoyed by all and those that are appreciated by few‚Äô. Rhoides presented Dostoevsky to the Greek audience as a writer at whose ‚Äėdescription of real misery and misfortune […] one does not marvel but cries like a child unless he has a heart of stone‚Äô. Rhoides, indirectly commenting on the growing distaste with which Greek literary circles greeted French authors wrote that ‚Äėif Zola […] and Maupassant remove from their heroes and heroines the clothes‚ÄĒand sometimes the undergarments‚ÄĒthen Dostoevsky removes the skin‚Äô. The novel, Dostoevsky‚Äôs greatest according to Rhoides, should be read ‚Äėnot only as a work of art but as a moral parable‚Äô whose Christian character is reflected in the ‚Äėapotheosis of the pain, the humility, the dysmorphia of the body and the spiritual bankruptcy‚Äô.

The forthcoming publication was widely publicised in the newspaper which ran a number of advertisements promising its readers that the ‚ÄėTHE CRIME AND THE PUNISHMENT will move all hearts‚Äô, ‚Äė…will leave no [reader] without tears‚Äô and ‚Äė…move as no other [novel] the interest of the audience‚Äô.  A few days after publishing the first instalment, the newspaper informed readers that it had to reprint the issue due to high demand. Seeking to attract readers‚Äô interest, the newspaper called on them to benefit from reduced rates to subscribe to Ephemeris in order not to miss ‚Äėthe masterpiece of DOSTOEVSKY that [will] leave its mark in the history of Greek newspapers‚Äô.

The translator would have remained unnamed and invisible, had he not turned out to be one of the greatest modern Greek writers. He was identified 16 years after the publication of the translation as Alexandros Papadiamantes.[3] When Papadiamantes translated Crime and Punishment, he was thirty-eight years old and a rising young author. Although Papadiamantes is an author little known beyond Greek borders, in Greece his novels and short stories that focus on the everyday life of small island communities at a time when Greece was establishing itself as a young European nation are considered a landmark in the development of Greek national literature.[4] During his lifetime, he had minor success as an author and supported himself by translating fiction for daily newspapers. Some of Papadiamantes‚Äôs most notable translations include Sarah Grand‚Äôs Heavenly Twins (1895),Hall Caine‚Äôs The Manxman (1895), Bram Stoker‚Äôs Dracula (1901), H.G. Wells‚Äô The Invisible Man (1901), and of course, Dostoevsky‚Äôs Crime and Punishment (1889).

Aleksandros Papadiamantes (1851-1911)

After its publication in Ephemeris, Papadiamantes’s translation was not republished in book form, making the first translation of Crime and Punishment in Greek unavailable to readers and critics alike for at least a hundred years. A critical edition of the translation was published for the first time in 1992, when academic interest for Papadiamantes’s translations rose.[5]

As I mentioned before, Papadiamantes‚Äôs Greek translation had as its source the first translation in French. Victor Der√©ly, the French translator, did not make significant changes to the source text at the macro-textual level. However, in terms of style and tone, Der√©ly‚Äôs French text was quite flat preserving one register throughout the text, a far cry from Dostoevsky‚Äôs multi-layered polyphonic text. Papadiamantes in the Greek text largely followed the French translation, but he made a lot of changes in terms of style taking advantage of Greek intra-language variations. At that time and until the 1970s, Greek language was characterized by the coexistence of two language variants. One resembling Ancient Greek in grammar and vocabulary (the ‚Äėkatharevousa‚Äô), and one more colloquial reflecting everyday speech (the demotic). Papadiamantes translated the descriptive parts of the novel using the archaic Greek dialect and the dialogic parts in the vernacular dialect. Within dialogues, he alternated between higher and lower register to render the idiolect and the social background of each speaker. The result was a stylistically rich translation where one could find reflected the whole history of Greek language from Homeric epithets to Modern Greek colloquialisms. In a way, it could be argued that Papadiamantes intuitively sensed the polyphony of the original rendering it into a stylistically rich Modern Greek. He later employed the same idiosyncratic style in his own fiction using his translations as a creative exercise.

While the translation was not available for many decades, Dostoevsky‚Äôs influence left an indelible mark on Papadiamantes‚Äôs fiction. Fifteen years after translating Crime and Punishment, Papadiamantes wrote the novel The Murderess (1903), whose spiritual predecessor is Crime and Punishment.[6]The Murderess follows a middle-aged woman living in a small-island community as she commits a series of murders. The protagonist, Frankoyannou, murders little girls believing that by killing them she can release their parents from the economic burden of raising a female child.[7] The realistic depiction of Frankoyannou‚Äôs inner turmoil as she commits the murders and her attempts to rationalize her crime have led Greek critics to compare The Murderess to Crime and Punishment since the novel‚Äôs publication. Papadiamantes himself never commented on the effect of Dostoevsky on his work but this could be a case of literature ‚Äėrefracted‚Äô through translation.[8] In Papadiamantes‚Äôs case, Crime and Punishment found itself ‚Äėrefracted‚Äô in The Murderess. The novel‚Äôs psychological realism, its treatment of social and moral issues, and Papadiamantes‚Äôs rich language make it one of the best texts written in Greek; a text that remains modern even today.

Promotional picture for the stage adaption of Crime and Punishment (2015) by National Greek Theatre

While Papadiamantes‚Äôs translation of Crime and Punishment is little known to the modern Greek reader, its afterlife continues. A few of years ago, the Greek National Theatre adapted Crime and Punishment using Papadiamantes‚Äôs translation as a script.  Even a hundred years after its publication and its author‚Äôs death, Papadiamantes‚Äôs translation is a testament to the fact that Dostoevsky‚Äôs polyphonic novel could be rendered successfully into Greek, and that Dostoevsky‚Äôs novels could inspire writers in other cultures to re-imagine the possibilities of fiction in the own language.


[1] The article titled ‚ÄėSynchronos Rossike Philologia‚Äô [Modern Russian Literature] written by journalist and translator Theodoros Vellianites was published in 1889 in the literary journal Parnassos.

[2] Sonya Ilinskaja, E rosike logotechnia sten Ellada. 19os aionas [Russian Literature in Greece. 19th century] (Athens: Ellinka Grammata, 2006).

[3] On Papadiamantes, see Roger Beaton, An introduction to Modern Greek literature. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004), p. 75-78.

[4] Of his works in English are available: The Murderess, trans. by Peter Levi (New York: New York Review of Books, 1983) and The Murderess: A Social Novel trans. by Peter Constantine (Limni, Evia, Greece: Denise Harvey, 2011); The Boundless Garden, Selected Short Stories (Limni, Evia, Greece: Denise Harvey, 2007); Tales From a Greek Island, trans. by Elizabeth Constantinides (Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994); Love in the Snow, trans. by Janet Coggin & Zissimos Lorenzatos (Athens: Domos, 1993).

[5] To Egklema kai e Timoria [The Crime and the Punishment], trans. by Aleksandros Papadiamantis (Athens: Ideogramma, 1992)

[6] Aleksandros Papadiamantis, The Murderess, trans. by Peter Levi (New York: New York Review of Books, 1983.

[7] The custom of the dowry‚ÄĒthe money and valuables that the family of the bride had to give to the family of the groom ‚ÄĒdetermined the fates of women in small village societies and set the limits of social mobility. Papadiamantis himself failed to provide his younger sisters with a dowry, a failure that greatly grieved him and instigated his aversion to the custom.

[8] André Lefevere has written on how translated texts become refracted texts that infuse the receiving culture with new literary genres and a new poetics. See, André Lefevere, Translation, rewriting, and literary fame (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 71.

Christina Karakepeli is a PhD student at the University of Exeter writing her dissertation on how individual translators have shaped the Greek reception of Dostoevsky. Her research is part of the EC-funded RusTrans project She has a BA in Greek Language and Linguistics and a őúőĎ in Translation Studies from the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. In 2021 Karakepeli won the North American Dostoevsky Society Graduate Essay Contest.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s