A Chat with Julia Titus about Dostoevsky’s Translations of Balzac

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This week Chloe Papadopoulos sits down with Julia Titus to talk about her recent book, Dostoevsky as a Translator of Balzac published by Academic Studies Press in 2022.

CP: Congratulations on the publication of your book! Tell us a little about it. What do you hope readers will gain from this volume?

JT: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to discuss my work. I hope that my book will introduce the readers to the lesser-known side of Dostoevsky – his creative legacy as a literary translator and illustrate how this experience of translating Balzac’s text influenced Dostoevsky’s own writing later on. Dostoevsky translated Eugénie Grandet in 1844 when he was only twenty-three years old, and it was his first publication. Then his translation was forgotten for a very long time, because it was criticized for taking too much liberty with the original and more of a free retelling or pereskaz than an accurate translation, and it was rediscovered and republished widely only recently.

I believe that literary translation is an integral part of a literary activity of any author, and the translator is always a co-creator of the text. Throughout literary history we know many celebrated examples when a successful translation becomes more known than the original. The Romantic ballads of Vassily Zhukovsky that he translated from German, or Mikhail Lermontov’s free translations from Heine are just some of the salient examples of this phenomenon. Dostoevsky’s Evgenia Grande grew out of this tradition of free translation where the translator approaches the original in a creative manner striving not to follow the text literally, but rather to recreate the same emotional effect on the reader. Studying Dostoevsky’s Russian version of the novel, its many omissions and vocabulary replacements, allows us to see how Dostoevsky’s own ideas and poetic style were crystallizing as he was working on Balzac’s translation and provides insight into his creative process. I think that my book would appeal not only to those readers who are interested in Dostoevsky and Balzac, but also to anyone who wants to know more about literary translation and take a closer look at the complex relationship between the original and the translation.

CP: How and when did you become interested in Dostoevsky’s translation of Balzac’s EugĂ©nie Grandet?

JT: I first began working on Dostoevsky many years ago when I was fortunate to study with Robert Louis Jackson at the Slavic department at Yale, and I continued my work on Dostoevsky’s texts, analyzing his vocabulary, stylistics and language choices in one of his most-known short stories Krotkaya (The Meek One) that I was teaching in my undergraduate Russian classes at Yale.  This work culminated in my annotated reader of The Meek One for the advanced learners of Russian published by Yale University Press in 2012. This edited volume was nominated for Best Contribution to Language Pedagogy Award by AATSEEL.

At the same time, I have always been interested in translation, and have professionally worked as a translator, albeit not a literary one. I know from my personal experience that in any translation a translator is constantly making choices that affect and shape meaning, and without a doubt, this process is even more visible when one great author translates another. Thus, this project grew organically out of my two academic interests, and I was able to analyze and compare both texts through the prism of close reading and make many exciting discoveries in the process.

CP: Your close comparative reading of Balzac’s novel and Dostoevsky’s translation shows the extent to which Dostoevsky russified many aspects of Balzac’s novel, from vocabulary and terminology, to the representation of material and religious realia. Can you speak about some of the major differences between Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet (1833) and Dostoevsky’s Evgeniia Grande (1844)?

JT: In my book I analyze numerous changes that Dostoevsky brought into the translation organizing them in terms of the motives that became important for his own writing later on. For example, Dostoevsky made many changes, omitting some specific details from Balzac’s voluminous descriptions of spaces, fabrics, etc. because he was far more interested in depicting the inner psychological world of the character than in recreating the meticulously constructed settings, which are so plentiful in Balzac’s novels. Consequently, the physical descriptions of spaces in many instances were shortened, but the emotionally climactic scenes of conflict that Dostoevsky considered the most important, and that later became his signature “nadryv,” were amplified and expanded. I dedicate a separate chapter to the role of physical spaces in Dostoevsky’s translation because, through them, we can see how the narrative technique in the translation reappears in his later work.

Moreover, there are also significant differences in Dostoevsky’s interpretation of the main characters. In his translation Eugénie was given a Russian name Evgeniia, and her selfless love, sacrifice and piety were brought into foreground, while any reference to sensual aspect of her love for Charles was omitted. Thus, Dostoevsky’s Evgeniia is strongly connected to heaven and at the end of the novel he even gives her a halo of a martyr to highlight her spirituality and virtue of suffering. In my book, there is a separate chapter on Dostoevsky’s female characters, in which I look at Dostoevsky’s Evgeniia as a prototype of many virtuous, deeply loving and self-sacrificing women that we encounter in Dostoevsky’s novels, starting with Sonia in Crime and Punishment, and Alyosha’s mother in Brothers Karamazov, among others.

Dostoevsky also made significant changes in his portrayal of Felix Grandet. It was documented in many of Balzac’s letters that he wanted to avoid focusing exclusively on Grandet’s extreme avarice and wanted to distance him from Moliere’s Harpagon, making Felix Grandet a multifaceted complex character, who is not only a miser but a shrewd businessman respected by the residents of Saumur, who owes his fortune to his hard work and his business acumen. For his part, Dostoevsky was always interested in analyzing the immense corrupting power of money on the human soul, so he chose not to emphasize Grandet’s business abilities, but rather to focus on his extreme avarice and emotional cruelty. Ultimately, Dostoevsky’s Grande became the first of many of the monomaniacs of his own novels, someone who is ruled by a single destructive passion: in this case, avarice. In one of the chapters of my book, I investigate the motive of monomaniacal passion as it was first introduced by Dostoevsky in his portrayal of Grandet.

CP: In a similar vein, in many places in the book, you explain how Dostoevsky’s departures from the original French text were motivated by a desire to render Balzac’s novel in broadly accessible terms. I am thinking, for example, of your discussion of Dostoevsky’s views on education and how they find expression in his translation (Chapter One). What can these departures teach us about Dostoevsky’s understanding of accessibility? Do Dostoevsky’s alterations to Balzac’s text give us a sense of what Dostoevsky considered “common knowledge”?

JT: Yes, there are some specific details in Balzac’s original that could not be easily understood by the Russian readers without explanations and footnotes, for example noblesse de cloche – a special category of nobility, poinçon de vin – a wine glass holding 250 ml, etc. Dostoevsky strove to make his translation very accessible to an average Russian reader, so in some instances he omitted these obscure terms because that would make the process of reading and enjoying the novel more difficult. We can say that Dostoevsky was very sensitive to the issue of accessibility and he took special effort to make his translation easily understandable by those readers who might not be able to visit France or travel beyond their provincial towns in Russia.

The question of public education remained at the center of Dostoevsky’s attention throughout his life. Dostoevsky firmly believed that the foundation of proper education lies in teaching moral values, rooted in Christian faith, and that is why it should begin early on, in childhood. I would like to mention that in Russian the word for education is obrazovanie, and it shares the root with obraz – meaning “icon” or “the image.” The icon in Russian is frequently referred to as obraz since it is an image of God. So, the Russian word obrazovanie itself can be linked to shaping the person’s character (obrazovat’) and to Christian norms of morality. For Dostoevsky, the character of Evgeniia driven by selfless love and compassion was the embodiment of these high moral qualities sustained by deep religious faith. It is very fitting for Dostoevsky’s system of Christian ethics that, later in life, Evgeniia became the patron and the founder of many children schools in Saumur, because her personal self-sacrifice, deep compassion and spirituality can be seen as the example for the youth, and Dostoevsky chose to put schools first in her long list of charitable deeds, before other institutions that she supported with her fortune.

CP: In your introduction, you describe how the popular press published fabricated reports about Balzac – specifically, reports detailing a trip to Kherson that the author never actually took. I found this anecdote rather entertaining and, while reading it, couldn’t help but think of Balzac as a 19th-century tabloid celebrity. What was one of the most unexpected things you learned about Balzac and his reputation in Russia while conducting research for this project?

 JT: Yes, Balzac has always been enormously popular in Russia. His novels were widely read in Russian translations and published in multi-million copies. Even in Chekhov’s Three Sisters we can see the hint of that enormous popularity when one of the characters, doctor Chebutykin makes an observation while reading the newspaper: “Balzac was married in Berdichev.” This casual remark, not directly connected to the events in the play, demonstrates to what extend Balzac’s name was familiar to an average Russian, and it further confirms his celebrity status, as you noted. And growing up as a little girl in the Soviet Union I remember my grandmother’s full collection of Balzac’s novels that she later gave me as a gift that I treasure.  

Regarding the second part of your question, for me one of the most amazing discoveries of Balzac’s biography was his ambitious enterprise of exploiting the silver mines of Sardinia. Although this episode of Balzac’s life did not happen during his trip to Russia, it stood out to me because of its audacity and pluck. We know that Balzac was always in search of new business ventures, and throughout his life he started multiple businesses that unfortunately all failed. Balzac read in Tacitus that ancient Romans were able to extract silver from the mines in Sardinia, and on one of his visits to Italy he met a Genoese merchant who assured him that those mines still had plenty of silver left. Balzac got very enthusiastic about this project and even borrowed money from his friends to finance his expedition to Sardinia. He kept in absolute secrecy the goal of that trip and only mentioned it in his letters to Madame Hanska as a “serious and scientific affair.” In March of 1838 Balzac enthusiastically began his long journey in hopes of extracting silver from the dross of the Sardinian mines and finally making his fortune. When after a long and arduous trip Balzac reached Sardinia, he found out, to his dismay, that his Genoese friend and a Marseille company already obtained permissions to exploit the mines and began their work, so he had to return with nothing. This story in itself could provide a plot for a Balzac novel. After this bitter disappointment Balzac did not give up and continued to dream up the most incredible projects until the end of his life. This remarkable episode from Balzac’s life illustrates that Balzac himself, just like the extraordinary characters in his novels, showed his readers how to rise above adverse circumstances and deal with setbacks with equanimity and strength, and this is something that Dostoevsky also shared and strove to inspire in his work throughout his life.

Julia Titus is Senior Lector II in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale University, where she has been teaching courses in Russian language and literature. Her research interests focus on the comparative study of French and Russian literature, translingual authors, translation theory, and heritage language studies. Her most recent book is Dostoevsky as a Translator of Balzac (Academic Studies Press, 2022). She is also the editor and annotator of two readers for students of Russian, “The Meek One”: A Fantastic Story (on Dostoevsky’s short story)(Yale University Press, 2012), and Poetry Reader for Russian Learners (Yale University Press, 2015), both nominated for Best Contribution to Language Pedagogy Award by AATSEEL.

Chloe Papadopoulos is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale University. She received an H.B.A. and an M.A. in Russian Language and Literature at the University of Toronto, where she specialized in nineteenth-century Russian literature. Her current research focuses on reform-era historical fiction, drama, and the plastic arts, and their contemporary reception in newspapers and the periodical press. Chloe serves as a graduate student representative on the Readers Advisory Board of the North American Dostoevsky Society.

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