Travels from Dostoevsky’s Siberia

by Elizabeth Blake

Blake_.inddIn April 1849 Dostoevsky was arrested and imprisoned in the Peter Paul Fortress for his participation in the Petrashevsky Circle.  Before the year was out he and his fellow conspirators had been subjected to a mock execution and then sentenced to either imprisonment or exile in Siberia, the Caucasus, and Orenburg.  Travels from Dostoevsky’s Siberia (Academic Studies Press, 2019) is comprised of archival narratives written by three Polish political prisoners, two of whom shared the experience with the Petrashevsky conspirators, as well as my commentary on each of the three parts (based on over a decade of research). These translations provide the reader with eyewitness testimonies about the life of state prisoners in Western Siberia when Dostoevsky was imprisoned in Omsk and lived in exile in Semipalatinsk.

Kibitka Citadel

A kibitka at the Warsaw Citadel

These famous writer-revolutionaries shared Fyodor Dostoevsky’s experience of living in Western Siberia, after having been imprisoned and exiled by Nicholas I’s regime, and survived to compose their accounts, providing an intimate portrait of their struggle to comprehend the deprivation of their rights and to build networks that helped them to defend against their maltreatment by capricious and abusive authority figures.  The notes to the primary sources include historical information about various conspiratorial groups, agitational activities, and Siberian culture, gathered from archival, print, and digital resources, to provide readers with a sense of the interconnectedness of revolutionary movements across the Russian Empire and beyond owing to shared language, geographical space, nationality, religious identity, and political ideology.

ConfluenceOmIrty copy

The confluence of the Irtysh and Om rivers (Omsk)

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A statue of Dostoevsky’s friend Chokan Valikhanov (Omsk)

In the first part, Józef Bogusławski, who lived with the Russian novelist for four years in the Omsk prison fortress, provides additional background information to several characters (Major Krivtsov, Mirecki, Bogusławski, Bem, Durov, Korczyński, Tokarzewski, Żochowski, and Aleksei de Grave) the reader meets in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead. Bogusławski differentiates Dostoevsky from Durov based on the former’s education in the tsar’s military and discusses some of the divisive literary and political debates causing tension between the Russian novelist and the group of Polish political prisoners.  Bogusławski’s memoirs (1898) supplement this most famous text written by any of the five authors (Bogusławski, Dostoevsky, Durov, Tokarzewski, and Żochowski) in the Omsk prison fortress by recording the language, rituals, hardships, and journeys experienced by political prisoners in Dostoevsky’s Siberia.

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The statue “Lyubа” of the wife of the Governor General of Western Siberia (Omsk)

In the second part, a selection from Memoirs from a Stay in Siberia (1861) provides a portrait of several provincial authorities in Omsk (including Aleksei de Grave and Pyotr Gorchakov) based on Rufin Piotrowski’s brief stay in the town before being assigned to work in a factory. His account of the infamous Omsk Affair, an aborted rebellion organized by Father Jan Sierociński, and the brutal flogging of its leadership without mercy supplement various published accounts of the escape attempt that claimed so many victims.

In the final part, Bogusławski’s co-conspirator and prolific writer Bronisław Zaleski, in “Polish Exiles in Orenburg” (1866), reveals the substantial literary and intellectual contributions of the Orenburg circle (whose members included such famous poets as his fellow conspirator Edward Żeligowski, the Ukrainian nationalist Taras Shevchenko, and Dostoevsky’s friend Aleksei Pleshcheev) with references to the Decembrists, the Petrashevsky conspirators, and the Omsk Affair.

ZaleskiLaVie43

Zaleski’s sketch of the bay at Novopetrovsk

Zaleski’s many portraits of officers and government officials as well as his extensive complaints about the military life of drills, denunciations, and training enhance our knowledge of Dostoevsky’s own service in Semipalatinsk following his prison term.  Moreover, Zaleski, like Piotrowski, provides a connection to the Parisian circle of Polish exiles linked to the Great Emigration following the 1830 uprising––those who gathered around Prince Adam Czartoryski’s circle at the Hôtel Lambert.  The members of this group of Polish exiles supported these unfortunate victims of Nicholas I and Alexander II through direct financial contributions, political advocacy, and the publication of their fates in the Western press.

Memorial Citadel

A memorial to prisoners at the Warsaw Citadel

The narratives of this generation of unfortunates from the western edge of Imperial Russia contribute to our cultural knowledge about famous Russian exiles, including the Decembrists and the Petrashevtsy both because of their shared experience and common language.  This collection therefore imparts to the reader not only a better understanding of the hardships of the carceral continuum but also enriches one’s encounter with Dostoevsky’s post-confinement writings.


FMD Stockade

Dostoevsky statue at the historic Omsk stockade location

Elizabeth Blake is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Saint Louis University, where she teaches courses on Russian culture, language, literature, and theology that contribute to programs in Fine and Performing Arts, Theological Studies, and Catholic Studies.  Her U. S. Department of State Title VIII and U. S. Department of Education Fulbright-Hays funding through American Councils, a Faculty Research Leave, and a Mellon grant helped fund the secondary research for Travels from Dostoevsky’s Siberia (2019), the culmination of several research trips to Krakow, and are contributing to a monograph on the impact of Dostoevsky’s Siberian period on his oeuvre.  Her research on Orthodox-Catholic exchanges, Russo-Polish conflict, Siberian studies, and the nineteenth-century European novel informed her first monograph, Dostoevsky and the Catholic Underground (2014), and a dozen articles, which have appeared in leading peer-reviewed journals (Dostoevsky Studies, Polish Review, and Slavic and East European Journal) and collections.

Aside from Zaleski’s sketch, the images that appear in this post are the author’s own photographs.

David Magarshack, the Penguin Archive, and Translating Dostoevsky: A Chat with Cathy McAteer

Today we are sitting down to talk about translating Dostoevsky and David Magarshack with Cathy McAteer, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Exeter who has recently defended her PhD in Russian and Translation Studies at the University of Bristol. Her doctoral thesis examines Penguin Books’s Russian Classics series (1950-1964) with special emphasis on Magarshack’s role as translator in bringing Russian literary texts to an anglophone audience.

BK: So, first of all, tell us a bit about your research project. Why did you decide to focus on Penguin’s Russian Classics series? Were there any surprising discoveries in your research?

CM: Hello Katia, thanks for inviting me to talk a bit about my research. My interest in Penguin’s Russian Classics took on a new dimension once I’d started my MA in Translation Studies at the University of Bristol. The act of comparing different Penguin versions of Russian literary classics against the original source texts prompted a new set of questions for me about the background to those Penguin commissions: who were the people driving and completing them; what were their various professional backgrounds and qualifications (if any); how did Penguin and its commissioned translators interact with each other; was there ever such a thing as an in-house Penguin translation style; and then, how well did the Anglophone lay audience, which ultimately spanned several geographical borders, receive this relaunched literary canon? When I finished my Masters, I was fortunate to receive funding to pursue a PhD framed around answering these questions. On a broader scale, I also wanted my PhD to fill a gap in knowledge as far as the more modern phase of Russian literary translation in English is concerned, namely the mid- to late-twentieth century, the exact time when Penguin was publishing its versions of the classic Russian literary canon.

My doctoral project relied heavily on detailed archival research, initially at the Penguin archive (housed at the University of Bristol) but also at the Leeds Russian archive. In terms of surprising discoveries, I never expected the personalities of key and minor players to reveal themselves so strikingly via their correspondence. They came to life in a way which is never apparent just from reading their end-products, the translated texts themselves. Individuals like the editors EV Rieu and ASB Glover feature throughout, efficient, often humorous, and polite. Translators like Elisaveta Fen, Rosemary Edmonds, and, of course, David Magarshack reveal that they could be self-assured and commercially astute, but at times frustrated by the tedium of the commercial process and unsolicited changes to their translations. Surprises include one letter which reveals the Turgenev translator Gilbert Gardiner’s patient, 25-year wait for missed royalty payments. There are startlingly frank letters from the lay-reading public too. Some applaud the price and accessibility of Penguin’s Russian Classics, while others offer criticism. One correspondent criticizes Penguin for allowing over-popular translations of Russian literature ‘just so that it can be understood by people without literary knowledge’, another complains to the editors for even allowing the title Anna Karenin (‘an act of impudence and vandalism’), and another correspondent praises an excellent translation (The Devils) but laments that it is marred with ‘phrases, not to say paragraphs in French’. Their voices are vibrant; it was fascinating to discover how opinionated Penguin’s readership could be over matters of translation.

Analysis of this archival material allowed me, therefore, to construct a profile, a microhistory, of key Penguin Russian players, but also to map the climate of reception for Russian literature in English translation during the last half of the twentieth century.

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David Magarshack, (n.d.)
© Magarshack family

BK: Now tell us a bit about David Magarshack. He’s an acclaimed translator of Dostoevsky (and others). Why did you choose him as the focus of your case study?

CM: I suspected from the outset that David Magarshack would probably play an important role in my thesis – he was after all one of the longest-serving early translators for Penguin’s Russian Classics, translating the four major works by Dostoevsky for them, along with Goncharov’s Oblomov, Gogol’s Dead Souls, and Chekhov’s Lady with Lapdog – but I never actually expected him to dominate the project to such an extent! After weeks of scouring the Penguin archive I realized I would need to corroborate my Bristol findings by pursuing material stored in other collections. I went to Leeds, therefore, to examine David Magarshack’s (and Elisaveta Fen’s) private papers. Fen’s papers were useful, certainly, but I found the most relevant and detailed material in Magarshack’s papers where, to my delight, his notes included specific lectures and essays about his translation strategy.

Magarshack was born in Riga (then Russia) in 1899 but emigrated to the UK in 1920 in search of a higher education (a right restricted to only a limited number of Jews at the time of Magarshack’s student years). He arrived in the UK with scarcely any English but graduated four years later with a 2:1 in English Language and Literature at UCL. After years of trying to make a living as a crime-writer, journalist, and aspiring newspaper editor, he eventually offered his services as a literary translator to Penguin. His first Penguin book was Crime and Punishment, completed ahead of the scheduled delivery date, perhaps thanks in part to his wife Elsie, a Yorkshire-born, Cambridge-graduate of English. (According to Magarshack’s daughter, Stella, Elsie helped with all his translations, proofreading and correcting, but she is never mentioned in his work. For me, Elsie is something of an unsung heroine; my hope is that my PhD has at least apportioned her some belated fame.)

The more I learned about Magarshack, the more fascinated I became by his commercial approach to translation and literature. With very little money coming in as a journalist, Magarshack was a man under pressure; he had a wife (and in-laws with financial aspirations for their daughter), four children, and a keen sense of pride and ambition. Magarshack comes across in his letters as driven primarily to make his career a success, but also eager to refashion the Russian literature translated by Constance Garnett and keen to match (if not improve!) Dostoevsky.

He represents a rare, modern case study because of the large amount of archival material which stands alongside all the text-based material he left behind; this combination has made it possible to construct a detailed microhistory of his professional life, to shed light for the first time on a man so readily associated in readers’ minds (lay and academic) with Penguin’s Russian literature.

BK: I know you’ve worked extensively with Penguin’s archive and the Magarshack papers in the Leeds Russian archive. Can you speak a bit about those collections? What are the documents like? What kinds of materials? And did you make any new discoveries?

The Penguin archive consists of 2,300 boxes, 500 metres of Penguin titles, and it grows by a metre of shelf space every month: signed books, correspondence, photos, promotional material. It is vast. The Penguin Classics section represents a small part of the entire archive, and the Russian Classics titles amount to just 23 folders in total, spanning from 1950 to 1970, which vary considerably in size. Some contain no more than a couple of letters confirming a print re-run, others contain tens of pages of detailed discussion about deadlines, royalty payments, corrections, correction costs, copyright, translation queries, suggestions for cover design, readers’ letters, etc. Thick files usually bode well, either because there has been a particular working rapport between editor and translator – good or bad! but always with an eagerness all round to produce the best possible text for publication – or because a text has prompted a high level of reader response: from individuals, theatre troupes requesting stage adaptations, the BBC seeking broadcasting permission, and, in the case of the Dostoevsky files, there are repeated requests by academics for permission to use translation excerpts in their psychology manuals. Inevitably, though, archival work is the domain of one-sided conversations which can often lead to unanswered questions, red-herrings, and dead-ends; these all become a bit of an occupational hazard! Just when you think the next letter will neatly conclude an ongoing discussion, the trail runs dry, which is why I ended up pursuing other collections.

Fortunately for me, Magarshack kept large quantities (27 boxes in total) of his letters, reviews, theatre programmes (his play translations continued to be used for decades), copies of his works, notes on translation, which answered many questions, provided new lines of enquiry, but also led me to Magarshack’s daughter Stella and the opportunity for me to interview her about her father’s translation career. I discovered that aside from his translations (not just for Penguin) and biographies (many of your readers will be aware of Magarshack’s Dostoevsky biography), Magarshack also tried his hand at crime-writing, à la Dostoevsky, but without comparable success. The highlight for me, though, was discovering that he had attempted to quantify his translation strategy towards the end of his career. He set down his thoughts and observations of twenty years or so of literary translation practice in preparation for a book he had been commissioned to produce for Victor Gollancz on the principles of translation. Had Magarshack’s book made it to publication, it would have been ahead of his time; he had hoped to offer his strategies on how best to tackle classic translation challenges such as Russian naming practices (a question which appears repeatedly in the Penguin Russian Classics archive and perplexes even today), vernacular dialogue, idiomatic equivalence, register, syntax. It is a great shame, therefore, that Magarshack died before the book could be completed.

The strategies and references he noted in the preparatory material for his book reveal that Magarshack was a man straddling the two cultures and worlds he knew best: Russian and British, and he felt strongly that his Russia and Dostoevsky’s Russia had not previously been satisfactorily conveyed by translators, mainly Constance Garnett. He appears to have felt a huge responsibility to try and address this failing by producing his own translations.

 

Two of Magarshack’s translations for Penguin Classics (Personal collection of C. McAteer)

BK: One of your chapters examines Magarshack’s translation of The Idiot (1955). This was really the first of the modern translations – the previous translations were all published at least 40 years earlier. What does your research reveal about Magarshack’s translation practice?

CM: As I mentioned earlier, my research has revealed that Magarshack approached his translation work with a keen sense that the ‘real’ Russia had never been accurately conveyed to British readers in preceding translations. In his observations about translation, Magarshack noted with evident concern that Garnett had created a ‘popular notion of the Russian as an incompetent, gloom-sodden, bizarre, and even grotesque figure’, a view ‘so generally accepted that it even colours the views of serious authors on Russian affairs’. Magarshack relates his concern over poor translations even more specifically to Dostoevsky, though; he writes that the realization ‘that, for instance, Dostoevsky’s novels are full of laughter as well as tragedy, has yet to be proved to the English reader’. Magarshack hoped that his translations would reinstate the humour as well as the tragedy. Not all readers would now agree that Magarshack achieved this aim; Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonskaya, for example, claim instead that there is ‘something tame’ about Magarshack’s translation of Brothers Karamazov which replaces the style, tone, and humour of Dostoevsky’s original. The important thing for me, though, is that Magarshack identified what he felt was missing and tried to rectify the shortfall.

Magarshack’s attempt to differ from his predecessors’ efforts (summed up in his notes in a blend of Western and Soviet-style traditions and techniques) relies on a combination of translation devices: he tries his hand at vernacularized dialogue; incorporates Anglicized naming practices (Mr, Mrs, and Miss) and minimizes the inclusion of patronymics; domesticates culture-specific references; avoids all footnotes (he believed they were ‘a translator’s confession of failure’), and he frequently tries to smooth out syntax. The Idiot contains examples of all these effects and, while readers from a modern vantage point may consider his practice unsubtle and somewhat contrived at times, these devices were a novel way to treat Dostoevsky in the mid-twentieth century. Magarshack created a different feel to Garnett’s earlier translations and provided a stylistic talking point for subsequent translators.

BK: And what can Magarshack’s translation of Dostoevsky tell us about Dostoevsky?

CM: Magarshack wanted his translations to speak to a modern audience and show that there was more to Dostoevsky, more depth and colour, than previously thought. Magarshack strove to show that Dostoevsky had all the tragedy as well as the comedy of Dickens. He believed that the absence in previous Dostoevsky translations either of any humour, or of any attempt at full-bodied characterization, presented an anaemic version of the real Dostoevsky. Magarshack felt it was the translator’s duty to serve and reveal the original author by researching the author’s background, social context, morals, literary style, and channel that knowledge into decisions over lexis, idiom, register, voice. Magarshack can be regarded as the first modern translator, therefore, to expose the existence in Dostoevsky of characters who build tension, evoke sympathy, have nicknames and humour, reveal vices and morals, who speak like barrow boys and express credible feelings. Of course, he didn’t succeed on every count (possibly because he was having to work fast to pay the bills). There are always deficits in a translation, some of Magarshack’s decisions irritated readers then and now (for example, Magarshack’s occasional glossing over of culture-specific references and syntax, his occasional omissions, over-domestication of names) but Magarshack has been credited with revealing the polyphony which exists in Dostoevsky’s works, giving voice to a more comprehensive range of Dostoevskian characters who were previously served by Garnett’s one Edwardian voice, for example.

Magarshack and Penguin proved that Dostoevsky was an accessible author who could be appreciated by all lovers of great literature, that he wrote for the everyman and not for an elitist readership after all. Many of Penguin’s archived letters of appreciation confirm as much but I’d like to finish with just one comment from Anthony Powell of Punch. He wrote that ‘David Magarshack has revolutionized the reading of Dostoyevsky’s novels in English by his translations which have appeared during the last few years … for years I was rather an anti-Dostoyevsky man, owing to the badness of the translations, but now there is an excellent translator in Magarshack’ (2 April 1958)’.

Thank you!


Cathy McAteer is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Exeter on the project “The Dark Side of Translation: 20th and 21st Century Translation from Russian as a Political Phenomenon in the UK, Ireland and the USA”, which has just gone live, fresh for 2019. More information is available on Twitter (@Rustransdark) and on the project website. Cathy’s publications include ‘Bringing Books Across Borders – Behind the Scenes in Penguin Books’, Transnational Russian Studies (edited by Andy Byford, Connor Doak, Stephen Hutchings) due to be published later this year, and ‘Translation and the Classic: Russians and Romanticism until 1917’, Routledge Handbook on Translation (edited by Siobhan McElduff, James Hadley, Paul Bandia), publication date tbc.

Translating Crime and Punishment: A Conversation with Michael Katz and Nicolas Pasternak Slater, part 3

This past November two new translations of Crime and Punishment were published. Michael Katz’s translation came out with Liveright, a branch of W. W. Norton (link), with an introduction by Katz. Nicolas Pasternak Slater’s came out with Oxford University Press (link), edited and with an introduction by Sarah J. Young. In this series of posts, Bloggers Karamazov sits down with the translators to talk about the experience of translating Dostoevsky’s most famous novel.

This is the last in a series of 3 posts; click here for part 1 and here for part 2.

BK: What is your favorite part of the novel?

katz-coverMK: I have long been a fan of the hero’s dreams. In fact, I wrote a book on dreams and the subconscious in Russian fiction in which I treat those dreams in the context of the novel. I think that the first one, Mikolka and the beaten horse, remains one of the most powerful scenes in all of Russian literature. I read the dream as an allegory of life itself: we are born and have to make our way through the secular world, filled with cruelty and ugliness (Mikolka and the tavern), as we head toward death and ultimate salvation (the church and the cemetery).

NPS: I’m no fan of extreme violence and I thoroughly disapprove of murder. Nevertheless, I am going to choose the account of Raskolnikov’s murder of Aliona Ivanovna and her sister Lizaveta. I think this chapter contains some of the most virtuoso writing not only in the whole of this novel, but perhaps in all that I have read of Dostoevsky. Both the behavior of Raskolnikov – thrown into a state of mental turmoil and confusion by the horror and ugliness of what he has done, and driven more by the inevitabilities of his situation than by any real desire to lay his hands on great wealth – and the reactions first of the old woman and then of Lizaveta when she unexpectedly arrives and is stunned into helpless passivity – are all related with unparalleled psychological insight and a masterly build-up of tension and suspense, culminating in Raskolnikov’s half-crazed bewilderment when he hears steps on the stair and the two visitors start rattling at the door. Dostoevsky dexterously manipulates our feelings so that we are torn between horror at what is going on, some sympathy for the victim (who has never been shown to us personally as wicked or cruel, though described in this way by other characters), unalloyed pity for Lizaveta whom we like – and yet fellow-feeling for Raskolnikov and a desire for him to get away with his deed and not be found out. This last, of course, is achieved by letting us in to the workings of his mind, so that we almost become complicit with him. The whole chapter is a piece of brilliant writing.

 

pasternakslater-coverBK: Why do you think we should read Crime and Punishment today? Why does this novel still resonate with us?

NPS: The novel is at the same time an incomparably gripping and lively story, with a cast of unique and memorable characters, a study in crime and punishment, sin and redemption as moral issues, a treasury of descriptions of the city of Petersburg and its people, a work of social commentary and a religious tract. And more. So what out of all that still speaks to readers in other countries, a century and a half later? For myself personally, I am very interested in the descriptions of the world and time my Russian grandparents were born into; but for the general Western reader, descriptions of deprivation and social injustice are still so prevalent today, from all over the world, that such topics speak less to us now. Of all the many reasons for reading the novel today, I would put the cast of characters at the top of the list. The brilliant portrayals range from Raskolnikov himself – so complicated, tortured, mentally fragile, flung this way and that by sudden irresistible impulses – through the pitiful, hopeless Marmeladov, the saturnine many-sided Svidrigailov, the mephistophelean Porfiry Petrovich, and on to the virtuous characters, the good-hearted but rather comical Razumikhin, Raskolnikov’s naïve but well-meaning mother Pulcheria Alexandrovna, his practical-minded sister Dunia, and the saintly Sonia. Then there are some memorable lesser characters like the maid Nastasia or Lieutenant Gunpowder, and finally a whole cast of walk-on parts, some of whom are sketched out with skill and care in a few pen-strokes (for instance the street girl Duklida who treats Raskolnikov courteously, the drunken teenage girl stalked by a would-be abuser, or the child Polya). Human nature doesn’t change much over the centuries, and these character portraits remain as alive in our day as they were in 1866.

MK: Dostoevsky raises all the right questions, the most important ones that can be asked: the meaning of good and evil, the existence of God, the nature of love, the power of ideas. Even if we reject some of his answers, those questions remain the ones that we struggle with today. Human love and religious faith are his answers.


Michael Katz is the C. V. Starr Professor Emeritus of Russian and East European Studies at Middlebury College. His published research includes numerous articles and two books, The Literary Ballad in Early Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature (1976) and Dreams and the Unconscious in Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature (1984). A prolific translator, he has made a number of works available for English language readers, including prose by Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chernyshevsky, Herzen, Tur, Druzhinin, Artsybashev, Sleptsov, Jabotinsky, and others. His translations of Dostoevsky’s works include Notes from Underground (1989, 2nd ed. 2001), Devils (2010), and Crime and Punishment (2018).

Nicolas Pasternak Slater has a half-Russian background, was brought up bilingual, and studied Russian at school and university as well as during his military service. He spent most of his working life as a hospital doctor and came to translation after retirement. Besides Crime and Punishment (2017), his translations include Pasternak’s Family Correspondence (2010), Lermontov’s A Hero of our Time (2013), Pushkin’s The Journey to Arzrum (2013), Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories (2015), and, most recently, Chekhov’s The Beauties: Essential Stories (2018).

The cover image for this post is a screenshot from Piotr Dumała’s animated adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novel (Zbrodnia i kara, 2000). You can view the full animation here.

Translating Crime and Punishment: A Conversation with Michael Katz and Nicolas Pasternak Slater, part 2

This past November two new translations of Crime and Punishment were published. Michael Katz’s translation came out with Liveright, a branch of W. W. Norton (link), with an introduction by Katz. Nicolas Pasternak Slater’s came out with Oxford University Press (link), edited and with an introduction by Sarah J. Young. In this series of posts, Bloggers Karamazov sits down with the translators to talk about the experience of translating Dostoevsky’s most famous novel.

This is the 2nd in a series of 3 posts; click here for part 1.

BK: The act of translation puts you in intensely close contact with the text. Did you notice anything while you were translating that you had never noticed before? Did your perception of the novel shift in any way?

pasternakslater-coverNPS: When I came to start my translation I had not read the novel for very many years. What I remembered was the skeleton of the plot, and an impression of a gripping but heavy, depressing, chaotic, episodic story. So translating it now enriched my perception in a great many ways. Let me pick just one – Dostoevsky’s humor. He is a brilliant humorist who sees the ridiculous in almost any sphere of life, and in this novel he plays with humor in the most diverse and unexpected situations. When the German Luisa Ivanovna has a verbal set-to with Lieutenant Gunpowder in the police office, their showdown is pure slapstick farce. The meeting between Dunia’s absurdly pompous suitor Luzhin and Raskolnikov’s family who soundly humiliate him is also richly comical, as well as important for the plot. But even the most tragic situations can be injected with comedy. The drunkard Marmeladov’s lengthy confession at the beginning of the novel is funny, with its swathes of biblical language and then the way he revels in his degrading punishment. Or there is the macabre but absurd scene near the end of the book where the demented Katerina Ivanovna drags her little children out into the street in ragged fancy dress to dance and sing for pennies. Even one of the most horrible moments in the whole novel, Raskolnikov’s dream of the horse being beaten to death, has its grim humor – the drunken peasant Mikolka makes himself thoroughly ridiculous when he desperately flogs and beats his little horse, harder and harder, in frustrated fury that he can’t get the poor beast to die.

MK: The Russian ear tolerates repetition – of long names including patronymics and certain words and phrases. As a translator I noticed the multiple repetitions in the text and had to decide whether they were semantically loaded and needed to be preserved in my translation, or whether they were dispensable and could be replaced by a synonym or a pronoun. Such decisions are not easily made: the translator has to rely on his understanding of the text and his own intuition.

 

katz-coverBK: Which character do you think is the most misunderstood in the novel?

MK: Without doubt, it’s Arkady Svidrigaylov. He appears out of a dream and his mysterious presence seems to haunt the hero. He is alleged to be responsible for the deaths of three other characters (his wife, his servant, and a young girl). He commits acts of cruelty and generosity, and feels neither compunction nor satisfaction. He seeks a relationship with Raskolnikov, but it is unclear why he does so. All in all, he remains something of a mystery.

NPS: I wondered – misunderstood by whom? The author, the other characters, or the readers? But I thought that the most universally misunderstood, perhaps, is Svidrigailov, the man of mystery with a shadowy past who hangs around Raskolnikov like a nemesis. On one reading, he is so enigmatic as almost to make no sense – is he fundamentally good (clearly not), or fundamentally evil (also not), and how do the good and bad sides in his character coexist? On the bad side, he may (or may not) have caused his wife’s death, he is a self-confessed libertine, he tries (or threatens) to rape Raskolnikov’s sister Dunia, and he plans to marry a child for his sexual gratification. Yet he performs many good actions, including saving Katerina Ivanovna’s orphan children and giving Dunia a large sum of money. Perhaps the last of his moral actions is to commit suicide. I think his character actually hangs together quite well: though repugnant, he is an intelligent man with a philosophical bent and humane instincts of empathy and kindness, who is saddled with sexual appetites that he can barely control. This is a paradox we meet often enough in real life (in this day and age, might he have been a charity worker in a third-world disaster area?).  Dostoevsky, of course, must condemn him because none of his humane motivations come from God or religion: he is an amoral freethinker.

Dumala-Svidrigailov

BK: It’s interesting that you both chose the same character! Svidrigaylov is a scoundrel in many of his acts in the novel, and I agree that he remains a mysterious, ambiguous figure. Do you think he is a sympathetic character at all?

MK: He is “charming” and sincere in his despair; I don’t find him sympathetic.

NPS: I have already alluded to the good actions he performs, and while we may suspect his motives when he tries to make a gift of money to Dunia, and certainly when he makes a much more lavish gift to his (no longer) intended child bride, his farewell gifts to Sonia and her little brother and sister are untainted by sinister motives, and the reader is bound to approve of him at those moments. The slug in the lettuce, as it were, is not the action he performs, nor its intended good effect, but his inner thoughts at the time. He is a disillusioned cynic, a moral nihilist, and as a reader I cannot imagine him filled with a glow of virtuous satisfaction even during his most generous acts. No, he is looking at himself almost as an outsider, cynically weighing himself up and devaluing whatever looks virtuous and kind. There is no path he can take now save that of self-destruction. As a reader, I can feel sorry for him, I can feel glad about his good actions, but I cannot have fellow-feeling for such a self-annihilating person.

 

click here for part 3!


Michael Katz is the C. V. Starr Professor Emeritus of Russian and East European Studies at Middlebury College. His published research includes numerous articles and two books, The Literary Ballad in Early Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature (1976) and Dreams and the Unconscious in Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature (1984). A prolific translator, he has made a number of works available for English language readers, including prose by Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chernyshevsky, Herzen, Tur, Druzhinin, Artsybashev, Sleptsov, Jabotinsky, and others. His translations of Dostoevsky’s works include Notes from Underground (1989, 2nd ed. 2001), Devils (2010), and Crime and Punishment (2018).

Nicolas Pasternak Slater has a half-Russian background, was brought up bilingual, and studied Russian at school and university as well as during his military service. He spent most of his working life as a hospital doctor and came to translation after retirement. Besides Crime and Punishment (2017), his translations include Pasternak’s Family Correspondence (2010), Lermontov’s A Hero of our Time (2013), Pushkin’s The Journey to Arzrum (2013), Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories (2015), and, most recently, Chekhov’s The Beauties: Essential Stories (2018).

The cover image for this post is a screenshot from Piotr Dumała’s animated adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novel (Zbrodnia i kara, 2000). You can view the full animation here.

Translating Crime and Punishment: A Conversation with Michael Katz and Nicolas Pasternak Slater, part 1

This past November two new translations of Crime and Punishment were published. Michael Katz’s translation came out with Liveright, a branch of W. W. Norton (link), with an introduction by Katz. Nicolas Pasternak Slater’s came out with Oxford University Press (link), edited and with an introduction by Sarah J. Young. In this series of posts, Bloggers Karamazov sits down with the translators to talk about the experience of translating Dostoevsky’s most famous novel.

 

BK: Why did you decide to translate Crime and Punishment? What speaks to you about this novel?

katz-coverMK: Norton Publishers asked me to recommend a translator, since they intended to commission a new translation of C&P. I nominated myself, of course. They asked me to submit a proposal and a sample of my work. In particular, they asked that I address the weaknesses of Pevear and Volokhonsky’s version (1992); I did so and endeavored to demonstrate in my sample how my version would be an improvement on theirs.

The novel is first and foremost an engrossing detective story: not a “whodunnit?” but rather a “why he dunnit?” The search for a motive or motives for Raskolnikov’s crime is intriguing as three strong characters vie for the hero’s allegiance and/or love: the examining magistrate, Porfiry Petrovich; the humble prostitute, Sonya Marmeladova; and the mysterious stranger, Arkady Svidrigaylov. Dostoevsky asks all the right questions: the nature of man, the existence of God, the meaning of faith, the importance of love. Although I may not agree with all of his answers, I find his search for answers meaningful.

pasternakslater-coverNPS: This is really two questions – why did I decide to translate, and why Crime and Punishment. The second one is simple – I agreed to translate Crime and Punishment because my publishers asked me to, and I jumped at the chance of translating one of the great monuments of European literature.

The first part of the question is more complicated. I translate because I am intrigued by style and language – and languages in the plural. Brought up bilingual, I found other languages (and the ways they work differently from English) a fascinating puzzle; I have collected languages the way other people collect stamps, and translated from several of them. The interest of carrying vocabulary and style across language barriers is what attracts me, and the way that this involves working both with the human element – ideas, stories, arguments, emotions – on the one hand, and the technicalities of vocabulary, syntax and style on the other. My formal training in Russian covered both aspects, first an advanced interpreter’s course in the British Navy, and then a degree in Russian literature at Oxford.  In line with this, my first job after graduating was with a language research unit, developing automated translation between Russian and English by computer (that was in the 1960s, when a computer was the size of a couple of rooms). All this was later echoed in my main career as a hospital doctor specializing in diseases of the blood: there was the human side, discussions and explanations with patients and their families, and the technical side, from physical examination of my patients to running their tests in the laboratory or looking down a microscope at their blood. After retirement I returned to my first love of translation, seeking a similar mix again.

One thing that speaks to me about the novel – apart from the kaleidoscope of strange characters and the piercing evocation of guilt and stress – is the vivid descriptions of the city and the way poor people lived. When my wife and I visited Petersburg ten or twelve years ago and did a sort of Crime and Punishment pilgrimage, visiting the places said to have inspired Dostoevsky, we passed a throng of destitute people by the roadside, trying to sell anything they had, from used bootlaces to a handful of plastic bags. It was a sad and startling sight; Dostoevsky knew that side of his city all too well.

 

BK: What is the most difficult part of the novel to translate and why? How does it feel to translate Dostoevsky into English?

NPS: The most difficult part of the novel to translate, but at the same time one of the most rewarding, is the dialogue. Almost all the characters in Crime and Punishment have an individual ‘voice’ which carries over from one episode to the next. I have tried to copy their distinctive voices as faithfully as I could, while making each character’s speech seem natural in English. At the same time, the colloquial speech, while sounding normal to the modern ear, must not be too colloquial – it would never do to have palpably twenty-first-century expressions intruding into this nineteenth-century novel. Yet nor does one want old-fashioned Victorian English. What the translator has to look for is a kind of neutral speech that sounds natural when spoken, without being too specifically redolent of England (or any other English-speaking nation, but I write as a British translator); one has to remember that the story is about Russia. – When Dostoevsky uses outspokenly lower-class or peasant expressions, it becomes even more difficult. Some translators have had recourse to Cockney (London) slang to render demotic Russian, and this sometimes works, though it can be treacherous. Regional provincial English is even more of a minefield, and best avoided I think.

MK: The hardest part to translate is the author’s dark sense of humor. It comes to the fore especially in the witty exchanges between Raskolnikov and Porfiry Petrovich. A good example is the entrance staged by Raskolnikov with his forced laughter at Razumikhin’s expense; Porfiry quickly grasps the trick and even comments on it. It is even more apparent in Dostoevsky’s novel Devils (1871-72), which I translated some years ago for Oxford World Classics. In that novel all political ideas were parodied as they were taken to the extreme, the result being that no character could really be taken seriously.

Translating Dostoevsky into English means living in his overwrought and emotional world for several hours a day. It is exhausting but exhilarating.

Dumala-bridge

click here for Part 2!


Michael Katz is the C. V. Starr Professor Emeritus of Russian and East European Studies at Middlebury College. His published research includes numerous articles and two books, The Literary Ballad in Early Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature (1976) and Dreams and the Unconscious in Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature (1984). A prolific translator, he has made a number of works available for English language readers, including prose by Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chernyshevsky, Herzen, Tur, Druzhinin, Artsybashev, Sleptsov, Jabotinsky, and others. His translations of Dostoevsky’s works include Notes from Underground (1989, 2nd ed. 2001), Devils (2010), and Crime and Punishment (2018).

Nicolas Pasternak Slater has a half-Russian background, was brought up bilingual, and studied Russian at school and university as well as during his military service. He spent most of his working life as a hospital doctor and came to translation after retirement. Besides Crime and Punishment (2017), his translations include Pasternak’s Family Correspondence (2010), Lermontov’s A Hero of our Time (2013), Pushkin’s The Journey to Arzrum (2013), Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories (2015), and, most recently, Chekhov’s The Beauties: Essential Stories (2018).

The cover image for this post is a screenshot from Piotr Dumała’s animated adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novel (Zbrodnia i kara, 2000). You can view the full animation here.