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.

Dostoevsky and Elijah the Prophet

by Robert Mann

No one taught you that Raskolnikov confesses on Elijah’s Day, a major holiday in prerevolutionary Russia. On this holiday up to 100,000 people would gather near the Church of Elijah, which was built beside the gunpowder factory to protect it from explosions. Elijah was believed to control rain, fire and lightning, a provenance that he inherited from the Slavic thunder god Perun when ancient Rus’ transitioned to the Christian faith. When more rain was needed for crops, people turned to Elijah. When there was too much rain, again they appealed to Elijah. In some communities Elijah had two hypostases and even two churches: Wet Elijah (needed in times of drought) and Dry Elijah (who could stop excessive rain). As a harbinger of the Last Judgment he was seen as fierce, fiery and ominous, but at the same time he was the generous provider of rain and abundance. All rain, thunder and lightning came from Elijah. Even in the early twentieth century, Russian folk would make the sign of the cross at the sound of thunder. The rumbling was attributed to Elijah’s chariot as it lumbered across the stormclouds. And a thunderstorm was always expected on Elijah’s Day (July 20 on the old calendar, August 2 on the new).

How do we know that Raskolnikov confesses on Elijah’s Day? It really makes little difference whether the spectacular thunderstorm that is the prelude to his confession is precisely the Elijah’s Day storm that was expected each year or just another one of Elijah’s rainstorms. However, we can say with confidence that it is the proverbial storm of Elijah’s Day, July 20, that soaks and batters Raskolnikov as he wanders around the city all night in spiritual torment. The first words of the novel are “in the beginning of July”. One can assume, therefore, that the action begins sometime in the first week of the month. Although the story’s chronology is not explicitly defined, it appears that around fourteen days go by before the confession. This takes us to the period July 15-22. For over two weeks there has been no rain in Petersburg. It is hot, humid and unpleasant. And so, looming behind the storm is the traditional folkloric expectation of a storm on July 20. (“It might not rain today, but surely there will be rain on Elijah’s Day.”) In addition, it is a very special thunderstorm – a spectacular, torrential deluge with lightning that illuminates the sky for five seconds at a time. Ilya Petrovich, to whom Raskolnikov confesses, is a reflection of Elijah as he is perceived in popular belief. His name is Ilya ‘Elijah’. He is fiery-tempered and is depicted with all sorts of imagery pertaining to thunder and lightning. He lets loose “with all his thunderbolts” at one visitor. His nickname is Gunpowder, which elicits associations with the boom of thunder and with the Church of Elijah at the gunpowder factory. (In the water of the Rzhevka, just upstream from the church, you can still see the huge millstones that were used for grinding the powder ingredients.) Thus, beaten down by Elijah’s storm, Raskolnikov confesses on Elijah’s Day to a booming Elijah, who is an assistant superintendent in the police force – much as Elijah in folk belief functions as a sort of policeman at God’s side, reminding mortals of their sins and Judgment with his lightning.

The imagery and symbolic filigree go far beyond the few details I have mentioned here. The discovery of the Elijah leitmotif in Dostoevsky’s fiction is perhaps the most far-reaching of all textual discoveries in his works, although it has been completely ignored among Dostoevsky scholars. Significantly, this symbolism begins in his early works written before his arrest and exile. The enigmatic novella The Landlady is virtually deciphered by the Elijah allusions. Its central, mysterious figure – the gruff old Ilya Murin – is an earthly emanation of the fierce Elijah, not a demonic power as he is ordinarily seen by readers who aren’t aware of Elijah’s role in early Russian culture. And, as with Raskolnikov, Elijah is victorious in the end – the same Christian pattern that we find in Dostoevsky’s later writing. The rebellious young freethinker returns to the flock.

All of the storms that one finds in Dostoevsky’s fiction were associated in the writer’s mind with Elijah. I am always asked why Dostoevsky employed Elijah symbolism so frequently. The answer lies in his overarching theme – his focus on conscience, Judgment, and his belief in a uniquely Russian spirituality, the “Russian soul”. In order to portray that spirituality he needed emblems of a specifically Russian Christianity. Jesus and Mary, as portrayed in the Bible, are universal figures in the Christian faith; there is nothing specifically Slavic about them. By the time he began his writing career, he settled on the Russian folkloric Elijah and all the beliefs pertaining to him as his chosen emblem of an exceptional Russian spirituality.

The storms in The Eternal Husband, The Insulted and Injured, The Little Hero, The Brothers Karamazov, “Mr. Prokharchin” and other works all evoke the Russian folkloric Elijah. However, only in one work does the author lay bare the Elijah associations in an explicit fashion: The Village of Stepanchikovo and Its Inhabitants. In this humorous Christian allegory of good and evil, the kind and magnanimous Yegor Ilyich Rostanev is a reflection of God and Elijah, while the nasty backbiter Foma Fomich Opiskin is a reflection of the Devil. The denouement comes precisely on Elijah’s Day, the nameday of Rostanev’s son Ilya. And it is during the Elijah’s Day storm that Rostanev finally ejects Foma from his home. As he contemplates his decision, he sits down in a corner and says he will now state his final word. There is a moment’s silence and then the most deafening of all thunder strikes overhead. The gathered visitors and spongers make the sign of the cross and exclaim “Elijah the Prophet!” The thunder is Rostanev’s final word, so to speak – the word of Elijah, the voice of Judgment.

For scholars who know little about Russian folk tradition and have difficulty dealing with spiritual symbols and allegory the climactic expulsion of Foma during the Elijah’s Day storm should be a wake-up call – a signal that Dostoevsky attached special value to Elijah as he is perceived in folk belief. The storm at the climax of Stepanchikovo is a precursor of the punishing storm of Judgment that leads to Raskolnikov’s confession. (A thunderstorm also serves as the backdrop to the finale of The Insulted and Injured, which was published in the seven-year interim between Stepanchikovo and Crime and Punishment.)

The Brothers Karamazov is replete with evocations of Elijah. Various details and motifs link the dying boy Ilyusha, his father Snegiryov and Pyotr Ilyich Perkhotin with Elijah. The conflict between Dmitrii and his father can be compared with Ordynov’s and Raskolnikov’s rebellion against God’s order. And, once again, the climactic moment in the novel’s action – that of Dmitrii’s arrest – comes on the background of a rainstorm. In his desperate quest for money Dmitrii has just gone to Sukhoi Posyolok (Dry Village), led there by a priest from a Church of Elijah (Il’inskii batiushka). But the trip is only a hellish purgatory for Dmitrii. The lumber dealer he finds there is drunk and unconscious, and Dmitrii is nearly asphyxiated by a faulty flue as he tries to sleep. This, so to speak, is the punishing ordeal of Dry Elijah. Soon he is arrested at Mokroye (Wet Village) as the rain comes down. On a spiritual, symbolic level this is the retribution of Wet Elijah.

In the first draft of the novel, Dmitrii is named Il’inskii after a real-life prototype whom the writer met in Omsk prison. Il’inskii had been imprisoned for patricide and served seven years but was subsequently exonerated. Given the Elijah symbolism that Dostoevsky had already been using before his arrest, Il’inskii’s surname must have been an additional factor that played with the writer’s imagination along with the horrific circumstances of the elder Il’inskii’s murder.

bookkod jpeg.JPG.opt173x242o0,0s173x242BrothersJPG.JPG.opt169x235o0,0s169x235This blog piece, by necessity brief, is a tiny introduction to Dostoevsky’s Elijah symbolism, which is examined in greater depth in an ebook that I have published with Amazon called Dostoevsky: What They Don’t Teach You in School. Related titles on paper are The Brothers Karamazov: an Unorthodox Guide; The Landlady; and Tainyi kod Dostoevskogo – Il’ia-prorok v russkoi literature.


Robert Mann is a researcher in Russian literature. His interest in early Russian epic and folklore led to his theory of Kievan tales in which Elijah the Prophet destroys the idol of his pagan predecessor Perun. He maintains that the folkloric hero Il’ia, known as Muromets in recent times, derives directly from the prophet Elijah in tales of the conversion period. His study of Elijah in oral lore led to his discovery of the Elijah leitmotif in Dostoevsky.