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It is not my intention here to review this novel itself, except to say that despite being in some ways difficult, mainly due to the extreme volatility and complex interactions of the main protagonists, which are not always easy to interpret, I found this to be a great work of literature. The book is powerful, dark and multi-layered – full of intelligence, wit, pathos and insights into humanity and personal motivations. A disturbing, memorable and great work.
Instead, I want to focus on the translation. Over the last few weeks I have now read the book twice, in two different translations. First that by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (known rather tweely in the trade as P&V) and afterwards the Oxford Classics one by Alan Myers. The difference could not be more stark. Quite simply, the P&V one is appalling. I was nearly put off Dostoevsky for life, and I fear my wife has been (we were both reading this for a book club). I am well aware that Dostoevsky has an often quirky style of writing in the original, but I could not believe that he was really as clumsy as this. The P&V rendering is frequently clunky and disjointed and full of word choices which simply do not ring true or make sense in the English language. They have a veritable mania for using the words “finally” and “definitively” over and over, and there are clearly plain errors of translation. For example, after one epileptic seizure the protagonist, Prince Myshkin, is pronounced to be generally feeling himself again, apart from a case of “hypochondria”. Myers sensibly translates this instead as a sense of “mild depression”. As the father of someone who has suffered from epilepsy for 36 years, I can assure P&V that hypochondria is not a well-known post-ictal side-effect. On the following page General Ivolgin is referred to as already being dead, when in fact he is only on the point of dying.
As far as I can glean, the P&V translation phenomenon seems to have taken off when they had the lucky break to have their rendering of Anna Karenina chosen in 2004 by Oprah Winfrey, causing sales to go viral. P&V then seem to have gone into overdrive as a translation machine, producing new versions of as many Russian works as they could, whether needed or not, and benefiting from massive publisher’s hype, alleging their efforts to be the new “authoritative” translations.
There is much info out there on this duo, some of it rather glowing “Hello” magazine type profiles. The strange thing is that Pevear feels able to pronounce dogmatically on what is and is not acceptable in the translations, yet by his own admission has very little Russian himself (relying on his wife), and not much interest in going to Russia. One might have thought that at least his contribution might have been to turn what often reads like a literal first draft into something which reads naturally in English. Otherwise one may as well resort to Google Translate.
If anyone has read this far, I apologise for the lengthy harangue. But as someone who loves literature, it dismays me to see great writing ruined by dreadful translation, bolstered by hype and commercial considerations.
Read Alan Myers’s version if you want to enjoy this extraordinary book.
This book was published by Amazon. The printing of the letters in the book are so small you will need a magnifying glass to see them. I suppose that Amazon was trying to publish as cheaply as they could possibly get away with. Again, terrible!!!-do not by this edition from Amazon. Awful!! Awful! Awful!!!!
I'm sure it is an amazing novel, but I could not get past the first chapter due to the mind-bogglingly terrible translation. It looks like the whole 600+ pages were smashed into Google Translate and then sold as the "English edition". I hope I can somehow get e refund for this piece of trash, as I will have to buy a different edition now in order to actually read the novel. Shocking.
I intended to read this classic book but it is a poor translation into English, seemingly by a person for whom English is not his first language. If we had not been away from home when we were trying to read it, we would have returned it for credit.