Friday, 2 December 2011

Crime in Translation, or Fibbing like a Horse

Me and the Capitol

To my regret, no blogging has happened for a while - I have been lecturing and world travelling (if successive trips to Norway, Ireland, and Washington DC qualify as such), and my adventures left me very little time to write. But tonight I attended two unrelated and very disparate cultural events which sent me back to my keyboard.

The first was a talk by Oxford-based academic and translator Oliver Ready. Oliver is currently revising his forthcoming translation of Crime and Punishment, and he spoke to the Russian Graduate Seminar about his travails. Oliver's talk pointed up some general, almost philosophical issues faced by all translators as well as some Dostoevsky-specific problems. His title, for instance, 'Suddenly, Somehow, Even - On Retranslating Crime and Punishment', emphasized the misleadingly superfluous, apparently almost meaningless adverbial qualifiers and particles with which Dostoevsky scatters his prose. 'Dazhe', meaning 'even', is a favourite in Crime and Punishment; I seem to remember that 'davecha', 'just now', abounds throughout The Idiot. But do these words deserve translation, and, further, do they deserve a literal (equally meaningless) translation? Or should the translator choose to reduce and/or intensify them in order to achieve a more coherent paragraph? Similarly, should Dostoevsky's tendency to recycle different versions of the same verb, or cognates of the same root, in a single paragraph or sentence be reinforced or amended by the translator? And a very Russian conundrum - if different aspects of one verb are used in a single sentence, should they be translated by different verbs in English, or by different tenses of the same verb?
Oliver Ready
Oliver revealed that he keeps, perforce, a personal dictionary of Dostoevsky's 'fillers' - the 'suddenlys', 'somehows', and 'evens' - in order to make his translations consistent. Overall, any translator has to choose whether to accept the apparent incoherence, or the lexical limitation, as a deliberate aesthetic effect of a given text - or whether to 'correct' it. With Dostoevsky's writing, in addition to this nearly ethical responsibility, should we ascribe the hurried, jumbled style and plot to the pressures the writer suffered? Or, alternately, were they deliberately calculated to enthrall, confuse, and even moderately torment the reader? Was Dostoevsky a divinely inspired vaticinator, or just another talented hack with a deadline?  Literary scholars locked horns over this long ago, and the innocent translator risks getting trapped in a fight with no winners.

A general problem affecting nineteenth-century classics: whether the translation should provide matching 'vintage' style (as David McDuff apparently opted to do in his 1991 Penguin Classics translation, which has a consciously Dickensian, and therefore relatively verbose, tone) or whether it should be updated, risking anachronism. Oliver, to his credit, hasn't picked - yet - a single narrative tone for a novel that (he claims) still lacks a definitive English translation. Nor does he yet have final or consistent answers to the many specific translation problems that he posed. What he did offer, intriguingly, was a selection of choice passages from Crime and Punishment - followed by different translators' efforts to convey their meaning. This was a revealing and often amusing exercise. For instance, here's Razumikhin on 'lying like a horse':

  • 'Ну, конечно, бабушкин сон рассказывает, врет как лошадь, потому я этого Душкина знаю’
  • Garnett: ‘Of course, that's all taradiddle; he lies like a horse, for I know this Dushkin’
  • Pevear/Volokhonsky: ‘Well, of course, that’s all his old granny’s dream, he’s lying like a rug’
  • McDuff: ‘Well, of course, this was all a load of moonshine, he was lying like a horse’
  • Oliver: ‘Well, this is all just an old woman’s dream, of course; he’s fibbing like a horse’.
The idiom of the mendacious equine sounds bizarre, and seems to lack precedents in either Russian or English; but as Oliver pointed out, the horse, whether truthful or not, is a central image in the novel (and certainly shouldn't be prematurely converted into a rug).  

Perhaps one of the most important findings expressed in Oliver's talk was the significance of just such isolated words - such as 'delo', 'business' or 'matter', and 'konets', meaning 'end' - as markers of hidden purpose in the many-layered fabric of C and P. These recurring individual words, and their cognates, carry greater meaning than the rapid reader or the careless translator ever suspects. They betray the secret, unrealized obsessions of characters; their lexical shifts reflect psychological transitions, and they may point the way to ethical resolutions. Repetitiousness - one of Dostoevsky's most publicly criticized failings - may in fact be central to his moral and psychological message. Oliver retold the old Russian joke about this particular novel: 'Not to have read it is a crime, and reading it, is the punishment'. From what I've heard to date, I'm convinced that his new translation will take the punishment out of the sentence (if not yet out of the title).

My second cultural adventure of the day - a trip to the cinema to see a performance of John Hodge's new play The Collaborators, beamed in from the National Theatre - will have to wait for its own post. Don't bring impressionable young Bulgakov fans to see this play, however; they may throw stones.


  1. Wonderful stuff; I love comparisons of translation details (and that gives me another reason to mock the overhyped Pevear/Volokhonsky). I'm very impressed by this, which makes me willing to recommend his version sight unseen: "Oliver revealed that he keeps, perforce, a personal dictionary of Dostoevsky's 'fillers' - the 'suddenlys', 'somehows', and 'evens' - in order to make his translations consistent." I am very firmly on the side of the "deliberate aesthetic effect of a given text" and regard any attempt to "correct" great writers as an impertinence, if not a crime. I love the fact that Chandler undertook the immense labor of retranslating Platonov because he realized he had smoothed out too much in his first version and should have trusted Platonov's style more; this is a lesson all translators should take to heart. Great authors generally know what they're doing; they're not infallible, but it's not up to us to decide when they've erred and how to fix it.

  2. I also enjoyed this post, Russian Dinosaur, thank you! It's always fun to revisit the big, philosophical questions of translation within the context of a specific translation and, like Languagehat, I love comparing translations.

    For fun, I looked up the line in the Sidney Monas translation I read in high school:
    "Well, he was talking hogwash, of course. I know this Dushkin. He lies like a trooper."
    So much for the horse!

    1. Semantically, the lying gelding phrase translates into English as follows: Well, sir this story doesn't hold no water. I'll be damned if he was just lying through his teeth to us.

      And I am pretty sure that the "filler" can't be discarded, too, but it can't be translated ,realistically, with the same set of words all the time ,as well, due to a multitude of meanings these words carry.

  3. Thank you for your comment, Lisa! I wonder what Frederick Whishaw, the earliest English translator of C and P, put? I just searched abortively for an online version of his translation - goodness knows it must be out of copyright by now. I think 'lying like a trooper' is a very good, idiomatic-sounding version - I've yet to meet a horse that was liberal with the truth! However, a Russian friend reminded me of the colourful horse-related pogovorka 'Врет, как сивый мерин' - which does give Dostoevsky's odd expression a certain idiomatic pedigree. More details at

  4. That Russian phrase is very interesting! I'd never heard (or taken note of?) that one. Then again, "lie like a trooper" made no sense to me, though "swear like a trooper" is familiar ground.

    Your comment on "trooper" sent me to the dictionary: I didn't realize that the word can refer to a horse. I think of soldiers and (state) policemen.

    I searched the Whishaw C&P and found it on Google Books but wasn't able to search and find that exact line; I may have chosen my search terms unwisely. (Alas, results are very short and limited.) Then I found, courtesy of Rachel May, that Whishaw "truncated" the novel... which brings us back to the question of the translator's role.

  5. Catherine Cauvin-Higgins13 December 2011 at 00:10

    Wonderful post! and so funny! Thank you... I discovered it through Lizok's Bookshelf ;-)

    I had the same reaction as Lisa about "trooper," but am delighted to have learned something (the old pogovorka included). This dicussion made me wonder what the choices have been in French (unfortunately I have those classics in Russian only at home): could not find a thing online (even through Google books and Gutenberg). The horse would not come to mind either in the context of lying, but "arracheur de dents" would, totally losing the image. Yet, there must be a translation out there where the translator (and there are big names like Pierre Pascal and younger ones) went through the same soul-searching process... I'll investigate further...

    The translator's dilemma is so well presented in your post! There is a renewed interest, it seems, in translation, judging by the activity of various imprints, big and small. The ever growing pressure to "sell," though, that management teams put on their acquisition people, leads to a trend on copy editors' part to "correct" and "abridge" which is quite unsettling, assuming that's what readers want (smooth, effortless, quick, spare us the details!). Intellectually insulting to those authors whose voice still comes loud and clear through time like Dost.
    Even "prestigious" publishing houses in Paris ask Russian authors to cut their long novels by a third if they want to be published (award-winning authors, mind you!!).