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I HAVE Englishwoman Constance Garnett to thank for my discovering Russian classics. Publisher Random House played a role as well for its striking red cover of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
And reminding me of this long-ago obsession, I have The New York Times Book Review, December 28, 2014, with its lead article “Found in Translation,” by Masha Gessen. See http://goo.gl/8m8e1X.
When I read Crime and Punishment (I was probably 15 or so), I chose a lot of books by their covers. Plus, the heft of this 493-page Russian classic was satisfying. (If you’re gonna be a bear, be a grizzly.)
In a deeply introspective way, Crime and Punishment is a detective novel. Rodion Raskolnikov is a poor ex-student who kills an unscrupulous pawnbroker, with the intent of using her money to perform good deeds. Through interactions with his girlfriend Sonya Semyonovna Marmeladova and police detective Porfiry Petrovich—spoiler alert!—Raskolnikov ultimately loses his nerve and confesses.
Unlike conventional сваренный вкрутую (hard-boiled) tales, Crime and Punishment ends on a happy note. (Provided, that is, you consider eight years of Siberian servitude with your girlfriend happy.)
Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina was another of Constance Garnett’s 71 volumes of translations. It’s also the topic of Masha Gessen’s article “Found in Translation.” She discusses the subtleties of translating one rich and complex language, Russian, into another, English.
As an Anna Karenina example, Gessen cites what she calls “one of the greatest first lines in the history of the novel.”
Constance Garnett translated the line as “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
A new translation, by Marian Schwartz, replaces “are all alike” with “resemble one another.” In doing so, Schwartz adheres to Tolstoy’s choice of Russian words; she says he “points to a more complicated opinion about those happy families.”
What’s more, differences in translation involve more than merely word choice. Gessen discusses the matter of overall intent: Should a passage be smoothly readable in English, or should it convey the complexity (and sometimes even “robust awkwardness”) of the author and original language?
Russian offers other challenges as well in the rendering of time. Verb tenses in Russian are different from those in English, often leaving an intended, if subtle, ambiguity.
In Garnett’s translation, “The wife had found out that the husband was having an affair with the French governess formerly in their house.”
Schwartz prefers ambiguity: “The wife had found out about her husband’s affair with the French governess formerly in their home.” That is, neither the wife nor the reader knows whether the affair is over.
This reminds me of the Japanese word でも, demo. It literally means “but,” however there’s an overtone of ambiguity: “Will you go?” “Well, I have other things to do, demo….” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays, 2015