Riddle of Life and Dostoyevsky Translation

Translators are modern day alchemists, trying to generate gold from gold without introducing impurity. Translate with absolute fidelity and lose the rhythm or retain the emotional power by using some versatility and inventiveness? One needs to be a writer of some talent, yet have bags of humility.

Before reading Dostoyevsky’s Memoirs from the House of the Dead, also known as House of the Dead or Notes from a Dead House, I compared three translations side by side. The three sentences below are quite instructive, but, to be honest, the translated titles were almost sufficient to make the case. Jessie Coulson’s Memoirs from the House of the Dead is unquestionably the most aesthetically pleasing title; Constance Garnett’s House of the Dead is straightforward; Pevear and Volokhonsky choice of Notes from a Dead House seems pretty wretched to me: what is a ‘dead house’?

In the sentences below, P&V and Coulson chose ‘riddle of life’ versus Garnett’s more dour ‘problem of existence.’ I’m sure both work but answers in comments please if you know what Dostoyevsky meant, or maybe it becomes clear later in the book. I’ve only just started. Do I need to go to Siberia to solve the riddle of life? Or the problem of existence?

It’s the third sentence that stands out for me, where Coulson’s translation is the one with just the right amount of rhythm and pace. I’ll take ‘frivolous’ over ‘light-minded’ and ‘more levity.’ The P&V sentences sound clunkier in comparison.

I could draw out other examples but the decisive one for me was Coulson’s ‘The people were simple, untouched by liberal ideas …” compared to Garnett’s stiffer but fine ‘The inhabitants are simple folk and not of liberal views…” compared to P&V’s ‘People live simply, unprogressively.’ So I chose the Coulson, and I am inclined to reread The Brothers Karamazov in the Ignat Avsey translation sometime soon to balance the P&V interpretation I finished this week.

Jessie Coulson:

Those among them who are capable of solving the riddle of life almost all remain in Siberia and gladly take root there. The fruits they subsequently bear are sweet and abundant. The others, the frivolous ones, who cannot guess the answer to life’s riddle, soon grow weary of Siberia, and disheartened, ask themselves why they ever came there.

Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky:

Those who are able to solve the riddle of life almost always stay in Siberia and delight in taking root there. Later on they bear sweet and and abundant fruit. But others, light-minded folk, unable to solve the riddle of life, soon weary of Siberia and ask themselves in anguish why on earth they ended up there.

Constance Garnett:

Those of them who are clever at solving the problem of existence almost always remain in Siberia, and eagerly take root there. Later on they bring forth sweet and abundant fruit. But others of more levity and no capacity for solving problems of existence soon weary of Siberia, and wonder regretfully why they came.

Author: Anthony

To quote Samuel Beckett's letter to Thomas MacGreevy (25 March 1936), 'I have been reading wildly all over the place'. Time's Flow Stemmed is a notebook of my wild readings.

5 thoughts on “Riddle of Life and Dostoyevsky Translation”

  1. I’m not personally a fan of P/V translations – clunky is the very word that usually springs to mind when I read their versions. I read the David McDuff translations of BK from Penguin and found it very readable.

    1. I compared with first few pages of McDuff’s and Avsey’s BK and slightly preferred to texture of the latter. It gives me an excuse to reread BK sooner than I had expected.

  2. When I read translated works from Latin and Ancient Greek I tend to like the ones that are the most literal. But I don’t think this works well in modern languages. I talk to my students a lot about this idea when they work on their translations of Latin texts.

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