Fyodor Karamazov sired three legitimate sons from two marriages and an illegitimate, epileptic son, Smerdyakov, from a mentally retarded, homeless girl. Fyodor’s oldest son, Dimitri, was from his first marriage. Dimitri was as lustful and epicurean as his father. They even vied over the same women. Ivan and Alexey were from Fyodor’s second marriage. Ivan was a cold rationalist who warmed up to his brothers only toward the end of the novel. Alexey was a novice priest who was close and warm to everyone. Smerdyakov grew up to be Fyodor’s servant. Smerdyakov killed his master and eventually himself, leaving Dimitri to pay for a crime he did not commit.
The Brothers Karamazov or the Karamazov Brothers is the last novel that Dostoyevsky authored. The novel was serialized in the Russian Messenger. It took Dostoyevsky two years to complete it. Four months after completing it, Dostoyevsky died. The Karamazov Brothers attracted significant attention from the Russian readership before it became an essential part of world literature. This was because of multiple reasons chief among which: the novel came out after Dostoyevsky established his reputation as a great novelist; it centered on relevant issues to the nineteenth century Russia (i.e., God, morality, and free will); and its characters mirrored the author’s individual and background a great deal.
Globally, the Karamazov Brothers had a deep influence on writers, philosophers, and artists. For instance, Sigmund Freud considers it the most magnificent novel ever written and was fascinated by the book for its oedipal themes. And Kafka calls himself and Dostoyevsky “blood relatives” because of the Karamazov’s existential motifs. Even Tolstoy, according to Joyce, despite his reservations on Dostoyevsky’s artistic accomplishments, admired the novel greatly.
The Karamazov Brothers was translated multiple times. Nonetheless, this analysis draws on three translations only: Constance Garnett’s, Andrew R. MacAndrew’s, and Pevear and Volokhonsky’s. Further, the scope of this analysis is delimited to the second paragraph of the first chapter in the first book. At the outset, the reader of the three translations will recognize that Garnett’s translation aims to convey the content in a polished Anglicized manner. For instance, Garnett names the first book The History of a Family, not lending any attention to any sense of humor, whereas, MacAndrew and Pevear and Volokhonsky do. The former names it A Peculiar Family History and the latter name it A Nice Little Family.
Although a minuscule sample, the second paragraph provides an insight on how the three translations significantly differ. For instance, the syntactic structure in Garnett’s translation is firm, polished, and gives a special attention to flow. Garnett uses commas and avoids the jarring M-dashes, unlike the other two. Additionally, she uses adjectives both sparingly and sophisticatedly. To draw parallel examples, Garnett uses the following adjectives to describe Fyodor Karamazov’s individual and position: “worthless puny weakling… ill-natured buffoon… parasitic position…position.” Meanwhile, MacAndrew uses “worthless freak … nasty buffoon … reputation as sponger … lowly position.” As for Pevear and Volokhonsky, they use “worthless runt…dignity as a sponger … social position.”
The register of Garnett’s translation represents how the educated class of the early twentieth century England spoke. She translated Fyodor’s indiscriminate lust for women to “run after any petticoat,” whereas, MacAndrew puts it as “chase any skirt,” and Pevear and Volokhonsky render it: “hang on any skirt.”
Undoubtedly, the three translations do give a great deal of attention to delivering the content. Nonetheless, Garnett’s rendition tends to muffle the voice of the simple-minded Russian narrator into that of a cultured Englishman. Trying to avoid Anglicizing the text, MacAndrew wound up Americanizing it. In my opinion, his translation reads like a contemporary American text.
As for Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation, it strikes me as one. In other words, the idiomaticity of the English rendition still shows some roughness of unpolished and un-localized translation. For example, a combination like “dignity as a sponger” sounds both antiquated and oxymoronic. This is because, in an effort to preserve the tone of the original text (irony in this case), Pevear and Volokhonsky developed a set of guidelines. One of them was not to use any English word that was admitted into Oxford English Dictionary after 1910. According to Pevear and Volokhonsky, “other translators smooth it out. We do not.”
To me, translation can always come closer to the original text. Nonetheless, it will never attain fidelity. This is simply because fidelity does not exist. Further, English has been lately unreceptive to any enrichment coming into it through translation. This is largely attributed to the measure publishers adopt inflexibly: a successful translation must read like original. Hence, Pevear and Volokhonsky’s approach should not only be acclaimed but must also be supported.
Despite above, I still prefer Garnett’s translation. Notwithstanding its muffling to the polyphony of the registers of different characters, let alone the narrator, and its general oversight of Dostoyevsky’s subtle humor, Garnett’s translation does not feel like one. I enjoy reading it as a novel that has been authored in English and not translated into it. Should this mean anything, it means that I have sadly become part of a culture I used to resist. My artistic inclination runs counter to my critical cognition. I am aware that my preference is biased by my memories of growing up reading Garnett’s translations.