The novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky are not known for their humour. There’s precious little to be found in Crime and Punishment, for example. I remember reading this dark classic as a kind of grim rite of passage during my late teenage years: a feat of endurance befitting both my gloomy mood and desire to show off at having finished a Very Important and Difficult Novel. Shortly after, having overestimated my intellectual stamina, I began the book many consider Dostoevsky’s crowning achievement, The Brothers Karamazov and, like many I expect, gave up after some hundred pages: the combination of dense, confusing, tangled familial relations and obscure theological backdrop were too much.
More than a decade later, I thought I’d give The Brothers another try. I downloaded a nearly-free Kindle copy, forged ahead, and then troubled over the translation – which was I reading, and was it the best? I googled around, and found this fascinating New Yorker piece on ‘translation wars’ by American editor and author David Remnick. The article itself is, if you like this sort of thing, very rewarding. It revealed how vastly and (for many) damagingly influential had been Dostoevsky’s first English translator, doyen of the Victorian Russian Greats, a certain Constance Garnett. She translated at great pace, and made the prose of the novels she worked on come alive for English speakers, but at a price: Nabokov and others hated the way she elided, skipped over and over-simplified.
But thankfully, help was at hand. A much more recent translation of The Brothers Karamazov by a Russian wife/American husband translating team had won widespread praise and many accolades for the way it secured fidelity to Dostoevsky’s original text whilst also ensuring readability for English readers. I find it impossible to know whether it’s the impact of the translation or the fact that I’ve read a lot more by now than I had as a teen, but the version I have in front of me feels incredibly modern, accessible and, amazingly: funny. An example, almost at random (it did prompt this post): as one of the central characters is being interrogated over a criminal act, he says…
“Eh, gentlemen, why pick on such little things: how, when, and why, and precisely this much money and not that much, and all that claptrap… if you keep on, it’ll take you three volumes and an epilogue to cram it all in.”
As you’ve probably guessed or already know, The Brothers Karamazov is a fairly lengthy book: some four volumes, and of course an epilogue.