Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Dostoevsky’s cacophonic catastrophes: A new translation of 'Crime and Punishment'

What unites Cervantes’s “Don Quixote” and Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”? Both are centered on the perception of reality through literature. As translator Oliver Ready argues, Raskolnikov, the anti-hero of “Crime and Punishment,” is most at home in the world of words, whether books, newspapers or letters from acquaintances and relatives that he analyses like a literary critic or a detective. He is not just a student and a murderer – he is a reader and a writer, whose literary debut, an article about crime, is one of the great missing clues in the novel. 

The very fact that Raskolnikov is a man of letters is what makes it so important to get as close to the original as a translation allows. Out this year in Penguin Classics, Oliver Ready’s new translation of Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” aims to preserve the original's troubled and polyphonic narrative, and the varying language and vocabulary of its different characters. In his translation, Ready, a research fellow in Russian society and culture at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, chose not to use 19th century English or contemporary language. Instead, his vocabulary belongs somewhere in the middle of the 20th century, and he tries to avoid words that appeared after the 1960s. This makes the new translation's language “modern, but not contemporary.” Back to pen and paper The translation has been five years in the making, and to get closer to Dostoevsky’s own approach, Ready worked in longhand. “In fact, I wrote out every sentence – it was a kind of experiment, I suppose. I did this to get away from the computer and in the hope that the translation would come out better if I wasn’t tempted to edit myself after every phrase. That's the curse of Word,” Ready explains. “In reality, the laptop remained switched on for much of the time while I consulted online dictionaries and other resources, but still, I found the process of writing by hand helped my concentration and nerves.”

Several earlier translations tended to smooth over Dostoevsky’s stylistic peculiarities, robbing the novel of the unique, jagged tone and nervous repetitions that best represent Raskolnikov’s anxious state. Ready sought to preserve these lexical peculiarities of Dostoevsky’s language in his own work, while also trying to maintain the novel’s hypnotic and compelling power. In doing so, he inevitably stumbled on some unique features of Russian that are very hard to reproduce in English. “All those particles and adverbs, often denoting elusive emotions and emphasis rather than meaning – dazhe (even), kak by (as if), kak-nibud (somehow); all those deliberate – and accidental – repetitions; all those short, apparently simple words that actually have a multitude of meanings. Raskolnikov says his heart is zloe. Evil? Spiteful? Nasty? For me, none of these. I chose something different, on the evidence of his character throughout the novel – as I understand it.”

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