Dostoevsky’s idiom

The name of Russia’s greatest writer is Tolstoevsky—or so goes an old, and still popular, academic joke. The joke does, however, have a point. It satirizes a certain vague idea about Russian literature that is shared by many American readers: the idea that Russian literature is a confusing and ex otic, if not entirely alien phenomenon, a tan talizing exposure to the “mysterious Russian soul,” perpetually centered on what used to be known as “the ultimate problems of hu man existence”—those problems, at any rate, that are beyond the reach of our every day cares and concerns. This stereotypical perception allows for little difference be tween the individual authors, be they Ivan Turgenev or Boris Pasternak, and accounts for a telling comment made by one of my ac quaintances: “Why don’t all these guys [he meant typical characters from a Russian novel] just start looking for a job?”

As for the joke about “Tolstoevsky,” it cer tainly would have offended the author of The Brothers Karamazov. While it is true that Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy were both impassioned idealists engaged in a religious quest, they privately distrusted and disliked each other. Dostoevsky, for ex ample, once called Tolstoy “a sugary talent” and complained that his characters “are uninteresting to the point of strangeness.”

At the same time, a jocular amalgamation of the two authors into one “Tolstoevsky” points to an additional problem, less phil osophical, perhaps, but no less perplexing—and this time not the reader’s fault. It con cerns the endemic inferiority of the extant English translations from the Russian, most of which do little justice to the verbal beauty of the originals. Too often great Russian prose, past or present, has been “Englished” in conformity with some prevailing literary fashion, which naturally results in language lacking the personal inspiration and stylistic imprint of the original. Not surprisingly, the result is a “Tolstoevsky,” a more or less characterless composite. Ironically, this ap proach to translation has on occasion im proved upon Tolstoy, a writer who professed (and practiced) a lack of interest in formal refinement. But when applied to Dosto evsky, this procedure has had a disastrous ef fect, often aggravated by the translator’s in ability to appreciate or convey the multiple semantic and syntactical nuances that make the language of Dostoevsky’s novels so su perbly individual.

The introduction to the new translation of The Brothers Karamazov promises to remedy this fault.[1] At almost eight hundred pages, the translation was a risky and noble venture on the part of a small publishing house, North Point Press—and one cannot help being saddened by the news that North Point will no longer be publishing new books. The husband-and-wife team who translated The Brothers Karamazov anew seems well suited for the task. Richard Pevear is a poet of repute who has also translated both poetry and prose from several tongues; Larissa Volokhonsky is a Russian émigrée, a professional translator, and a student of theol ogy (a clear advantage when approaching Dostoevsky). The pair has chosen to adopt an elevated view of their craft, following in this a practice still common in Russia, where translation is considered an art requiring born talent and professionalism. The dif ficulties they faced were formidable indeed. Here it may suffice to indicate only a few.

The Russian literary language was created early in the nineteenth century largely through the efforts and genius of Alexander Pushkin, who enjoys in the eyes of Russians a status comparable to that which Shakespeare or Goethe enjoys here. This language was developed by the great stylists of the later nineteenth century, notably Ivan Turgenev and Anton Chekhov, and in this century by those who (like Ivan Bunin or Mikhail Bul gakov) realized their stylistic aims by further refining the idiom approved by literary tradition. Insofar as their work reproduces this “classical” idiom they can be rendered accurately into standard literary English.

This must be sharply contrasted with Dos-toevsky’s writing. Drawing on the example of Nikolai Gogol, Dostoevsky fashioned a literary technique with a whole new set of priorities. Instead of working with the es tablished idiom, writers in this tradition —among them such prominent modern writers as Evgeny Zamyatin and Andrei Platonov or, for that matter, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—proceeded to explore and ex ploit unconventional layers of the vernacular: dialect, jargon, slang, cant, and the like.

Already in his very first publication, the short novel Poor Folk, Dostoevsky surprised “readers with a skillful imitation of semi-edu cated speech, and in his later work he revealed an unsurpassed mastery over his medium, employing an incredible variety of stylistic means. It remains uncertain whether Dostoevsky actually possessed—as did some of his followers—a conscious and articulate program regarding language and style. But his notebooks leave no doubt that he paid ex ceptional attention to vocabulary, register ing characteristic or unusual words, playing them out, placing them in different contexts, plagiarizing, with equal relish, from a priest or a policeman or a streetwalker.

In any event, it seems likely that Dostoevsky owes much of his verbal virtuosity to intui tion rather than deliberate strategy. In every case, his word choice, however bizarre it first appears, makes the most accurate and mean ingful response to the momentary situation created by the plot or a character’s im mediate experience. A striking replacement of an anticipated commonplace is fraught with subtle implications, often recognized by the reader only in retrospect. Much of Dostoevsky’s magic spell lies in the unpredic tability of his narrative, extending from philosophical or psychological argument to matters of syntax and even grammar. The result is that the idiosyncrasies of content and style for which he was berated in his own time are things for which he is admired by posterity. In fact, reading Dostoevsky in the original, one has to fight the impression that he writes in a language that no one speaks and, very possibly, no one ever spoke. His idiom is principally derived from the vo cabulary of the period’s petty urban officials, the milieu Dostoevsky knew best. When this peculiar idiom is applied to grand, meta physical questions, it is transformed and sud denly acquires a higher significance. The ef fect is uncanny, verging on the irrational and the fantastic. This accounts in part for the peculiar ambiance, so easily lost in transla tion, of the Dostoevskian world, where characters, though graphically shaped, ap pear, as if “through a glass darkly,” both smaller and larger than life.

Several pivotal chapters in The Brothers Karamazov exhibit a complex and careful in terplay of stylistic elements alien to common speech. Pevear and Volokhonsky’s response to the challenge of these complexities makes palpable both the felicities and the failures of their new translation. Dostoevsky articulated some of his deepest spiritual commitments in those portions of the novel devoted to the elder Zosima, who was meant to portray the ideal Christian. Dostoevsky’s success with Zosima—so far as generations of Russian readers are concerned, at least—owes much to his judicious use of the archaisms and poeticisms provided by the residue of Church Slavonic that continues to function, even for present-day literature, as a source of occasional verbal enrichment. The very tenor of Zosima’s speech, his collected sayings, his “hagiography” composed by Alyosha Kar amazov, are highly stylized and permeated with Slavonicisms. The difficulty of render ing all this into English is exceedingly for midable. One promising device that has not been sufficiently exploited by translators —possibly out of the fear of sounding con trived—is adopting a pattern of allusion to the King James version of the Bible. This might sometimes create an effect comparable to that of Church Slavonic.

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