'Karamazov': Finding What Was Lost In The Translation

September 30, 1990|By ANNE TYLER

The Brothers Karamazov.

Fyodor Dostoevsky; translated by Richard Pevear

and Larissa Volokhonsky.

North Point.

696 pages. $29.95.

To get straight to the point: Is a new translation of "The Brothers Karamazov" absolutely necessary, with three others already in print?

Well, maybe not necessary, exactly. After all, those earlier versions did give us a good sense of one of the world's richest novels. But translation is a slippery and multilayered art, and especially with a work so labyrinthine there is ample room for yet another attempt. This latest is the product of a husband-and-wife team, the husband American and the wife Russian.

The couple particularly wished to correct what Richard Pevear calls "translator's drift" -- that is, the imposing of one's own style upon the basic content. In Dostoevsky's case, they felt, the drift had resulted in an unnatural degree of polish. Dostoevsky's deliberate redundancies, awkward constructions and comic verbal tics -- all meant to color in a character -- had been refined almost out of existence. So the couple hoped first to restore those rough edges, and then to correct any errors in interpretation.

They've certainly succeeded in their first aim. For instance: "Being at a loss to resolve these questions, I am resolved to leave them without any resolution," our narrator tells us in their version, while the earlier translators scrambled for synonyms in order to avoid that clumsy repetition of sounds. (Never mind that it's supposed to be clumsy, that we're meant to see our narrator as someone a bit pompous and heavy-footed.)

And when the narrator remarks that an event "long afterwards remained almost always unclear to me," he sounds much more personal than, say, in the MacAndrew 17 version, where the same event "remained unclear to me almost to the end."

Or this, from a mother mourning her dead child: "Only to hear how he walks across the room, just once, just one time, pat-pat-pat with his little feet, so quick, so quick . . ." Constance Garnett translates the same line as, "If only I could hear him pattering with his little feet about the room just once, only once . . ." Far more economical, granted; but who's looking for economy at such a moment?

Inevitably, a translation so transparent will expose the author's flaws along with his virtues. Dostoevsky's inconsistencies become more noticeable, as when that

very distinctive narrative voice keeps slipping over into the neutral third-person omniscient. But that's further reason to find this new work valuable.

As for accuracy, one scene suggests that we can trust in that as well. A young woman demands to know whether a message from Dmitri Karamazov was an exact quotation. Did he use those very words, those specific words? Since the words in question have always been translated as "He sends his regards," or some variation thereof, English-speaking readers have failed to understand her insistence. Here, though, Dmitri's idiom is translated literally: "He bows to you." It's significant because it recalls a pivotal meeting in which she was the one who bowed to him.

Unfortunately, another crucial word, interpreted by earlier translators as "torment" or "heartbreak" or "laceration" (oh, everyone seems to have wrestled with it) appears here as "strain," and it is strained indeed by having to bear so much weight upon its pale, weak, monosyllabic back. Even the most uncritical reader, gliding smoothly across the page, comes to a halt and asks, "Strain? Are you positive?" It's the same for "solidary." "Solidary?" we ask, halting once again. "A word that's found only in the heftiest dictionaries?"

We don't halt often, though. And that brings us to the real justification for this new edition. Translation is not only a question of style and content but of something more subjective. Call it clarity, or freshness -- that quality of immediacy that makes us feel the novel was written just yesterday. This new translation has the same effect as rinsing a cloudy windowpane. All at once an amusing young girl seems out-and-out funny, a mildly satiric scene with a self-absorbed matron makes us laugh aloud, and those complex, tortured Karamazov brothers become people we might bump into in downtown Baltimore.

Ms. Tyler is a novelist who majored in Russian literature.

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