Sunday, May 05, 2013

A Simple Matter.

 (Translating Crime and Punishment)

Dostoyevsky by Perov, 1872.

A simple matter of checking one phrase in the Pevear/Volokhonskaya’s translation of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment left me doubting whether they are as good as publishers and reviewers tell us. 

Zdenka Pregelj's Russia Past and Present published an excerpt from the glowing review of Pevear/Volokhonskaya’s version in Humanities magazine (full text here):
"In Crime and Punishment, there is a sentence that goes like this: ‘It was a very simple matter and there was nothing complicated about it.’” Richard Pevear lets the words hang in the air, along with a note of faint bafflement. From his Paris apartment, one half of the world’s only celebrity translation team is recollecting some of the knotty, cross-lingual jumbles that he has spent his working life trying to untangle.

“I came running to Larissa”—Larissa Volokhonsky, Pevear’s wife of thirty years and collaborator on twenty-one works of Russian-to-English translation—“and said, ‘Can that be? Is that what he said?’ And she checked and said yes. ‘It was a very simple matter and there was nothing complicated about  it.’” Reassured, if still skeptical, he jotted it down and moved on to Dostoyevsky’s next syntax-warping creation.
After this dramatic opening, the whole review dances around this ‘simple’ phrase. 

Why was Pevear baffled? Because of the apparent repetitiveness of the phrase? I thought there was something suspicious about it. It can’t be that Dostoyevsky is as repetitive as this. His style is different from the beautifully succinct Turgenev, or the elaborately detailed, thoroughly explorative Tolstoy. Dostoyevsky writes in a semi-colloquial, almost chatty way, as though he is sitting at a tea table and telling a story to a group of friends. At times, it is sloppy, or seems so.

I searched the Russian text of Crime and Punishment to find the phrase that baffled Pevear. (See 'Dostoyevsky on one page') This is how it goes (from Part I, beginning of Chapter VI):

Дело было самое обыкновенное и не заключало в себе ничего такого особенного.

It's not repetitive at all, it's a perfectly normal phrase. I'd translate it something like this:

[It turned out that] It was quite simple and there was nothing unusual about it. 

My wife, a native English speaker, thinks that 'and' is better replaced with a semi-colon. She suggested: 

In fact it was perfectly simple; there was nothing out of the ordinary about it.

You can argue about the first part of the sentence, whether 'the matter' is needed there. It appears in phrases like 
“В чём дело?” - ‘What’s the matter?’
“Это не ваше дело!” - ‘It’s none of your business’
“Я к вам по делу” - ‘I have business to discuss’.
“Дело [оказалось] серьезное”. - ‘It’s a serious matter.’

But the second part is definitely wrong. That's why it sounds repetitive in English.

"Ничего особенного" can mean 'nothing complicated.' For example, when you ask ‘Is it a difficult problem?’, you can get an answer ‘Nothing complicated.’ But here, in Dostoyevsky’s context it's definitely 'nothing extraordinary, nothing unusual, nothing suspicious'. 

When you read the Humanities article between the lines, you can see that every time Pevear, who has 'only a basic Russian' as the author mentions, has doubts, Volokhonskaya bullies him into accepting her version.

Publishers have built such a juggernaut of PV's translations, probably because of 'live' copyright, it's unstoppable now.

You can get a Redmolotov t-shirt with the opening line of Crime and Punishment in Garnett's translation: 'On an exceptionally hot evening early in July...' Click on the image. The Web's Most Original T-Shirt Shop

The full paragraph from Crime and Punishment in Russian (fromКлассика):
Впоследствии Раскольникову случилось как-то узнать, зачем именно мещанин и баба приглашали к себе Лизавету. Дело было самое обыкновенное и не заключало в себе ничего такого особенного. Приезжее и забедневшее семейство продавало вещи, платье и проч., всё женское. Так как на рынке продавать невыгодно, то и искали торговку, а Лизавета этим занималась: брала комиссии, ходила по делам и имела большую практику, потому что была очень честна и всегда говорила крайнюю цену: какую цену скажет, так тому и быть. Говорила же вообще мало, и как уже сказано, была такая смиренная и пугливая...
The same paragraph, in Garnett’s translation (from Gutenberg): 
Later on Raskolnikov happened to find out why the huckster and his wife had invited Lizaveta. It was a very ordinary matter and there was nothing exceptional about it. A family who had come to the town and been reduced to poverty were selling their household goods and clothes, all women's things. As the things would have fetched little in the market, they were looking for a dealer. This was Lizaveta's business. She undertook such jobs and was frequently employed, as she was very honest and always fixed a fair price and stuck to it. She spoke as a rule little and, as we have said already, she was very submissive and timid.
Update: It turns out that the phrase quoted in Humanities article didn't even make into P/V published translation. The actual sentence in the book runs like this: 'It was a most ordinary matter, and there was nothing very special about it.' Thanks to Anatoly Vorobey who found it on Google Books here. Which makes the Simple Matter even more baffling. See Languagehat's post and discussion of the phrase.

Update two: In David Magarschak's translation, which I have, the sentence reads: 
It was a most ordinary sort of business, and there was nothing at all remarkable about it.

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Gou Tongzhi said...

Would you agree that the over-simplification

"Tolstoy writes novels of manners; Dostoevsky writes novels of morals."

is roughly accurate?

Alexander Anichkin said...

No, I won't agree.
But it depends on what you are looking for in a good book.
If I were to oversimplify, I'd say that Tolstoy writes novels of freedom, and Dostoyevsky writes novels of compliance.

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