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Customer Review

459 of 478 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars This translation is too awkward for most readers, January 28, 2012
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This review is from: The Brothers Karamazov (Paperback)
Before you dedicate many hours to reading this masterpiece, you must be sure you select the appropriate translation for your reading style. The Pevear translation - although highly acclaimed - may make it difficult for most readers to grasp the essence of this beautiful story, and therefore I would almost always recommend the McDuff version ahead of the Pevear.

The Brothers Karamazov presents the same challenge for every English translator; namely, Dostoevsky took pride in creating distinct voices and syntax for each of his characters, and most translations have sacrificed the syntax and voicing to make it more readable - in the process losing much of the tone of each character. Pevear's translation is known for being the truest to the original, as it replicates the syntax with an almost academic precision. However, in being so true to the syntax and voicing, Pevear leaves sentence structures that are so unfamiliar-sounding to the native English speaker as to be disruptive. Many times as I read this translation I found myself jolted out of the flow of reading because the phrasing felt so awkward. As an example of a difficult sentence:

Pevear: "These occasions were almost morbid: most depraved, and, in his sensuality, often as cruel as a wicked insect, Fyodor Pavlovich at times suddenly felt in himself, in his drunken moments, a spiritual fear, a moral shock, that almost, so to speak, resounded physically in his soul." Compare that to

McDuff "These were instances that almost seemed to involve some morbid condition: most depraved, and in his voluptuous lust often brutal, like an evil insect, Fyodor Pavlovich would on occasion suddenly experience within himself, in his drunken moments, a sense of spiritual terror and moral concussion that echoed almost physically, as it were, within his soul".

This is a good example of the tradeoffs each translator makes. Generally: Pevear's is tight, precise, uses simple language and is truest to the original and punchy sentence structure. It requires a high tolerance for odd syntax. McDuff's uses a broader vocabulary (e.g. "moral concussion"), but his flow/ear is much more natural to most English speakers. The sacrifice is that McDuff uses probably 5%-10% more words, but I personally believe these additions make it far more readable. It is still generally true to the sentence structure, but by taking a quarter step away from the purist version, he sheds much more light on the underlying text than Pevear.

Based on research, other reviewers and my own experience: if you are familiar with Russian, Pevear is for you. If you value precision, read for words instead of flow, or are better able to tolerate difficult phrasing than difficult vocabulary, then Pevear is for you. If you are more comfortable with a wider repertoire of words, and typically read with a background sense of the "flow" of each sentence, I believe McDuff will be far more readable while maintaining all the essence of the original work.
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Showing 1-10 of 17 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Sep 15, 2012 4:10:42 AM PDT
[Deleted by the author on Sep 15, 2012 4:19:37 AM PDT]

Posted on Sep 15, 2012 4:19:20 AM PDT
I found this the most helpful review in choosing a translation. I have bought the McDuff version. Thank you

Posted on Jan 2, 2013 9:39:03 AM PST
E. A. Moon says:
Like Refugee's Daughter, I bought the McDuff translation based on Christopher Kawaja's fine review. It was extremely helpful. I compared the McDuff and the Peaver/Volokhonsky translations, and I preferred McDuff--it simply scanned better to me.

Posted on Sep 8, 2014 12:07:27 PM PDT
CMT says:
A true review, if I am completely fair. McDuff takes out the bumps that may put off a very casual reader. But it was revisiting this novel with the Pevear version that made it magical for me. The author wants you pausing - to reflect, to opine, to grunt with disapproval. As modern readers we have a habit of glossing over a sentence for the general subject and losing those delicious crumbs so meticulously placed in our paths.

In reply to an earlier post on May 1, 2015 7:22:31 AM PDT
CMT, this is an excellent point. Thank you for contributing to this discussion in a meaningful way.

Posted on Jun 17, 2015 4:22:21 PM PDT
A fine and helpful review that delves deeper into the text than most. Thanks!

Posted on Aug 14, 2015 5:15:47 PM PDT
Moe says:
This was extremely helpful for me to decide which one to buy. I haven't read ANY Russian Literature yet. But after reading about some of Dostoevsky's works, they sound extremely intriguing.

Posted on Sep 17, 2015 8:59:00 PM PDT
Christopher L. Kawaja, thank you for your excellent review. It was the most helpful review for my daughter choosing a translation. I will buy the McDuff version for her. One day she wants to revisited this amazing novel with the Pevear version as CMT pointed it very well. Thank you.

Posted on Dec 22, 2015 9:45:05 AM PST
I found your analysis quite interesting and it makes me want to purchase both to see the differences. I think I will start with Pevear though as I like to read a story as the author intended it. One quick point, just because the translator chose to translate closely to the original authors intent, does that truly beckon only three stars? Is the three stars a representation of what you thought of the story itself? Is the three stars a representation of poor formatting or editing by the publisher? Just because the style is different and can be more difficult for some readers, I do not think that warrants three stars in my opinion.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 25, 2015 9:38:29 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 25, 2015 9:39:30 PM PST
Christopher, I agree with you. C. Kawaja convinced me to read Pevear, not McDuff. He should give the Pevear translation five stars as an outstanding translation, but not necessarily one that he is most comfortable reading. Staying close to an accurate translation of the words and intentions of the author seems to me to be indispensable if we wish to appreciate this great novel. BTW, I have read Garnett and Avsey, two very different translations of The Brothers. I reviewed the Avsey translation and gave it five stars.
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Location: Stamford, CT USA

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