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The Brothers Karamazov (Everyman's Library) Hardcover – April 28, 1992
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“[Dostoevsky is] at once the most literary and compulsively readable of novelists we continue to regard as great . . . The Brothers Karamazov stands as the culmination of his art–his last, longest, richest, and most capacious book. [This] scrupulous rendition can only be welcomed. It returns us to a work we thought we knew, subtly altered and so made new again.” –Washington Post Book World
“A miracle . . . Every page of the new Karamazov is a permanent standard, and an inspiration.” –The Times (London)
“One finally gets the musical whole of Dostoevsky’s original.” –New York Times Book Review
“Absolutely faithful . . . Fulfills in remarkable measure most of the criteria for an ideal translation . . . The stylistic accuracy and versatility of registers used . . . bring out the richness and depth of the original in a way similar to a faithful and sensitive restoration of a painting.” –The Independent
“It may well be that Dostoevsky’s [world], with all its resourceful energies of life and language, is only now–and through the medium of [this] new translation–beginning to come home to the English-speaking reader.” –New York Review of Books
“Heartily recommended to any reader who wishes to come as close to Dostoevsky’s Russian as it is possible.” –Joseph Frank, Princeton University
With an Introduction by Malcolm V. Jones
Text: English (translation)
Original Language: Russian
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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.
I picked this rather lengthy novel for two reasons. One because that Einstein praised it: “the most wonderful book I have ever laid my hands on”. I said to myself then what would a great mind find in this novel, so I grabbed one on the spot. Second, I have always wanted to feel and see the life of Russians and get a tiny scoop of their culture. So, this was it, and it wasn’t voiced by someone who lived among us in the current world, but rather by someone who lived in the 19th century Russia; Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 1821 - 1881.
I especially loved the rich characters of the novel. The author was able to deeply express vividly their personalities and their surroundings. I very much enjoyed the arguments and the sides taken discussing grand questions regarding God, religion, and morality. I wished there was a pure voice and image of God, like we have in Islam, added to mix. I would wonder how the debates and sides would end up like.
The characterization was very well and nicely summed up towards the end of the novel by the prosecutor. I very much liked how he depicted the two extremes of European enlightenment on one side, and mysticism and chauvinism on the other side, that tormented their “Mother Russia” in the 19 century and beyond, which continued to torment nations to this point. And what we live right now in the Islamic and Arab worlds but just waves of these tormenting powers.
I highly recommend reading this novel but be cautious of three things. One, that the novel sometimes goes lengthy on matters and affairs that could have been easily dropped or shortened, but still was entertaining. Two, the narrative is sometimes confusing, as it alternates between someone who lives in the village and sees and hears about the novel affairs, and some grand voice that tells you about private and intimate things that could never been seen or heard of by that villager’s narrative. Third, there is a very sensitive discussion of God in the light of Russian Christianity, which does not go well with our Islam religion, so you need to be very tolerant on that matter. So be warned.