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The Brothers Karamazov Paperback – June 14, 2002
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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 to us a work we thought we knew, subtly altered and so made new again.” ―Donald Fanger, Washington Post Book World
“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 translation--beginning to come home to the English-speaking reader.” ―John Bayley, The 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
“Far and away the best translation of Dostoevsky into English that I have seen . . . faithful . . . extremely readable . . . gripping.” ―Sidney Monas, University of Texas
Text: English (translation)
Original Language: Russian
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I have shed so many tears on the pages of my copy of this book that I am surprised it is still holding up as well as it is. There is a sensitivity and beauty to this text that I have never been able to find anywhere else, even in other works by Dostoevsky. It is, quite simply, the most masterful examination of agape (active love), faith, and justice, and redemption that I have ever encountered in my life, in philosophy, history, literature, film, or otherwise. There are no words to offer that can capture how profoundly this book has changed me for the better.
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.
Magarshack spoke Russian and English fluently, therefore he has an overwhelming advantage over all the translators above, even Peaver and his Russian spouse, because I think two people translating a book are at a disadvatage by that very fact.
Buy everything you find that's translated by Magarshack. Also buy his wonderful biographies of Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, and Chekov. You'll have a treasure trove of Russian literature, both linguistically and intpretatively.