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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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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.
On to the translators who, as you may have gotten from the title, I abhor. Their work refutes the maxim "two heads are better than one." No... no, I'm not necessarily correct in that claim; they may actually be better working together, but even their combined strength is worth far less than most other individual translations I've seen.
I recomend the Constance Garnett translation.
THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV was written during a time of increasing revolutionary activity and political turmoil within Czarist Russia. It was first published in serial form in 1879 and 1880. In the middle of those installments, a bomb exploded in the Winter Palace, killing ten soldiers but not its target, Czar Alexander II. That had been the third assassination attempt on the Czar. On November 7, 1880, Dostoevsky finished THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV. Four months later, in March 1881, the fourth attempted assassination of Alexander II was successful. Dostoevsky, in his writings, always was timely. Thus, another of the questions raised by THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV is, Can a murder to destroy what is perceived to be a monstrous evil ever be justified? What if that murder would constitute parricide?
The murdered father is Fyodor Pavlovic Karamazov - atheistic, greedy, lecherous, and thoroughly repugnant. The Karamazov brothers, at least the legitimate sons of Fyodor, are 1) Dmitri - the oldest, whose mother fled the house when she no longer could tolerate the beatings and abuse from Fyodor, 2) Ivan - born to the second of Fyodor's wives, who grows up to be an intellectual and a rationalist, deeply disturbed by what he sees to be the senseless suffering in the world, and 3) Alexei or "Alyosha", full brother to Ivan but in many ways his antithesis, a devout Russian Orthodox who, when the novel begins, is a novice in the local monastery. In addition, town gossip has it that Smerdyakov is also Fyodor's son, the spawn of his coupling with the village idiot "Stinking Lizaveta". After his mother died in childbirth, Smerdyakov continued to live in Fyodor's house as cook and lackey.
On the most superficial level, THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV is a whodunit. Per numerous foreshadowings, in the middle of the novel Fyodor is murdered, and the questions that drive the plot thereafter are, which of his sons was the parricide? and was the murder justified?
But one does not read THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV primarily for the plot. Nor does one read it primarily for the characters, though most of the male characters are complex and fully individuated (unlike the female characters, who all are somewhat pathetic). Nor would one read it primarily for the prose, even in this accomplished translation of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, which probably is the best there is at capturing the energy and complexity of Dostoevsky's Russian. The chief reasons to read THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV are for its set pieces or scenes, which in their exquisitely poised drama are among the finest in literature, and its exploration of some of the deepest and most enduring questions of human existence.
The greatest of the set pieces is the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, a tale through which Ivan Karamazov, an atheist, challenges his brother Alyosha, the devout Christian. The tale is set in Seville, in the sixteenth-century, a day after a splendid auto-da-fé, in which the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor had burned one hundred heretics. Christ suddenly appears in the square and there is a commotion among the people. The Grand Inquisitor orders that Christ be imprisoned, and then he visits Christ in his cell, lectures him on his failings, and promises to burn him the next day "as the most evil of heretics". The Grand Inquisitor's lecture is based on Satan's three temptations of Christ after his forty days in the desert. Had Christ accepted what Satan offered, "you would have furnished all that man seeks on earth, that is: someone to bow down to, someone to take over his conscience, and a means for uniting everyone at least into a common, concordant, and incontestable anthill * * *. Mankind in its entirety has always yearned to arrange things so that they must be universal." But instead Christ accorded humans freedom of faith and freedom of conscience and freedom of will -- which, without sufficient proof of his divinity and in the absence of temporal authority, was a burden too heavy for humankind to bear. And ever since, the Roman Catholic Church has been laboring to fill the void. At the end of the harangue, Christ - who had spoken not a word - approaches the Grand Inquisitor and gently kisses him "on his bloodless, ninety-year-old lips." The Grand Inquisitor shudders, opens the door to the cell, and tells Christ, "Go and do not come again, * * * never, never!"
Many readers, including professed Christians, have been unsettled by the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor. For his part, Dostoevsky wrote, after having finished the novel, that "the whole book" was a reply to the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor.
I have scarcely begun to summarize THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV. It is extraordinarily complex and multi-faceted. Though not inordinately difficult, it nonetheless does not make for relaxed reading. And it is, in this edition, 776 pages long. One cannot hope to fully comprehend the novel on just one reading: this was the second time I read it, and I doubt that I could come close to absorbing it fully without at least two more readings. But, along with Dante's "Divine Comedy", Milton's "Paradise Lost", and Shakespeare's Tragedies, it is one of the monuments of western literature.