Dostoevsky's grave

Dostoevsky’s grave at Tikhvin cemetery, St Petersburg

I still remember the impact some books had on me in my youth and Crime and Punishment was one of them. Ever since I read it, I’ve wanted to travel to its locations in St Petersburg. Now that the day approached at last, I bought it again to re-read it.

It is because I remembered it so vividly that I knew from the first paragraph that something was wrong. For a start there were no street names. Then the sentence structure bugged me, enough to make me wonder whether it was the same book I’d read. When some rather archaic words surfaced (a sorrel beast?), I realized it was the translation.  I had never given any thought to the effect a translation has on the enjoyment of a book in a foreign language, but I was so irritated with Crime and Punishment that I eventually solved the mystery.

The Wordsworth Classics copy I bought last week uses the 1911 Constance Garnett translation which is stilted and dated. She was born in Brighton and learned Russian in England from Russian émigrés. She did travel to Russia eventually (and met Tolstoy) but ended up a translating machine churning out English versions of 70+ Russian classics.

She may come handy to those who want a linguistic feel of the times, but I found her simply infuriating. And I am not the only one. Nabokov accused her of being “dry and flat, and always unbearably demure.” Brodsky said “The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either one. They’re reading Constance Garnett.

The Penguin classics edition that I’d read was a 1951 translation by David Magarshack who was born in Latvia and came to Britain in 1920 to study English literature. He was a native Russian speaker who was bilingual in English. He specialised in translations of Dostoevsky and didn’t even attempt to translate Crime and Punishment until 30 years after he arrived in Britain.

I now own both translations; indeed the Magarshack version is rare nowadays and costs a lot more than the Barnett text, which is also the one you find free on the Net.

Let me show you some differences.

Opening sentence of the novel:

Garnett: On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S.Place and walked slowly as though in hesitation towards K. Bridge.

Magarshak: On a very hot evening at the beginning of July a young man left his little room at the top of a house in Carpenter Lane, went out into the street, and, as though unable to make up his own mind, walked slowly in the direction of Kokushkin Bridge.

Chapter 3 first sentence.

Garnett: He woke up late next day after a broken sleep. But his sleep had not refreshed him: he woke up bilious, irritable, ill-tempered and looked with hatred at his room.

Magarshack: He woke up late next morning after a disturbed night. His sleep had not refreshed him. He woke up feeling ill-humoured, irritable and cross and he looked round his little room with hatred.

Chapter 5: The horse dream

Garnett: He always liked looking at those great cart-horses, with their long manes, thick legs, and slow even pace, drawing along a perfect mountain with no appearance of effort, as though it were easier going with a load than without it.

Magarshack: He always liked watching those huge dray-horses with their long manes and thick legs, walking leisurely, with measured steps, and drawing a whole mountain behind them, but without the lightest strain, as though they found it so much easier going with carts than without carts.

The moral of the story is: if you think War and Peace is indigestible, check whether it was Garnett who translated your copy.