A New Dostoevsky?

The Brothers Karamazov

by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Richard Pevear, by Larissa Volokhonsky
North Point Press, 796 pp., $29.95

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, when it became clear to readers in Europe and America that masterpieces of fiction on a huge scale had been produced during the last half century in Russia, there was a demand for translations. Anna Karenina appeared first in France and was reviewed in England by Matthew Arnold, who saw what a great novel it was, though he objected that Anna behaved in a rather precipitate and un-English fashion: George Eliot would have organized her temptation and fall as perceptively but with more decorum. The craze for Dostoevsky came later. Constance Garnett, the wife of a literary agent and man of letters, brought out translations of all his novels between 1912 and 1920, when his work was already well known on the Continent. Her knowledge of Russian was not particularly good and she was apt to leave out the bits she could not quite get the sense of, but she adored her work and her style had a natural animation and flow. She had already translated Turgenev, and her version of Dostoevsky remained the standard one until fairly recently, though there were more accurate renderings by David Magarshak and others.

The Brothers Karamazov, the last, longest, and most complex of the novels, presents the biggest challenge to the translator. It comes in a new version now by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, both of whom are unusually well qualified for such a task. Mr. Pevear has received fellowships for translation from several august bodies including the Guggenheim Foundation, and Larissa Volokhonsky was born in Leningrad and has wide experience of putting into English the new Russian orthodox theologians. They also have a clear idea of what the problems of Englishing Dostoevsky are: how to give some idea of the extraordinarily rich polyphony of voices, accents, undertones, and suggestions in the text; how to convey the novel’s marvelous construction, and at the same time its wholly “living” air of majestic dishevelment.

They have succeeded amazingly well. The reader who is not familiar with the nature of Dostoevsky’s writing and the special problems the language poses for translation will nonetheless feel a sense of that writing’s freedom and exhilaration, of what Dostoevsky called zhivaya zhizn, living life. Sometimes he referred to the book’s “higher realism.” The reader becomes more and more absorbed in the story of the three brothers, instead of struggling, as he used to do, with a text that might have seemed to him dead and buried, or at least quaint and fossilized. It is, in a sense, the sheer “literariness” of Dostoevsky that is the hardest thing to get across in another language. Trying to update his idiom into an idiomatic usage of our own time would not do at all—in fact it would be fatal. Imagine the style of Dickens updated in translation into the contemporary idiom of a foreign language, and it gives one an idea of the difficulty of transposing Dostoevsky into an idiom …

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