The Brothers Karamazov

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Translation Exercise

In order to illustrate the fine and difficult art of translation, we present you here with three translations of a paragraph from Book Three, Chapter Three: “The Confession of an Ardent Heart in Verse.” We begin with Dostoevsky’s original (Russkii Vestnik – Zhurnal Literaturnyi I Politicheskii. Moskva : M. M. Kotkov, v. 139-150 (1878-1881). Dartmouth call number: 58BF.):

Pevear and Volokhonsky, Vintage Classics, 1990.

There’s just one thing: how can I make a compact with the earth evermore? I don’t kiss the earth, I don’t tear open her bosom; what should I do, become a peasant or a shepherd? I keep going, and I don’t know: have I gotten into stench and shame, or into light and joy? That’s the whole trouble, because everything on earth is a riddle. And whenever I happened to sink into the deepest, the very deepest shame of depravity (and that’s all I ever happened to do), I always read that poem about Ceres and man. Did it set me right? Never! Because I’m a Karamazov. Because when I fall into the abyss, I go straight into it, head down and heels up, and I’m even pleased that I’m falling in just such a humiliating position, and for me I find it beautiful. And so in that very shame I suddenly begin a hymn. Let me be cursed, let me be base and vile, but let me also kiss the hem of that garment in which my God is clothed; let me be following the devil at the same time, but still I am also your son, Lord, and I love you, and I feel a joy without which the world cannot stand and be.

 

Constance Garnett, Modern Library, 1950.

But the difficulty is how am I to cling forever to Mother Earth. I don’t kiss her. I don’t cleave to her bosom. Am I to become a peasant or a shepherd? I go on and I don’t know whether I’m going to shame or to light and joy. That’s the trouble, for everything in the world is a riddle! And whenever I’ve happened to sink into the vilest degradation (and it’s always been happening) I always read that poem about Ceres and man. Has it reformed me? Never! For I’m a Karamazov. For when I do leap into the pit, I go headlong with my heels up, and am pleased to be falling in that degrading attitude, and pride myself upon it. And in the very depths of that degradation I begin a hymn of praise. Let me be accursed. Let me be vile and base, only let me kiss the hem of the veil in which my God is shrouded. Though I may be following the devil, I am Thy son, O Lord, and I love Thee, and I feel the joy without which the world cannot stand.

 

Andrew H. MacAndrew, A Bantam Classic, 1970.

But what makes it hard for me is that I don’t know how I could possibly enter that eternal alliance with Mother Earth. I don’t kiss Mother Earth, I don’t plow her soil… Should I, then, become a peasant, a shepherd, or what? I go on and on, and I don’t know where I’ll find myself next – in stench and disgrace or in light and joy. And that’s where the main trouble likes: everything in this world is a puzzle. Whenever I’ve sunk into the deepest shame and depravity – and that has happened to me more often than anything else – I’ve always recited that poem about the goddess Ceres and man’s fate. But has it reformed me? No – because I’m a Karamazov, because if I must plunge into the abyss, I’ll go head first, feet in air. I’ll even find a certain pleasure in falling in such a humiliating way. I’ll even think that it’s a beautiful exit for a man like me. And so, in the very midst of degradation, I am low and despicable. I must still be allowed to kiss the hem of the veil in which my God is shrouded; and even if I may be following in the devil’s footsteps, I am still Your son, O Lord, and I love You, and fell the joy without which the world cannot be.

 

Questions

After you’ve read the translations, consider the following questions.

  • Which translation do you prefer? Why?
  • Which translation is more lyrical? More conversational? Which seems more “in tune” with your understanding of Dmitri’s character?
  • Compare word choice in the three passages. If you like, focus on one specific difference. How does word choice influence the passages? Which word choice do you most admire, and why?
  • Consider syntax and punctuation in the three passages. Again, you can focus on three variations of a single sentence. How does syntax change the meaning or feeling of a sentence? Which syntax do you most admire, and why?
  • Russian language students might try their hand at translating the following passage. Share your translation with your classmates, and discuss the choices you’ve made.