Crime and Punishment: a new translation

CP New TranslationWHEN asked by The New York Times what he looks for in a modern translation, author Daniel Mendelsohn responded, “tone is everything.”

Texture, accuracy and formalities were also listed as vital in any translation but any translator must capture the tone and essence of a novel. This is precisely what Oliver Ready set out to do when translating the legendary Russian novel Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, first published three years before Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace in 1866. Ready is a research fellow in Russian Society and Culture at Oxford and last summer, during discussions on fresh approaches to Russian-English translations, he spoke of how he had been working on the translation since 2009 and had written most of it by hand.

Ready lays out both in his introduction and notes on the translation his aims to bring out the language and themes Dostoevsky had originally intended. The edition was published by Penguin at the end of February and is described as the following on the Penguin website:

“This new translation of Dostoevsky’s ‘psychological record of a crime’ gives his dark masterpiece of murder and pursuit a renewed vitality, expressing its jagged, staccato urgency and fevered atmosphere as never before.”

It is certainly true that unlike previous translations Ready’s work captures an urgency and excitement in the language. Emphasis on repetition, disjointed sentences and a narrow vocabulary not only reflect the distraught psychological state of Dostoevsky’s anti-hero narrator, Raskolnikov, but also reflect how, as Ready puts it, the narrator would have sounded “fresh and alive” to contemporary readers. In the past, translations of Dostoevsky’s work have “smoothed over” many of the “stylistic peculiarities” and made Dostoevsky’s language seem even stranger to English readers.

Ready is moving away from the formal, polished language we might expect of mid-nineteenth-century writers and moves towards what Dostoevsky really was – a modern writer and philosopher of his time who used the changing, more experimental literary styles that were emerging. Ready’s translation of the language used by the murderous Raskolnikov reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ – jagged, nervous and alive whilst reflecting psychological anguish. Poe was writing only two decades before Dostoevsky and was greatly admired by Dostoevsky who praised Poe as “an enormously talented writer”. Ready’s translation feels fresh and alive, bringing a new charisma to Dostoevsky’s work that will make it an even more enjoyable read for both long-time Dostoevsky fans and those who have yet to pick up one of his books.

It is also clear from this translation that Ready’s thorough knowledge of Russian history and culture made him the ideal candidate for a new translation. In his introduction Ready talks expressively about how Crime and Punishment is a “self-reflexive classic… a novel about words and texts as much as deeds and life”. Ready’s translation puts emphasis on the motif of texts throughout the novel and their rippling effect on Russian culture and history. Books and reading were, of course, associated with intellectuals and youths and would go on to have intrinsic links with the Russian Revolution that would happen just half a century after the novel’s publication. Ready explains how after the Revolution in Soviet Russia ‘bookishness’ “bore terrible fruits” as Soviet leaders Lenin and Stalin were also writers and literary critics. Raskolnikov’s love of books and the recurring images of texts throughout lead Ready to describe Crime and Punishment, like many Russian works of the mid-to-late-nineteenth-century, as “prophetic”.

Ready also takes into account the biographical details of Dostoevsky – an aspect of previous translations that has always been troublesome. Dostoevsky left no personal records or diaries, nor did he write a memoir. Long before writing Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky had been quite the revolutionary himself, perhaps bearing several ideological similarities to Raskolnikov. He was sentenced to death but in an elaborate display as he stood for the firing squad he was spared his life and sent to perform forced hard labour in Siberia for the next four years. Ready describes each of the facts of Dostoevsky’s life as “double-edged” in their meaning. Dostoevsky’s past could have left him traumatised and weary for life or clarified and matured him as a writer with “a trove of fresh material”. Ready accepts that Dostoevsky remains an enigma and takes Crime and Punishment at face value rather than viewing Raskolnikov as an alter-ego for Dostoevsky.

Any students hoping to brave a classic piece of Russian literature need not fear with Ready’s new translation. Not only does his work provide historical and thematic accuracy in such a complex work but he also teases out the playfulness of Dostoevsky’s language and characterisation. Dostoevsky was no ageing, conservative author with nothing to say but one with fresh ideas and creativity who was keyed into the social tensions of his day. It was also surprising to notice how Crime and Punishment still asks us questions today about morality and society.

In a world of economic downturns, corruption and the greedy 1%, the questions raised in this novel are as poignant as ever.