“Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, translated with introduction and notes by Oliver Ready, cover design by Zohar Lazar (Penguin Classics Deluxe, 608 pages, $20, paperback)
The atmosphere is feverish, claustrophobic and grim. Grime smears the hovel where Raskolnikov hides out. A former student, destitute, aimlessly wandering the slums of St. Petersburg, he is infatuated with ideas. Grandiose ideas. Napoleonic ideas. Ideas of Nietzsche’s “Ubermensch” telling him he is a great soul, a noble soul, unimpeded by moral conventions, towering like a Titan above the law.
To prove that these ideas are not merely words on paper, not merely hollow possibilities swirling through his troubled mind, he commits a murder – no, two murders – seemingly without regret. First, he dispatches a rapacious old pawnbroker who barely keeps him in copecks and then her sister, who witnesses the first killing – savage blows to the head with the flat end of an ax.
The killer, of course, is the anti-hero of “Crime and Punishment,” Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s most accessible major novel, what he called a “psychological record of a crime” – a multilayered exploration of evil and defiance, redemption and guilt.
The book bears all the hallmarks of the classic detective story: the pursuit by and evasion of a police investigator named Porfiry Petrovich, who halfway through the 500-page tome tracks down the motive for the crimes, confirming his suspicions. And then there is Sonya, a prostitute with a heart of gold, sensitive to Raskolnikov’s need for salvation, following him to Siberia after his trial and conviction, trying to salvage his rebellious soul by reading him the biblical story of Lazarus raised from the dead.
At the time that Dostoyevsky worked on the novel, he lived abroad from his native Russia in financial ruin, hoping to churn out a masterwork that could change his fortunes for good. He published the novel in 1866 and returned to St. Petersburg, teeming with creditors and the great unwashed masses clogging the capital’s hot, humid streets.
Just how masterful “Crime and Punishment” turns out to be depends on Dostoyevsky’s handling of his narrative elements, chief among them his diction. To the non-Russian speaker, he necessarily comes across as someone else’s creation: an English doppelganger, an earnest imitation, a smudged mirror image.
For decades, English-speaking readers have relied on Constance Garnett’s fastidious, Anglophile prose to convey the dark heart of the novel. To her credit, Garnett was a prolific and tireless translator of the great Russian writers, but she often made their characters sound like stuffy British Victorians instead of passionate, late-19th-century Slavs.
Now comes Oliver Ready’s vivid, new version of the book, promising to adhere more faithfully to the jagged, repetitive rantings inside Raskolnikov’s head and to keep the novel’s language at an even, modern keel, not too dated but not too hip. Whether we need such a new translation is an open question. In the early 1990s, the husband and wife team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky delivered what many regarded as the consummate English text.
But after 25 years, can their work be improved upon? By all means. And is there a reliable test to judge a translator’s success? Yes, at least one.
For what sets Dostoyevsky apart from, say, Tolstoy is that his narratives are brilliantly character-driven. Indeed, the architectonics of his storytelling prove to be highly dramatic, composed of many voices – polyphonic, as the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin termed it. Therefore, a new translation must enhance our understanding of character through the rhythms and nuance of voice: colloquial, idiomatic, individual, unique.
For Raskolnikov, that means his thoughts should convey his agitated, increasingly neurotic state of mind, wrangling with guilt and self-doubt, with the growing awareness of the horror of his transgression.
“Fear was gripping him tighter and tighter, especially after this second wholly unexpected killing. He wanted to flee, the sooner, the better. And had he only been capable at that moment of seeing straight and thinking straight, had he only been able to grasp all the difficulties of his plight, all its hopelessness, hideousness and absurdity, and to understand how many obstacles and perhaps even acts of evil he still had to overcome and commit to get out and get home, then he might very well have dropped everything and immediately gone and given himself up, not out of fear for himself, but from pure horror and disgust at what he had done.”
For Marmeladov, Sonya’s drunken father whose need for vodka first drove her to the streets, his speeches must reek of pathos and buffoonery.
“Do I not feel?” he asks Raskolnikov. “The more I drink, the more I feel. That is why I do it: imbibing, I seek compassion and feeling. It is not merriment I seek, but sorrow, only sorrow. ... I drink that I may suffer more deeply!”
To a remarkable degree, Ready passes the test. Crisp and compelling, building on staccato rhythmic structures to heighten the novel’s dramatic tension, then elegantly sidling into Dostoyevsky’s abrupt denouement, his translation brings new life to a 150-year-old classic, rendering the familiar in fresh light.
Here he is on the climactic scene between Sonya and Raskolnikov, who demands that she read him the story of Lazarus: “Raskolnikov turned to face her and looked at her in excitement: yes, just as he thought! She was already shaking all over with real, genuine fever. He’d been expecting this. She was drawing closer to the words describing the very greatest, utterly unprecedented miracle and great rapture had seized her. Her voice rang as clear as metal, strengthened by audible exultation and joy. The lines ran together in front of her – her eyes had gone dark – but she knew it all by heart.”
Hailed as a masterpiece of translation by British critic A.N. Wilson, this exchange between the criminal and the prostitute certainly reaches a gripping, ecstatic peak in Ready’s hands that few other versions do.
And it helps us to see why George Steiner’s pioneering essay on whether Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy ranks as the greatest novelist of all time still pertains. Five years in the making, written in long hand, re-creating and embracing Dostoyevsky’s dark ethos, Ready’s “Crime and Punishment” is more than a Titanic idea of a great translation. It is the real thing.
Arlice Davenport is Books editor for The Eagle. Reach him at 316-268-6256 or firstname.lastname@example.org.