This new translation of Crime and Punishment is a masterpiece

A review of ‘Crime and Punishment’, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Oliver Ready. It sheds new light on an old classic

20 September 2014

9:00 AM

20 September 2014

9:00 AM

Crime and Punishment Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Oliver Ready

Penguin, pp.702, £8.99, ISBN: 9780141192802

Subscribers to this periodical, while Mark Amory has been literary editor, must often have felt they were enjoying an incomparable feast. Even The Spectator at its best, however, could not quite rival the periodical the Russian Herald (Russkii Vestnik) under the editorship of M.N. Katkov. This phenomenal editor, in the year 1866, secured serial publication of the two giants of Russian fiction. Tolstoy had been slow in giving Katkov enough material for continuous serial publication of War and Peace. To fill the gap, Katkov enlisted Dostoevsky. Readers could enjoy episodes from War and Peace in the spring numbers of the magazine. Then in May, they could start Crime and Punishment.

Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, who never met (Tolstoy refused a meeting), had parallel and deeply contrasting visions and careers. Tolstoy paints a huge canvas which appears to be more objectively real than reality itself. Dostoevsky, instinctively distrustful of any attempt to portray a thing-in-itself, is the ultimate subjectivist. The contrast is vividly demonstrated by the differences between the two great novels. War and Peace is the story of a national awakening, and the spiritual regeneration which occurred to Russia, and to several key figures in the novel, during the invasion of 1812. Napoleon is cut down to size in the book, made insignificant compared with the great elemental forces of fate: God, winter, Russia.

Raskolnikov, the murderous student of Dostoevsky’s novel, has interiorised Napoleon, made him his pattern to live and to die. Raskolnikov did not set out to conquer worlds, but he is a Napoleonist in the sense of believing that geniuses (he is one, naturally) are above the morality which governs the lives of lesser mortals. To prove this to himself, he carries out the callous murder of the old female pawn-broker from whom he has been getting cash in St Petersburg. Everything goes wrong, and then right.

That is, he is witnessed killing the old woman by her sister — so, in order to silence the witness, he has to perform a double killing. Yet, far from being the inhuman brute he had believed himself, he is a neurotic, fearful, self-doubting mortal who possesses a soul. While the cynical, giggling detective Porfiry Petrovich homes in on the murderer, Sonya, the virtuous prostitute who is in love with him, pleads with him to repent and to rediscover true life by kneeling at the feet of Christ. Awakening comes for Raskolnikov, as it came to Dostoevsky, in the prisons of Siberia. Whereas for Tolstoy, Christianity consisted, literally, in rewriting the gospels and making them more rational, Dostoevsky rejoiced in their saving irrationality, the inner capacity to be healed by mystery.

Sometimes new translations of old favourites are surplus to our requirements.  It might be fun for the translator, and it might make the hopeful publisher a bit of money — but has any translation of the Iliad ever been as good as that of Alexander Pope? And has any English translation of War and Peace actually been as good as Louise and Aylmer Maude’s? Sometimes, though, a new translation really makes us see a favourite masterpiece afresh. And this English version of Crime and Punishment really is better than, say, David Magarshack’s (excellent) Penguin, or Constance Garnett’s old Heinemann translation.

Take some of the most dramatic moments in the story. The murder of the first old lady, for example. The story is so electrifyingly exciting that, the first time you read it — perhaps in one of those old red Heinemann hardbacks — you did not notice how clumsy Garnett could be. ‘Fearing the old woman would be frightened by their being alone…’ This is an ambiguous clause, and you really need the explanation which Oliver Ready gives us: ‘Fearing that the old woman would take fright at finding herself alone with him…’ When Raskolnikov tries to hurry her, and she is fumbling with the ‘pledge’ of her loan — the silver cigarette case which he has pawned — Garnett is hopelessly uncolloquial. ‘But why, my good sir, all of a minute.’ Ready’s ‘Why all the hurry, sir?’ is miles better.

She is so small that he is able to land her a blow with the blunt part of his axe directly on top of her greasy old skull. Then the blood gushed ‘as from a toppled glass’ in Ready. Better than ‘overturned’ (Garnett) or Magershack’s ‘overturned tumbler’ — the use of the word ‘tumbler’ here being inept, since, strictly speaking, a tumbler is a vessel designed to wobble, without being overturned. (Incidentally, keeping the murder weapon as an axe is also better than Magershack’s ‘hatchet’.)

So much of Dostoevsky’s effectiveness as a narrator depends on tiny details that  it is of true importance to have a punctilious translator — but also a lively one; and Ready’s version is colloquial, compellingly modern and — in so far as my amateurish knowledge of the language goes — much closer to the Russian. The central scene in the book — long before Raskolnikov has fully confessed — in which Sonya reads to him the story of the raising of Lazarus from the fourth gospel — is a masterpiece of translation. He is attracted to her because he sees her, at this point, merely as a fellow sinner. He does not realise that she is to be his saviour.

Crime and Punishment, as well as being an horrific story and a compelling drama, is also extremely funny. Ready brings out this quality well — especially in the protagonists’ families. Raskolnikov’s mother and sister are wonderfully annoying. And Sonya’s dreadful old father Marmeladov has never come so vividly to life for an English readership. It is Marmeladov’s need for vodka which has driven his daughter on to the streets, of course.

The very fine fabric of his green drap de dames is the last vestige of their genteel way of life — before vodka conquered. The shawl is wrapped round his 14-year old child to make her seem like a courtesan, and off she goes on the game. Objects — guns, knives, bits of paper — so often resurface in a Dostoevsky novel with shocking effect and the same shawl is found wrapped round Raskolnikov’s sickbed in Siberia as he lies, with the gospels under his pillow, a regenerate Lazarus.

When Raskolnikov gets waylaid by the drunken father at the beginning of the book, Marmeladov says:

This very pint of vodka was bought with her money, sir… Brought me out 30 copecks, in her own hands, her very last coins; it was all she had, I saw for myself. Didn’t say a word, just looked at me in silence. That’s how — up there, not down here — people grieve and weep, but never a word of reproach, not a word!

There are only three writers known to me who can do this blend of high comedy which at the same time makes you weep — the Shakespeare who created Falstaff, Dickens and Dostoevsky. That knife-edge between sentimentality and farce has been so skilfully and delicately captured here. A truly great translation.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £8.54. Tel: 08430 600033. A.N. Wilson was literary editor 1981-83.

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Show comments
  • RobertChandler

    Oliver Ready’s outstanding new translation has not received the attention it deserves. It is indeed both clearer and livelier than previous translations; and it does indeed succeed in bringing out Dostoevsky’s humour – a quality all too easily lost in translation. I am grateful to A.N. Wilson for this appreciative review.

  • Stephanie

    I’d love to know more about why “[t]he central scene in the book . . . is a masterpiece of translation”!

  • pearlsandoysters

    I see a little problem here, Dostoevsky is extremely far from being funny in any given novel. He is serious, sober and moralising. I have not seen the translation in question, yet the author of the article depicts him in rather post-modern vein, which is ultimately wrong.

  • MK

    Crime and Punishment must preferably be read in Russian. The strangeness of Dostoevsky’s ideas is best appreciated when the reader has access to them in the original language. Holy fool, for example, has different connotations than yurodivy. Crime and Punishment is a theological treatise in a narrative form. All the great themes in Dostoevsky’s novels come from the Gospels. It is impossible to overstate the importance of religion for Dostoyevsky.

    The meaning of the novel is explained here: