What’s the best translation of The Idiot?

There are three public-domain translations, two out-of-print translations, and six modern translations available.

  1. 1887 – Fredrick Whishaw
  2. 1913 – Constance Garnett
  3. 1915 – Eva Martin
  4. 1955 – David Magarshack
  5. 1965 – John W. Strahan
  6. 1980 – Henry Carlisle and Olga Andreyeva Carlisle (Signet)
  7. 1992 – Alan Myers (Oxford)
  8. 2002 – Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Vintage/Everyman)
  9. 2003 – Constance Garnett revised by Anna Brailovsky (Modern Library)
  10. 2004 – David McDuff (Penguin)
  11. 2010 – Ignat Avsey (Alma)

Since I’ve now investigated five different Russian Classics in total, the translators’ names are somewhat familiar…

  • Garnett and Pevear and Volokhonsky translated all four of the others (War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, Brothers Karamazov).
  • Magarshack did Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, and Brothers Karamazov, but not War and Peace.
  • McDuff did Crime and Punishment and Brothers Karamazov.
  • Avsey did Brothers Karamazov.
  • Whishaw did Crime and Punishment.

Garnett’s translations, in their time, were groundbreaking; though some say they’re out of date, updated versions exist alongside the originals. Meanwhile, Pevear and Volokhonsky have taken the world by storm, leaving other recent translations standing in their shadow. Which one is really “best” depends on what you’re looking for, though.

For cover images, sample extracts for comparison, ISBNs, pagecounts, and links to relevant articles, visit We Love Translations: World Literature in English.

What’s the best translation of The Idiot?

What’s the best translation of The Three Musketeers?

Five years ago, someone on reddit said there are “very few” translations of The Three Musketeers into English.

Wrong!

There are at least nine, counting distinct translations still in print; arguably as many as sixteen, counting one edited translation, an abridged edition, a likely abridged translation that’s out of print, and four unabridged but out-of-print translations.

  1. 1846 – Anonymous
  2. 1846 – Park Benjamin (out of print)
  3. 1846 – William Barrow
  4. 1853 – William Robson
  5. 1893 – H.L. Williams (abridged)
  6. 1894 – A. Curtis Bond (out of print)
  7. 1903 – Alfred Allinson (out of print)
  8. 1950 – Lord Sudley (out of print)
  9. 1950 – Jacques Le Clercq
  10. 1952 – Isabel Ely Lord (abridged?)
  11. 1984 – Lowell Bair
  12. 1991 – Barrow edited by David Coward
  13. 2006 – Richard Pevear
  14. 2006 – Eleanor Hochman
  15. 2014 – Will Hobson
  16. 2018 – Lawrence Ellsworth

Nineteenth-century translations were bowdlerized; that is, they left out things that weren’t considered suited to Victorian readers’ tastes. The twenty-first-century translators of The Three Musketeers are putting that stuff back in, like Robin Buss did with The Count of Monte Cristo.

The popular translation these days seems to be the one by Pevear, best known for the translation he and his wife did of Anna Karenina, which led to many other translations of Russian works.

But the most intriguing one is the one by Ellsworth. That’s not even his name. His name is Lawrence Schick, and he only became a translator in the first place because he’s obsessed with historical storytelling for various types of role-playing games, and started reading Dumas in French, and then decided the existing English versions weren’t good enough—or complete enough. He dug up a lost sequel and has embarked on a project to translate a million and a half words of Dumas’ fiction. Hats off to you, Lawrence!

For details on all sixteen translations, including cover images, ISBNs, pagecounts, links to relevant articles, and extracts for comparison, visit my Three Musketeers posts at We Love Translations. Here’s a link to the first of the two:

» What’s the best translation of The Three Musketeers (Part 1)

Snobbery vs Connoisseurship

Someone in the Classic Literature Book Club on Facebook made a thought-provoking post about the “discernment of quality” and mentioned Ulysses, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, To the Lighthouse, coffee, and a pair of very fine horses in The Count of Monte Cristo.

He said we should resist the tendency “to believe that distinctions others make and we don’t see are just imaginary, used as part of a code for in group inclusion.

I agree. It’s interesting that he chose coffee as the non-literary example. I immediately thought of wine.

Wine connoisseurs claim to notice differences that don’t exist for me. But I believe those differences do exist, I just haven’t learned what they are. Actually, I’d rather not know, because then I’d only enjoy drinking expensive wine. (Not that any wine is cheap in Singapore, lol.)

It’s weird to find myself saying anything that boils down to “ignorance is bliss”. I hate that stance. I’m sure that the pleasure of a good wine is real, even if I don’t quite know what I’m missing.

But actually, as OP mentioned as well, we simply can’t be experts about everything. Thanks to the inherent scarcity of time, there is such a thing as “rational ignorance”, even outside the realms of politics and economics. Rational ignorance means it’s totally legit that I find it personally convenient not to have to turn up my nose at cheap wine.

Still. I shouldn’t turn up my nose at people who turn up their noses at cheap wine. That just makes me a snob too—probably a worse kind!

The way I see it, there are at least four different kinds of snob…

Continue reading Snobbery vs Connoisseurship

Learning Chinese in Singapore in 2022: How It’s Going

As you may know, I have been trying to learn Mandarin Chinese.

A previous post talks about how it started.

This post talks about how it’s going.

Upshot: I took the official HSK 3 test and the HSKK Beginner test on Sunday. I think it went well!

Here’s what I’ve been doing for the last two months to prepare.

Update July 12: Scores are in!
HSKK Beginner: 85/100.
HSK 3: 284/300.
Yay! 🙂

Continue reading Learning Chinese in Singapore in 2022: How It’s Going

The Library of Babel, infinite monkeys, signals and noise

With reference to the trendy game Wordle and the expertise of James Joyce, someone in the Classic Literature Group on Facebook made a post asking, “What do the writers think of this idea, that every book is simply a different combo of 26 letters?”

Oh, boy…

Continue reading The Library of Babel, infinite monkeys, signals and noise

Why I’m reading Dragonwatch by Brandon Mull

The five-book young-adult fantasy Dragonwatch series by Brandon Mull was finished and released as a box set in November 2021. It’s a continuation of the five-book Fablehaven series.

I read Brandon Mull’s Five Kingdoms series in 2018 after the books were all published and the box set was released. I read The Candy Shop War and its sequel in April 2015. I read the three-book Beyonders series in a more spread out kind of way (May 2011, October 2012, Jan 2014). Same with the Fablehaven series: I started reading the it in July 2008 and finished the fifth book in August 2010.

Why have I been looking forward to reading these? Why is it that I’ve read so many of Brandon Mull’s books? What’s so great about them, anyway? Well, I’ll tell you.

Continue reading Why I’m reading Dragonwatch by Brandon Mull

How not to learn Chinese in Singapore

I have been trying to learn Mandarin since before I moved to Singapore in 2008. I have made embarrassingly little progress.

That’s starting to change.

At a cost of SG $245, I have registered for HSK Level 3 and HSKK Beginner in mid-June 2022. The HSK is the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, the standardized test for Mandarin Chinese. HSKK is a separate speaking test.

When I take the test, I will have been studying Chinese either for twenty years, or two months, depending on how you count. I’m good at languages, but this is going to be tough. I am taking stock of the resources available to me and trying to decide what to do and how. This process includes reflecting on all the things I’ve done before.

Continue reading How not to learn Chinese in Singapore

What’s the best translation of Madame Bovary?

The original Eleanor Marx-Aveling translation is still widely read, if the number of revised editions and reprints available are anything to go by. The relatively recent Lydia Davis translation from 2010 is also widely read, if the amount of media attention is anything to go by.

No one seems to have much to say about the Bantam translation by Lowell Bair or the Signet translation by Mildred Marmur; concerning the Oxford edition translated by Margaret Mauldon, I could only find negative comments. Lesser known brands Hackett and Alma published translations by Raymond N. MacKenzie and Christoper Moncrieff in 2009 and 2010, respectively.

Editions that seem to have or have had a larger number adherents are the 1957 translation by Francis Steegmuller, the 1992 translation by Geoffrey Wall, and the 2011 translation by Adam Thorpe.

To see for yourself what these translations sound like and what people have said about them, visit We Love Translations: World Literature in English, where you will also find cover images, ISBNs, pagecounts for hardcovers, paperbacks, and ebooks from different publishers.

» What’s the best translation of Madame Bovary?

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What’s the best translation of Don Quixote?

For a long time all I knew was what everyone knows by cultural osmosis: we are ridiculous when we tilt at windmills.

Published in 1620, Don Quixote is a foundational book in the history of Western literature. Unsurprisingly, therefore, it has been translated more than a dozen times. Different translators had differing amounts of financial and literary success; some translations have aged well and others have been forgotten—or misremembered: the “Jarvis” translation was actually done by a man named Jervas whose name was printed incorrectly.

The translation by Smollett has a particularly interesting history: it did well in its time, but later Smollet was accused of plagiarism (of the Jervas/Jarvis translation), and/or using a team to do the work because he didn’t know Spanish. Someone wrote a book called Smollet’s Hoax, with data supporting the idea that his translation was not his own. A recent scholarly reprint exonerates him and upholds the unique and positive qualities of the work.

Apart from Jervas/Jarvis and Smollett, there have been translations by Thomas Shelton, John Phillips, Pierre Antoine Motteux, Alexander James Duffield, John Ormsby, Henry Edward Watts, Robinson Smith, Samuel Putnam, JM Cohen, Walter Starkie, Burton Raffel, John Rutherford, Edith Grossman, Tom Lathrop, and James H. Montgomery.

The Grossman translation is the trendy one; if you don’t want one that sounds modern, you’d be in good company picking the public domain Ormsby text.

For a heck of a lot more detail on all the translations—cover images, extracts for comparison, ISBNs, pagecounts, and links to relevant articles—visit We Love Translations: World Literature in English:

» What’s the best translation of Don Quixote?

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