What’s the best translation of Demons (aka Devils aka The Possessed)?

There are five in-print translations of Demons, seven in total.

  1. 1914 – Constance Garnett (various publishers)
  2. 1953 – David Magarshack (Penguin)
  3. 1962 – Andrew R. MacAndrew (Signet)
  4. 1992 – Michael R. Katz (Oxford)
  5. 1994 – Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Everyman’s Library, Vintage)
  6. 2008 – Robert A. Maguire (Penguin)
  7. 2017 – Roger Cockrell (Alma)

It took a while to figure out how many there were because they’re not all called Demons. Why not?

Why is Demons sometimes called The Possessed?

Penguin’s Note on the Text in the Maguire translation says:

The Possessed was an inspired choice on the part of Garnett, but the fact of the matter remains that it is not the title that Dostoyevsky gave his novel. The title in Russian is Besy, literally Demons, which is reinforced by the repetition of the word bes in the two epigraphs. Furthermore, Garnett’s title redirects the action: Dostoyevsky’s title, like the epigraphs, speaks of the demons by which one is possessed, not of those who are possessed.

What are the possessing ‘devils’ or ‘demons’ Dostoevsky wanted to warn us about?

Translator Richard Pevear says:

[T]he demons are that legion of isms that came to Russia from the West: idealism, rationalism, empiricism, materialism, utilitarianism, positivism, socialism, anarchism, nihilism, and, underlying them all, atheism.

It’s a political novel, yes, but also one that stresses the importance of religion as the antidote to dangerous political ideologies.

To find out more about the various translations and editions of Demons, visit We Love Translations: World Literature in English. The site lists covers, ISBNs, pagecounts, extra features, extracts, and links to relevant articles so you can compare.

» What’s the best translation of Demons (aka Devils aka The Possessed)?