Monday, September 05, 2011

Notes from Underground | Boris Jakim

When reading novels in translation, I've come to the conclusion that translator is as important, neigh more important, than author. If a spectacular novelist is translated in a wooden and inaccurate fashion, it would be better not to read them at all.

When the only thing that exists is a poor translation, the only other option is to actually learn the language in which the book is written. I've actually met people who learned Greek to read Zorba the Greek in the original, for example. Several times I've considered doing this in order to read some of my favorite novelists in Russian, but have never taken on the Herculean task. Russian is a big language to learn. War & Peace is a big novel to read in a foreign language. In such a case, 2 + 2= seemingly impossible.

However, there are some spectacular translators of Russian literature, and so in the meantime, until I learn Russian, I'm reading translations by great translators. I finished one just last night, Boris Jakim's translation of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground. It's less well-known than some of Dostoevsky's more famous works, but compares favorably with them. It has the additional merit of being short, helping readers see in miniature some overall directions Dostoevsky will go with his later fiction. It's like the voice of Crime and Punishment without the breadth and depth.

I first came across Boris Jakim because I was into the theology of Sergius Bulgakov. Jakim's translation of his The Lamb of God is remarkable. It's a big, difficult book, but Jakim faithfully renders it. Bulgakov should be more widely read, especially in Lutheran circles. Jakim is making that a greater possibility.

But back to Notes. The first half of the book is the internal narration of the dark inner life of the narrator. The dude is dismal, misanthropic, quixotic, and perversely focused on self-destruction. While reading it, two distinctly contrary thoughts come to mind. 1) How can anyone think like this? 2) I think like this and seldom admit it to myself. Which I believe is the kind of paradox Dostoevsky seeks to evoke.

After a long narratorial introduction, there is actually a "story" of sorts. It's centered on one scene in particular where the narrator gets himself invited to a farewell party for someone he inwardly despises.

Oh, and there is this very long and memorable scene which you really have to read, like really, but to give a taste, essentially the narrator agonizes over a plan to simply bump into someone else who has ignored him on a previous occasion, but in order to bump into this person on the street, he needs to wear the right clothes, so he has to borrow money from a friend to buy a beaver skin to replace the mink fur he currently wears on his outer jacket that he feels lacks the gravitas necessary for such a public occurence.

The third phase is a long conversation with a young woman in a brothel where he, in effect, convinces her to save herself from the dismal prospects of the life she leads, but he does so all again for perverse reasons.

In the fourth phase, he rejects this woman when she arrives at his door. There the novel ends.

All of it is undermined by a narratorial voice that knows it is doing all of these things and shouldn't, in fact doesn't believe in the terrible things it is doing while it is doing. For example, what do you do with a novel that includes this paragraph,

"It would even be better if I myself believed at least something of all the things I've just written, I swear to you... that I don't believe a word, not one little word, of all the things I've just scribbled! That is, I do believe it, perhaps, but at the same time, who knows why, I feel and suspect that I'm lying like a shoemaker" (35).
Or offers this kind of conclusion:

Shouldn't I end my "Notes" here? I think it was a mistake to begin writing them. At any rate, I've been feeling ashamed all the time I've been writing this story: it's not so much literature as corrective punishment. After all, to tell, for example, long stories about how I've ruined my life through moral degradation in my corner, through the lack of an appropriate environment, through a divorce from real life, and through vainglorious spite in the underground--this, honest to God, is not interesting: a novel needs a hero, whereas here all the traits for an anti-hero have been assembled on purpose: but chiefly, all this produces an awfully unpleasant impression because all of us are divorced from life, all of us limp along, some more, some less. We're so divorced from it that we sometimes feel a sort of revulsion to real "living life," and therefore can't bear to be reminded of it. We've reached a point where we almost regard real "living life" as a labor, as something akin to civil service, and inwardly all of us agree that it's better in books.

Except for this book, of course. And perhaps today we'd say "all of us agree that it's better on-line, or on Facebook."

Having finished the book, I'm ready to go out and read some more of Jakim's translations, including his forthcoming translation of Bulgakov's Relics and Miracles: Two Theological Essays, and Dostoevsky's The Insulted and Injured.

Thanks to Eerdmans for publishing these spectacular translations. Only wish they were more widely available in bookstores in place of the lesser Penguin and generic translations.

1 comment:

  1. For translations of Dostoevsky, and 19th century Russian literature in general, the husband and wife team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are reliably good.

    I'm currently re-reading their translation of Notes from Underground, but am also using other translations, as well.

    For what it's worth, Volokhonsky has also translated a number of Russian Orthodox works and I have heard she is a graduate of Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York.