The Idiot by Dostoevsky discussion


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message 1: by Tracy (new)

Tracy Marks (tracymar) | 127 comments Mod
Considering and discussing the different translations

message 2: by Tracy (last edited Dec 25, 2017 01:20PM) (new)

Tracy Marks (tracymar) | 127 comments Mod
I will be rereading the highly regarded Pevear and Volokhovsky translation (2002). However, Sophia on the LitnLife list says that she most likes the Ignat Avsey translation which I just ordered used on Amazon.

Here's a list of translations from the Wikipedia site:

Frederick Whishaw (1887)
Constance Garnett (1913)
Revised by Anna Brailovsky (2003)
Eva Martin (1915)
David Magarshack (1955)
John W. Strahan (1965)
Henry Carlisle and Olga Carlisle (1980)
Alan Myers (1992)
Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (2002)
David McDuff (2004)
Ignat Avsey (2010)

Here's a page that compares about six translations of the first two pages
There's only a paragraph excerpt from P&V but you can read the first 3-4 pages of the P&V translation on the ebook links on the site.

message 3: by Tracy (new)

Tracy Marks (tracymar) | 127 comments Mod
On --

The Pevear and Volokhonsky translation

The Ignat Avsey translation

The David McDuff translation

message 4: by Haaze (last edited Dec 25, 2017 02:48PM) (new)

Haaze | 15 comments I'm going with Constance Garnett as I am one of her eternal fans. Her translations just feel very harmonic to me. Now I'm curious about the Avsey translation....

Thanks for all these great links!!

message 5: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 15 comments A.S. Byatt thought highly of the recent McDuff translation.

Review in The Guardian (*spoiler alert*)

message 6: by Tracy (last edited Dec 28, 2017 02:19AM) (new)

Tracy Marks (tracymar) | 127 comments Mod
Downloadable FREE Eva Martin translation here (pdf and kindle)

Also the FREE Eva Martin book for the Kindle is here:

Free Constance Garnet translation (early 20th century. The full url is five lines line, so use this instead and choose the third book snapshot, 1913 )


(Note that the free downloads are all early 20th century translations. The three most recent aren't free - Pevear and Volokhovsky, Avsey, and McDuff. But you can preview a significant portion of them (particularly the intro and beginning chapters) at .

(first impression, the reader is quite good)

There are many other free download sites which provide the earlier Wishaw and Garnett translations but they all seem to require registration and registering at an unknown site can be risky (spam etc.)

When participants read different translation, we may have a more interesting discussion - especially when trying to clarify the meaning of a passage and comparing translations.

message 7: by Tracy (last edited Dec 27, 2017 03:04AM) (new)

Tracy Marks (tracymar) | 127 comments Mod
I checked several online Russian/English dictionaries in regard to the original Russian meaning that is translated as "idiot". The results were amusingly un-profound:

translation: idiot moron jerk nutcase nit clot mooncalf lardhead fool twerp asshole imbecile dickhead dumbo

Now I avoid the Shmoop site because it's written on a cutesey junior high school level, but sometimes the writers there are insightful. Here's what they said and asked about the title "The Idiot":

"The double meaning here comes from the word idiot, which, believe it or not is exactly the same in Russian (except the stress is on the "o" and not the first "i"). On the one hand, the word meant back then what it still means today: dummy, numbskull, dimwit, or moron—you get it, basically "a stupid person."

"On the other hand, this is the word that used to be a medical term for a mentally handicapped patient. The joke of course, is that although Myshkin starts out and ends as the latter, and is constantly assumed to be the former, he is actually the shining beacon of intellectual truth and beauty. So, irony.

"Another way to go with this title is to compare it to all those other 19th century novels which are named after characters (Madame Bovary, David Copperfield, Emma, Anna Karenina). Why isn't this novel titled "Myshkin," as Dostoevsky originally intended? Why does Dostoevsky want us to focus on the way others perceive Myshkin right off the bat with the title?"

message 8: by Tracy (new)

Tracy Marks (tracymar) | 127 comments Mod
I've read up the chapter four and was intrigued by a certain page which I was able to look up in a number of translations online. What intrigued me was how direct translators would be (particularly from the early 20th to early 21st century) about a reference to sex with a young girl.

Although the comparison below is from the end of chapter 4, I don't think that reading the sentence compared here is a spoiler - it's simply background information which will be introduced early in the book about a character.

Possibly comparing these passages may help you decide which edition you want to read. (Doesn’t it seem as if Martin was the least direct and Avsey the most direct?) Also, some translators appeared to copy the exact phrasing of earlier translators. Fie on them!

PLEASE, feel free to comment on the differences in the translation, even if you haven't read any of the book yet! (Can anyone here actually read the Russian original?)


If she accepted this money it was not to be considered as indemnification for her shame as a young girl, which had not been in any degree her own fault, but merely as consolation for the rebuffs of fortune.

If she accepted the money now it was not as payment for the loss of her maidenly honour, for which she was in no way to blame, but simply as a compensation for her ruined life.

If she accepted this money it was not to be considered as indemnification for her misfortune as a young girl, which had not been in any degree her own fault, but merely as compensation for her ruined life.


Finally, if she did accept the capital now, it was not at all as payment for her maidenly dishonor for which she was not to blame, but simply as recompense for a wrecked life.

Finally, if she were to accept this capital now, it was in no way payment for her maidenly disgrace for which she was not to blame, but simply as a recompense for a corrupted destiny.

AVSEY 2010
Finally, even if she were to accept the money, it would not be as compensation for the shameful loss of her maidenhood- for which she was not to blame – but simply as recompense for a wrecked life.

message 9: by Tracy (last edited Jan 18, 2018 11:28PM) (new)

Tracy Marks (tracymar) | 127 comments Mod
What on earth is going on here? The hardback 2004 McDuff translation of The Idiot is selling for between $2700 and $6000. Seriously. One can get the paperback used for $5.22. This makes no sense unless it was a VERY limited edition - fewer than 100 copies.
This is bizarre.

message 10: by Haaze (last edited Jan 18, 2018 11:32PM) (new)

Haaze | 15 comments Tracy wrote: "What on earth is going on here? The hardback 2004 McDuff translation of The Idiot is selling for between $2700 and $6000. Seriously. One can get the paperback used for $5.22. This makes no sense un..."

It is a "special" edition for collectors with extra money to burn:
"This is one of 1000 limited-edition copies of The Idiot published to mark the sixtieth anniversary of Penguin Classics, with a special jacket created by one of the most influential designers of our time, Ron Arad. "

"This edition was designed by industrial designer Ron Arad and the slipcase serves as the dust wrapper, so the first page can be immediately read. It is stripped back to show the glue and thread in the spine, which is visible through an acrylic slipcase (with a lid) with a fresnel lens, so the text appears to move as the lid is removed. Arad explains: "By not wanting to have a cover, it ended with the book becoming an amazing object that is alive, but which maintains its transparency. It became a glorious box with a book inside¿almost like a monument."

message 11: by Haaze (last edited Jan 18, 2018 11:34PM) (new)

Haaze | 15 comments Bizarre indeed...

message 12: by Tracy (new)

Tracy Marks (tracymar) | 127 comments Mod
Good grief!!!
Where did you find that information, Haaze?
I wonder how many people are willing to put out that kind of money for a contemporary (not antique) book, especially for one of Dostoevsky's less contemporary novels.

message 13: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 15 comments Most of that was from a listing at Abe's Books:

I guess it takes a special kind of collector. I wonder how many copies they actually sold of that edition?

message 14: by Tracy (new)

Tracy Marks (tracymar) | 127 comments Mod
I never quite understood the psychology of rare book collectors. I'd much rather read (and digest and sometimes annotate) books than look at them. But then again, I do buy, trade or borrow books at 3 times the speed by which I can read them, and never get around to reading a lot of them so in a sense I do collect books - BUT with intention to read them. It is satisfying to be able to choose the next book to read from a wide selection.

Thanks for posting that information, Haaze.

message 15: by Gösta (last edited Jan 21, 2018 02:00AM) (new)

Gösta Steneskog (gosta) | 17 comments One difference between my Swedish version and the English ones is Myshkin's title. In Swedish his title is "furste" from a not so old German word and denotes a man ruling over a major part of a country as a dictator. A "furste" has power and a position.

Prince is just a title and more so nowadays. During the 19th Century a "furste" could call him Prince but not King as the King rules a country and a Prince/furste only a part of it.

Today in Sweden a Prince is just a member of the powerless Royal family and could no way be called Furste as he has neither the position or the power. As an ordinary Swedish man married our Crownprincess (yes a woman) he was honored the title of Prince.

So what?

Then "Furst Myshkin" is a strong contradiction between what I expect from a Furste and our poor Lev Nikolájevitj's appearance. Dostojevski first planned to name his book "Furst Myshkin" so in some way he wanted to emphasize Myshkin's greatness but that greatness does not seem to be of this world.

So there is a fruitful tension between the two alternatives: Furst Myshkin and The Idiot. Is Lev Nikolájevitj a powerful Furste or an Idiot?

message 16: by Tracy (last edited Jan 21, 2018 04:02PM) (new)

Tracy Marks (tracymar) | 127 comments Mod
Very interesting, Gosta. So furst was not necessarily a prince, and in fact sounds quite difference that a prince. There were apparently a lot of powerless princes in Russia in the 19th century.

Do you think maybe that was a mistranslation in the Swedish, or a very accurate translation? Certainly a prince wasn't likely to rule any part of a country (was he?) except his own estates. Too bad we don't have a Russian here to clue us into the actual Russian.

Another key word in the Russian that isn't easily translated into English is yorodivy which we translate as "holy fool". Myshkin is apparently often called a yorodivy, and holy fools were quite an important part of the lore of Russian orthodoxy. Here's an article on the subject:

The term wouldn't be very meaningful to most people in the western world, but would have special significance in Russia, eastern Europe and people of Greek orthodox persuasion.

message 17: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 15 comments I'm more curious about why the Swedish translator chose the word 'Furste' rather than Prince. The German translation refers to him with the same title ("Fürsten Myschkin"). The Spanish translation uses the word principe (meaning Prince). Obviously every nation has its own little hierarchy of titles. In my mind I tend to reserve the title Prince to the sons of a king. Obviously this doesn't apply to Czarist Russia, so did the title have a different meaning simply referring to a certain level of nobility?

I found this Wiki entry on the organization of Russian nobility interesting (actually the whole thing was enlightening):

The manner of salutation in Russia is interesting: "Russian did not employ a nobiliary particle before a surname (as von in German or de in French), but Russian noblemen were accorded an official salutation, or style, that varied by their ranks: your high born (Russian: ваше высокородие), your high well born (Russian: ваше высокоблагородие), your well born (Russian: ваше благородие)."

I also found this entry of interest: "The English word "prince" is translated from the Russian "knyaz (князь)", which could be used either to denote a member of the royal family or more commonly a member of the nobility. Men directly related to the Tsar were usually called Velikiy Knyaz or Grand Prince instead. "Knyaz" can also be translated as "duke", which would probably give a more accurate idea of Prince Myshkin's status."

This latter comment correlates nicely to the choices in the Swedish and the German translation thereby corresponding to the English 'Duke'.

Ah, titles........

message 18: by Tracy (new)

Tracy Marks (tracymar) | 127 comments Mod
Yes, that "Furste" translation is odd. Maybe Swedish doesn't have a word for Prince that has the same connotations as the Russian word. Or maybe the translator isn't so good <-:

message 19: by Haaze (last edited Jan 24, 2018 10:30PM) (new)

Haaze | 15 comments Swedish has the word for prince ('prins'). But as the above quote stated it is knyaz (князь) Myshkin - more like the title of Duke so the Swedish and German translators choice of 'Furste' and 'Fürsten' makes sense. However, in English Prince sounds a bit more mysterious. Ha ha! Duke Myshkin sounds odd......
The work of a translator isn't exactly easy. Perhaps we all should learn Russian and read the novel in its original language? ; -)

message 20: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 15 comments From the same site:

"Kniaz [...] continued as a hereditary title of Russian nobility patrilineally descended from Rurik (e.g., Belozersky, Belosselsky-Belozersky, Repnin, Gorchakov) or Gediminas (e.g., Galitzine, Troubetzkoy). Members of Rurikid or Gedyminid families were called princes when they ruled tiny quasi-sovereign medieval principalities. After their demesnes were absorbed by Muscovy, they settled at the Moscow court and were authorised to continue with their princely titles.

From the 18th century onwards, the title was occasionally granted by the Tsar, for the first time by Peter the Great to his associate Alexander Menshikov, and then by Catherine the Great to her lover Grigory Potemkin. After 1801, with the incorporation of Georgia into the Russian Empire, various titles of numerous local nobles were controversially rendered in Russian as "kniazes". Similarly, many petty Tatar nobles asserted their right to style themselves "kniazes" because they descended from Genghis Khan."

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