MIDWAY : Lost in translation

Dostoevsky’s last, longest and possibly greatest novel has been known for nearly 130 years in English as The Brothers Karamazov. At least, so argues Ignat Avsey in his translator’s note for the Oxford University Press edition of the book.

“Had past translators been expressing themselves freely in natural English, without being hamstrung by the original Russian word order,” he writes, “they would no more have dreamt of saying The Brothers Karamazov than they would The Brothers Warner or The Brothers Marx.”

He is doubtless right, but I still kind of like the very wrongness of the earlier title. The Karamazov Brothers sounds like a firm of surly plasterers; the Brothers Karamazov sound like a madcap trapeze act.

Avsey, though, makes a worrying point: if translators can’t even get the title of the book right, can we trust them on the rest of Dostoevsky’s 1,054 pages?

On this, it’s worth thinking about what the great American philosopher Willard van Orman Quine wrote of the indeterminacy of translation: this doesn’t mean there is no such thing as a good or a bad translation, but that fidelity to the spirit of the original may mean betraying it at a literal level.

CK Scott-Moncrieff may have been thinking along these lines when he gave his English translation “A la recherche du temps perdu”, a title the author hated, namely “Remembrance of Things Past”, though why he left out Proust’s rudery is less clear.

Only 70 years later, in 1992, did Chatto put out an edition with the more literal title In Search of Lost Time and favour English readers with the smut. As anyone trying to flog new foreign fiction to English readers knows, the choice of title is sometimes the handmaiden of marketing.

Eyebrows were raised when Michel Houellebecq’s first novel “L’Extension du domaine de la lutte” was published here in 1998 as “Whatever”. But the elegant French title sounds dreadful when transliterated as “The Extension of the Domain of the Struggle”.

What’s more, the English title at a stroke got Houellebecq down with a pseudo-cool nihilist demographic on this side of the Channel — something Dostoevsky’s publishers have not yet

tried to do.