(Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot)

In my endless fascination with punctuation, I discovered a neat detail in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot concerning translation and the parenthesis.

Specifically, the issue concerns three uses of parentheses in two neighbouring paragraphs in a speech given by one character to another. So as not to quote a whole page of text twice, I will divide the text into two short passages.

The first translation of the first passage comes from the Penguin edition of The Idiot, translated by David McDuff:

“But how do you know what my feelings are? (Rogozhin smiled wryly again). Why, I may have never once felt remorse since that day, and yet you’ve already sent me your brotherly forgiveness.”

The second, older translation of the same passage comes from the Project Gutenberg version of the novel, translated by Eva Martin:

“What do you know about my feelings, eh?” (Rogojin laughed disagreeably.) “Here you are holding out your brotherly forgiveness to me for a thing that I have perhaps never repented of in the slightest degree.”

Although both versions contain parentheses, McDuff keeps his within the dialogue, whereas Martin sets hers visibly apart from the character’s speech by placing them between quotation marks. In both cases, however, it is clear that the information within the parentheses is not being said by the character; rather, it is being conveyed by the narrator solely to the reader.

Things get more interesting in the next paragraph, as the same character’s speech continues.

McDuff translates the second passage as:

“Had you not raised your hand against me (which God turned away), how would I appear to you now? I mean, I did suspect you of it, the same sin, we felt the same! (And don’t frown! Oh, what are you laughing at?)

Martin translates it as:

“What should you think of me now if you had not raised your knife to me—the knife which God averted from my throat? I would have been guilty of suspecting you all the same—and you would have intended the murder all the same; therefore we should have been mutually guilty in any case. Come, don’t frown; you needn’t laugh at me, either.”

What Martin has included as the character’s actual words, McDuff treats as something more ambiguous. The parts in parentheses in McDuff’s translation could be words that are spoken, but they could also be the speaking character’s unspoken thoughts; or, if we remember by how McDuff used parentheses in the previous passage, they could be the narrator’s words to the reader.

If we do decide that the words in parentheses are the narrator’s, two differences emerge between translations. In McDuff,

  1. It is not the speaking character who states a belief in God and in divine intervention, but, instead, the narrator—an important difference.
  2. In the second set of parentheses, rather than one character speaking to another, the narrator is actually commenting, to the reader, on the speech given by the character: imploring the reader not to laugh.

I’m not sure what the passages read like in the original Russian (although I suspect Martin is the more faithful translator of the two) but what a difference a translation can make, and how rich in meaning parentheses can be!

Young Eisenstein

A few years ago I read Polish poet Aleksander Wat’s My Century, a kind-of memoir edited from a series of taped conversations Wat had with the poet Czesław Miłosz in the 1960s. Something that caught my eye then:

A photograph of a young Sergei Eisenstein

In 1941, after being arrested in Poland and herded from prison to prison across various Soviet-controlled territories and finally into Lubyanka in Moscow, Wat found himself in Alma Ata (now Alamaty), Kazakhstan, starving, searching for his wife and son, and in the company of mostly Russian intellectuals who helped him survive. One of these intellectuals, Viktor Shklovsky the formalist, who was especially close to Wat, hosted meetings in his room. Among infrequent guests was that most-famous of famous Soviet filmmakers:

Eisenstein used to come sometimes too, a fantastic person in a demonic sort of way. His eyes. When he looked at you, you knew you were being photographed. But he did that with his soul; it wasn’t just physical. Strange eyes—I’d never seen anything like them.

The above photo, taken from an old Polish film journal, shows a much younger Eisenstein than Wat encountered, but the eyes still seem to photograph, don’t they? I wonder if the best filmmakers experience the world at 24 frames per second, constantly directing their own lives—and the lives of those around them—as they would a script. If so, they must be meticulous about framing, editing: always trying to see everything from the best angles, making sure their lives have a good visual rhythm and flow.

The conversations were lively and Wat remembers talking about Western literature and film from the late 1930s, about which his Russian friends had little information. Communism and Stalin were neither condoned nor condemned, and it was considered impolite to go far in either direction. As for politics and history, Hitler’s war against the USSR had begun and:

They all believed the war would be won and things would change. Eisenstein showed up one or two times, no more than that. One time when Eisenstein was there the conversation was about the coming changes. There was a sort of sardonic sneer on Eisenstein’s face, that was all. I caught that sneer, or maybe I just imagined it.

Meanwhile, there was another cinematic figure who also attended these meetings in Shklovsky’s room:

A photograph of Esfir Shub

And there was Miss Shub, one of the founders of the avant-garde in film, Kinooka.

Esfir Shub, director and editor, worked with Dziga Vertov and is most well known for her 1927 film The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty.

A few pages later:

The atmosphere among my friends the writers was sexually charged. And there were some love affairs. Not dolce vita—there was no trace of that. It was Romantic in the Russian romantic style. But there were affairs. As for me, even though I was emaciated, a certain Miss Shub had designs on me, though none of that had had any reality for me at that time.

Wat engineers Shub shun.