Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Notes from Underground: I am (not) a spiteful man

Here is our text on Project Gutenberg.

A brief bit of pendantry to start out with, but I think it will be worth it. About those famous opening lines--"I am a sick man... I am a spiteful man." The 1993 translation of NfU by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky renders the second line as "I am a wicked man." As Pevear explains in the foreword:

...the translation of zloy as "spiteful" instead of "wicked" is not inevitable, nor is it a matter of nuance. It speaks for that habit of substituting the psychological for the moral, of interpreting a spiritual condition as a type of behavior, which has so bedeviled our century, not least in its efforts to understand Dostoevsky (xxiii).

My Russian is rusty, but it's evident from checking any dictionary that "zloy" means "wicked" or "evil." Pevear's explanation for how it got to be "spiteful" instead is intriguing, though I'm reluctant to simply attribute it to our namby-pamby (previous) century. It's true, as Pevear's foreword implies and as other critics have pointed out, translators have often felt compelled to clean up Dostoevsky's prose. They sometimes assume he was rushing to finish so he could pay off his gambling debts, and if he'd had more time, he would have said it their way (i.e. more eloquently).* So perhaps they don't believe he really meant "wicked," especially since people almost never refer to themselves as "evil." Truly evil people never do--they think they are the saviors of humankind. So what could it mean that this man, whom we are supposed to think of as an anti-hero of an anti-novel, calls himself "evil" on the first page? "Spiteful," while not a flattering way to characterize yourself, is more understandable--it's a bad habit, which is fixable. But being evil is perhaps not.

So here are a couple of writing experiments we can try.
  1. Create a character who refers to himself or herself as "wicked." The character should also have a surprising, ambivalent relationship to that statement--no gleeful cackling, for instance, unless it's adulterated by at least one other emotion. What is the character trying to achieve by telling us he's evil?

  2. Consider a story you have drafted, or one you are thinking about writing. Do as Pevear suggests, and translate psychological conditions into moral or spiritual ones. I'm thinking this could have the effect of raising the stakes in a story significantly. After all, Dostoevsky's characters literally go insane worrying about why God allows innocents to suffer. And I think a lot of contemporary fiction could use higher stakes.

* Update: I've edited this section to point out that "cleaning up Dostoevsky's prose" is a longstanding issue with translations.

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