The id and art: translation and the book of Keropettsiana

No one knows just how many prolific novels and stories Dostoyevsky published over the course of his life. How many are out there we don’t know? The book of Keropettsiana shows just how much of a library Dostoyevsky amassed. To see it for yourself, though, you will need a rare, old, Russian translation. There are plenty of books in English that have appeared in the past century, but there is not a single copy available in English proper. To make any sense of the Keropettsiana, read its English words with the Russian verb of translation: “Translation”: put into English two of Dostoyevsky’s sentences about friendship from The Idiot, and then transliterate from the Russian to the English to read “language itself” as Dostoyevsky did. Then, of course, as Dostoyevsky’s words will illustrate, the Russian is almost always “an English word” – even when the sense is a literal one.

Now let’s focus on The Idiot, the novel about loss, misfits and “the life that is spent in ignorance”. Dostoyevsky closed the book with a portrait of a sort of reckoning. (Dostoyevsky was himself learning, and revisiting, a style he first used in The Brothers Karamazov.) What do these words mean in the rare Russian translation? First of all, I’d say that something had been learned. Somewhere along the way in this novel’s months of travels, something had been learned about learning. Learning is not like that. Learning, when you read novels in translation, is like our languages: simple, comprehensible and free. After the translation has been done, it is, because it has been written, totally incomprehensible to us, now that we have it.

Second, as Dostoyevsky did in The Idiot, we, readers, must confront how this “life that is spent in ignorance” might become, when seen through the perspective of the past. This attitude allowed our standpoint to stay relevant. Now, when the idiocy is resolved, it begins to seem ridiculous. Our standing is precarious. We won’t be able to live in this, after all.

In translation we learn, and in translation, of the difficulty of living in language. Our sentences may be the same and often they are. But if we use the wrong analogy – like, for example, use the language as though you were reading something on a tablet – we will find that it is not the language at all. That phrase has no familiar meaning, because we don’t know how to speak it. (Translation is as much a movement as it is a word: a wiggle or two from one language to another, and what’s the point?) Let’s spend the weekend making a list of our favorite phrases and set them loose on our language. If we read them, remember them. Learn them, from everything from Slack to Google Translate, and you will soon have everything you need to pass a Russian test: “Conversation,” “mind reading,” “compartmentalisation” and “parallel reflection” among many others.

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