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Don’t judge these books by their covers – the latest versions of the McDuff and Pevear-Volokhonsky translations

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, or Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky?

Yes, even the spelling of the acclaimed Russian author’s name differs depending on which version of this much-revered tome you choose to read. Translation is an art form, and as such there is an element of subjectivity when deciding which version of any non-English novel to read. However, how are you to know which one you’ll prefer? You don’t – so you have to weigh the critical consensus (or lack of) out there, and plump for one version or the other.

The process of deciding seems even more difficult with Russian novels, which spawn multiple translations that are endlessly argued over on discussion websites. Luckily I’ve rarely had the problem of deciding between competing translations – my most read non-English author, Haruki Murakami, only has books issued in a single, ‘authoritative’ translation – although three translators have worked on his English versions over the course of his career.

Yet, now I’ve decided to get to grips with some Russian literary classics, the problem has to be faced. For Master and Margerita by Mikail Bukgakov, I was helped in my choice by a friend’s advice, as well as the general mood out there on the internet. I went for the Michael Glenny version.

For Crime and Punishment, though, I’m faced with a more difficult choice. In one corner is the British poet David McDuff. In the other are the closest you’ll come to Russian-translation celebrities – the much vaunted Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, “a husband-and-wife’ team who have provided readers with the best translations of many Russian literary classics” according to Amazon – including Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, Chekhov and Tolstoy.

I’ve read the opening paragraphs of each version on Amazon, I’ve Googled away to try and find some discussion, not on which version is inherently ‘better’, but on what the relative pros and cons of each are. The only useful article I found was this one in the New York Times, which very much favoured the McDuff version.

Part of the problem is my history with Crime and Punishment. I took a version (a third translation – I’m not sure who it was by) on a trip from Moscow to Beijing on the Trans-Siberian Railway in 2005. It ended up being read by my then girlfriend (while I read my first Murakami, in fact). Still, I valued this book that had travelled thousands of miles through Russia with me, kept it, and tried to get into it on two occasions since. But I couldn’t – the dry prose just didn’t energise me, and I gave up on both occasions. Now I’m thinking maybe this was because it was a poor translation (of course maybe it wasn’t this, and I just have a poor attention span). But before setting out on that reading course once again (and I have some time, with Master and Margerita and two other books to read first), I want to make sure I make the most well-informed choice possible. I can’t fail for a third time!

My impression is that McDuff may be slightly more readable, with P-V slightly more accurate to the original Russian. However that’s only a hunch. I haven’t decided which one to read yet – any suggestions about the pros and cons are welcomed!