Dostoevsky’s Translations of Balzac.

Bloggers Karamazov has a post on a topic that sounds so obscure you’re surprised anyone would think to write about it but turns out to be utterly fascinating:

This week Chloe Papadopoulos sits down with Julia Titus to talk about her recent book, Dostoevsky as a Translator of Balzac published by Academic Studies Press in 2022.

CP: Congratulations on the publication of your book! Tell us a little about it. What do you hope readers will gain from this volume?

JT: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to discuss my work. I hope that my book will introduce the readers to the lesser-known side of Dostoevsky – his creative legacy as a literary translator and illustrate how this experience of translating Balzac’s text influenced Dostoevsky’s own writing later on. Dostoevsky translated Eugénie Grandet in 1844 when he was only twenty-three years old, and it was his first publication. Then his translation was forgotten for a very long time, because it was criticized for taking too much liberty with the original and more of a free retelling or pereskaz than an accurate translation, and it was rediscovered and republished widely only recently.

Papadopoulos asks “Can you speak about some of the major differences between Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet (1833) and Dostoevsky’s Evgeniia Grande (1844)?” and Titus responds:

In my book I analyze numerous changes that Dostoevsky brought into the translation organizing them in terms of the motives that became important for his own writing later on. For example, Dostoevsky made many changes, omitting some specific details from Balzac’s voluminous descriptions of spaces, fabrics, etc. because he was far more interested in depicting the inner psychological world of the character than in recreating the meticulously constructed settings, which are so plentiful in Balzac’s novels. Consequently, the physical descriptions of spaces in many instances were shortened, but the emotionally climactic scenes of conflict that Dostoevsky considered the most important, and that later became his signature “nadryv [uncontrolled emotional outburst –LH],” were amplified and expanded. I dedicate a separate chapter to the role of physical spaces in Dostoevsky’s translation because, through them, we can see how the narrative technique in the translation reappears in his later work.

Moreover, there are also significant differences in Dostoevsky’s interpretation of the main characters. In his translation Eugénie was given a Russian name Evgeniia, and her selfless love, sacrifice and piety were brought into foreground, while any reference to sensual aspect of her love for Charles was omitted. Thus, Dostoevsky’s Evgeniia is strongly connected to heaven and at the end of the novel he even gives her a halo of a martyr to highlight her spirituality and virtue of suffering. In my book, there is a separate chapter on Dostoevsky’s female characters, in which I look at Dostoevsky’s Evgeniia as a prototype of many virtuous, deeply loving and self-sacrificing women that we encounter in Dostoevsky’s novels, starting with Sonia in Crime and Punishment, and Alyosha’s mother in Brothers Karamazov, among others.

Dostoevsky also made significant changes in his portrayal of Felix Grandet. It was documented in many of Balzac’s letters that he wanted to avoid focusing exclusively on Grandet’s extreme avarice and wanted to distance him from Moliere’s Harpagon, making Felix Grandet a multifaceted complex character, who is not only a miser but a shrewd businessman respected by the residents of Saumur, who owes his fortune to his hard work and his business acumen. For his part, Dostoevsky was always interested in analyzing the immense corrupting power of money on the human soul, so he chose not to emphasize Grandet’s business abilities, but rather to focus on his extreme avarice and emotional cruelty. Ultimately, Dostoevsky’s Grande became the first of many of the monomaniacs of his own novels, someone who is ruled by a single destructive passion: in this case, avarice. In one of the chapters of my book, I investigate the motive of monomaniacal passion as it was first introduced by Dostoevsky in his portrayal of Grandet.

She goes on to discuss specific details in Balzac’s original that Dostoevsky left out:

Dostoevsky strove to make his translation very accessible to an average Russian reader, so in some instances he omitted these obscure terms because that would make the process of reading and enjoying the novel more difficult. We can say that Dostoevsky was very sensitive to the issue of accessibility and he took special effort to make his translation easily understandable by those readers who might not be able to visit France or travel beyond their provincial towns in Russia.

There is mention of Balzac’s role as a 19th-century tabloid celebrity:

Yes, Balzac has always been enormously popular in Russia. His novels were widely read in Russian translations and published in multi-million copies. Even in Chekhov’s Three Sisters we can see the hint of that enormous popularity when one of the characters, doctor Chebutykin makes an observation while reading the newspaper: “Balzac was married in Berdichev.” This casual remark, not directly connected to the events in the play, demonstrates to what extend Balzac’s name was familiar to an average Russian, and it further confirms his celebrity status, as you noted.

There’s an amazing anecdote about Balzac’s “ambitious enterprise of exploiting the silver mines of Sardinia” (spoiler: it was a failure, like all his business ventures), and in general, the whole thing is worth reading, and I hope I can find the book in a local library. In an ideal world, I’d find the time to read the translation (I mentioned my reading of the Balzac here, and Amateur Reader (Tom) has a fine discussion of it here). The world is so full of interesting things I don’t know how anyone can ever be bored!


  1. David Marjanović says

    Intriguing indeed!

    In his translation Eugénie was given a Russian name Evgeniia

    Wasn’t that inevitable? German translations at the time did not hesitate to translate even authors’ first names. It is rather serendipitous that this particular name happens to have – as far as I’ve noticed – connotations of Orthodoxy in Russian, fitting Dostoevsky’s spiritual theme nicely, but…

  2. Stu Clayton says

    German translations at the time did not hesitate to translate even authors’ first names.

    Wilhelm Shakspeare.

  3. Wasn’t that inevitable?

    Certainly likely, but not inevitable — Eugénie de Guérin, for example, is Эжени де Герен.

  4. “Эжен” is a French name well familiar to me and I think to every Russian. “Эжени” (much unlike Мари etc) is not,

    I do not even know if we usually translate it as Эжени or Евгения. But the diminutive of Russian Евгения is Zhenya, the prototype must have -zhe-, not -ge-…. which gives us French Genie or Eugénie.
    Cf. also Георгий – Zhóra (<George).

    The author of (used to be the main source of information about foreign names for some Russians) says:

    При переводе имен используется принцип транспозиции – подбора имен, имеющих в разных языках различное произношение и написание, но происходящих от единого источника. Обычно это имена античного или библейского происхождения. Например, греческое имя Александрос превратилось в русском языке в Александр, в английском – в Александер, в испанском – в Алехандро, в итальянском – в Алессандро.

    He uses a word “transposition”, is it a term?

  5. Not in this sense, I don’t think — although it’s not a subject that comes up often, so I can’t be sure what terminology is used.

  6. “it’s not a subject that comes up often”

    I would not say that difference between renditions of the same name is not something we rarely see, notice, think about (and even discuss here). The problem is that we do not have words for this:)

    But one word does not solve the problem, because one name can be borrowed in a language several times (P and C reflexes of Patricius in Old Irish even designate periods in its history), then become “traditional” in it in several forms, possibly even one name of one person….

  7. In his translation Eugénie was given a Russian name Evgeniia

    Исполнилось 90 лет со дня смерти великого английского ученого Михаила Фарадея (22.IX.1791—25.VIII.1867).

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    @drasvi: “Genya” as a nickname/short-form for Евгения was (and I assume still is) a thing in at least some parts of Eastern Europe formerly under Russian/Soviet rule, including such varied personalities as a great-grandmother-in-law of mine and punk-rock legend Genya Ravan (nee Zelkovicz). Is that a Belarus/Poland sort of variant and/or a Yiddishism, whereas “Great Russians” proper prefer Zhenya?

  9. i think wide use of transliteration instead of translation for ‘foreign’ first names is a 20thC thing all over europe (and the u.s.) – there’s a lot of writing about peter kropotkin in english, and plenty on michael angelo buonarotti, broken down into proper english names.

  10. The Russian transliterated title of Jesús Franco’s Eugénie, a softcore adaptation of Sade’s “Eugénie de Franval,” (“Эжени де Франваль” normally), is apparently Юджени.
    (Or so says all the internet, I haven’t seen it on a poster.)

  11. @J. W. Brewer:

    Genia is at least a diminutive form of the Polish female given names Eugenia and Genowefa.

  12. Were the names Yevgeny/Yevgeniya used in the pre-Petrine Orthodox Russia? I don’t think they were, and I think it plausible that the names were introduced in the late 18th – 19th centuries together with the French-based diminutive forms, unlike ‘native’ forms developed in Polish.

  13. @JWB, as vb said, I have an impression that the name became popular in Russia because of French influence. As French forms and French diminutives were popular among educated people, it would be logical if Zhenya comes from French -ge-. And presumably Jews were somewhat less affected by this than educated Russians.

    But I do not know how the /ge/ form is distributed.

    There are also questions: is Jewish Genya related to an earlier Jewish name? And what is its first sound in Yiddish? (here some suggest that /h-/).

  14. @rozele: “i think wide use of transliteration instead of translation for ‘foreign’ first names is a 20thC thing all over europe (and the u.s.) – there’s a lot of writing about peter kropotkin in english, and plenty on michael angelo buonarotti, broken down into proper english names.”

    Agreed. Эжени for Eugénie was all but impossible in Russian in the 1840s. Dostoyevsky didn’t have much choice in this matter. Curiously, he kept switching between Карл and Шарль for Charles.

    Both names, Евгений and Евгения, come from the Book of Saints used by the Russian Orthodox Church long before Peter I. As monastic names, no doubt they were at least in some use in pre-Petrine times. But like most names from the Book of Saints, they were rare among the laity until – I’d guess – the early 19th century. There’s a number of Russian surnames derived from other Ев- (Eu-) names: Астафьев and Aстахов (from Евстафий or Евстахий), Ефимов (from Евфимий), Евсеев (from Eвсевий), Евграфов — but I’m not aware of any surname going back to Eвгений.

  15. There’s Евгеньев and the rarer Евгенов.

  16. @languagehat: “There’s Евгеньев and the rarer Евгенов.”

    You’re right, of course, but Евгеньев is also rare and sounds somewhat unnatural or contrived in the way priestly, “seminary” surnames sometimes do. Евгенов could be Ukrainian.

    But I’ve just realized something that makes me want to take back my previous comment. Recall Yevgeny Bazarov from Fathers and Sons. How did his parents call him? Енюша, Енюшка, Енюшенька, Енюшечка. This could explain a whole class of last names like Eнин, Енютин, Енюшин, all of them common and down to earth unlike the upscale Евгеньев.

  17. Curiously, he kept switching between Карл and Шарль for Charles.
    I’d guess it’s because there wasn’t a native equivalent and while his readers probably would have known Карл as a name used by the German community in Russia, I assume it was’t familiar enough to be used as a substitute throughout.

  18. Dostoevsky seems to have omitted much of what I like best about Eugenie. This is all deeply interesting; thanks for the pointer.

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