Yes, that vexing, troubling subject that exercises my brain so much has reared its head again! This time, it’s come to the fore owing to my plan to read the Russian “Ulysses” – Andrei Bely’s “Petersburg”!

St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg

I must confess that, despite my love of Russian literature, this one has only recently hit my radar, and I’m probably not the only one in that situation as it does seem to have been somewhat neglected over the years. Not much of Bely’s work is available in English and my first encounter with “Petersburg” was when I stumbled across a hardback edition entitled “St. Petersburg” in the local Oxfam Book Shop. I had a quick look, but left it there for a week or two; then, having looked it up online, picked it up and brought it home with me. Turns out it’s a hardback first edition with dust jacket – not bad for the princely sum of £2.49!

However, when the subject of translations starting bothering me so much recently, I did a little more digging and discovered that thing were a bit more complicated with this book. For a start, there are two versions of “Petersburg” – one longer one published in 1916, and a shorter version, heavily edited by Bely, which came out in 1922. To make things worse, there are four translations and I wasn’t clear which one was of which book, and which was considered better/more accurate/more accessible etc etc….. Not a straightforward choice, then.

Having just read the David McDuff translation of “The Brothers Karamazov” and got on very well with the writing style, I thought it would be good to try his version of Bely. So I ordered a bargain price copy of the Penguin version online, thinking this would be what I would get – however, when it arrived it turned out to be the translation by Maguire and Malmstad, since republished by Indiana University Press and reckoned to be a good one! So although that wasn’t quite what I was expecting, it was a pleasant surprise as I had been putting off getting the IUP version as it is quite pricey! Then there is the Pushkin Press version, a recent translation by John Elsworth and much-lauded, which I managed to find online, again for a reasonable cost. So I have these three lovelies to choose from:

The three versions of Petersburg!

I sat down last night to have a look at them – after all, I’ve often advocated reading several translations and have tried comparing various versions of books in the past to see which one appeals most. This led to some further discoveries – the Penguin Maguire and Malmstad is based on the later, edited version; the 1st edition hardback translated by Cournos appears to be the same one; and the Pushkin Press is based on the longer, earlier version. So it gets even more complex, especially when you realise that the Maguire and Malmstad has copious notes and the other two versions none at all…. which is a little odd in the Pushkin Press edition. The Penguin notes may even be slightly over the top, but I’d rather have too many than not enough!

At a quick glance, there *are* differences in the translation styles, and oddly enough it was the Maguire and Malmstad which grabbed me most to begin with. But I think I may well splash out on the McDuff so I can compare them all and decide which one I will take the plunge into – truly it’s a difficult business reading translated literature!!!

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