Yes, yes, I know I do tend to ramble on about the vagaries of different translations of some of my favourite books; but at the risk of being a bore, this came back into to my mind recently thanks, oddly enough, to OH’s film-watching tendencies!

OH is a real movie buff (proper films, as I would call them, not modern blockbusters that look like computer games…) and he was watching a film called “The Gambler” from 1974, starring James Caan. It seems to loosely draw on Dostoevsky’s book of that name (which is one of my favourite of the great Russian’s works), and in fact the author himself features in a university teaching session Caan’s hosting. OH was intrigued by a quotation given, apparently from “Notes from Underground”, which was rendered as:

Reason only satisfies man’s rational requirements. Desire, on the other hand, encompasses everything. Desire is life.

He asked me about it and to be honest, I was a little dubious as it didn’t ring any immediate bells and sounded perhaps a bit too straightforward to me for Dosty. The credits gave the version as being the Signet edition, translation by one Andrew MacAndrew and despite the fact that I own several editions of “Notes..” already (as you can see from above) I felt compelled to send for this one. I also dug about in my current versions and came up with some fascinating variations!

The MacAndrew version

The MacAndrew version:

Reason is only reason, and it only satisfies man’s rational requirements. Desire, on the other hand, is the manifestation of life itself – of all of life – and it encompasses everything from reason down to scratching oneself.

A David Magarshack translated collection

David Magarshack:

But reason is only reason, and it can only satisfy the reasoning ability of man, whereas volition is a manifestation of the whole of life, I mean of the whole of human life, including reason with all its concomitant head-scratchings.

Two lots of Zinovieff and Hughes

Kyrill Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes:

You see gentlemen, rational judgement is a good thing – there can be no argument about that – but rational judgement is just rational judgement and satisfies nothing but man’s rational faculties, while desire is the manifestation of the whole of life, that is of the whole of human life including rational judgement and all the head-scratching.

Hugh Aplin version from Hesperus

Hugh Aplin:

You see: reason, gentlemen, is a good thing, that is indisputable, but reason is only reason and satisfies only man’s reasoning capacity, while desire is a manifestation of the whole of life, that is, the whole of human life, with both reason and all its funny itches too.


Well – that gave me plenty of food for thought and after cogitating for a while I concluded the following before my head started hurting too much:

1. The movie obviously took MacAndrew and truncated him to suit the script.

2. Even the split of sentences is not consistent in translation as some extracts I’ve given have to be longer because some of the translators run the previous sentence into this one (or else it’s not split in the original but some translators split it).

3. I’ve read Magarshack’s translations in the past with no problem, but I don’t fancy his rendering here…

4. I quite like Aplin’s funny itches, although what strikes me is that each translator has interpreted the itching and its cause and location rather individually!

So – basically I’m just going to have to live with the fact that pretty much every translated rendering of a book is going to be very different and I’ll just have to choose the one which speaks to me the most and get on with it. And I now have four versions of “Notes from Underground” which is possibly a little excessive…