What’s the best translation of The Idiot?

“Which English translation of The Idiot should I read?”

So, you want to read Dostoevsky’s most autobiographical, idiosyncratic, and enigmatic novel, centered on Prince Myshkin, a compassionate, Christlike central character who has been compared to the more comical protagonist of Don Quixote. Less widely read than Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karamazov, the novel nevertheless has its devotees:

The Guardian: “Prince of Fools” by AS Byatt
“I think The Idiot to be a masterpiece…. What makes the greatness is double – the character of the prince, and a powerful series of confrontations with death…. The appalling nature of the close examination of these unimaginable emotions derives from the authority with which Dostoevsky can describe them, since he was himself condemned to death and reprieved, by an imperial whim, or display of power, as he stood in line at the scaffold behind a friend who had indeed just been killed.”

In his afterword to the Signet edition, Gary Rosenshield says: “Henry James spoke pejoratively about the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky as huge, baggy monsters, and he could certainly have cited The Idiot  as a prime candidate for this dubious distinction. By comparison, the plots and narrative structures of Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and even The Possessed seem straightforward and well0-organized. Yet for all its disjunctions and aporias, The Idiot has merits that equal, and, in some cases, surpass those of Dostoyevsky’s other masterpieces…. The Idiot was also Dostoyevsky’s personal favorite.”

In The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation, Peter France says: “There can be few, if any, examples of a modern novelist who has been so copiously retranslated as Dostoevsky.” (page 597)

There have been ten or eleven different translations of The Idiot.

TLDR?

If you just want a quick-and-dirty recommendation on which translation to choose, jump to the conclusion at the bottom of the page.

The Idiot: Translations in English

There are three public-domain translations, two out-of-print translations, and six modern translations available.

  1. 1887 – Fredrick Whishaw
  2. 1913 – Constance Garnett
  3. 1915 – Eva Martin
  4. 1955 – David Magarshack
  5. 1965 – John W. Strahan
  6. 1980 – Henry Carlisle and Olga Andreyeva Carlisle (Signet)
  7. 1992 – Alan Myers (Oxford)
  8. 2002 – Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Vintage/Everyman)
  9. 2003 – Constance Garnett revised by Anna Brailovsky (Modern Library)
  10. 2004 – David McDuff (Penguin)
  11. 2010 – Ignat Avsey (Alma)

The Idiot: Translation Comparison

Extracts have been included below so that you can see how the different translations sound.

The Idiot: Suggestions for Further Reading

See below for more information on this novel and the life of the author.

The Idiot: The Challenges of Translation

In his introduction to the Penguin translation, William Mills Todd says The Idiot reflects not just Dostoyevsky’s Russianness but also the influence of French writers Rousseau, Sand, Dumas, Hugo, Renan, and Flaubert. The latter’s Madame Bovary is mentioned in the text. “[T]he ‘Frenchness’ of The Idiot is difficult to render in English. In the dialogue, Dostoyevsky often has a habit of inserting Russified French words into the text… and this effect is heightened by a peppering of phrases that either mimic French constructions or are directly written in French. [Moreover,] the characters speak in formal styles, which are sometimes… those of the French-educated upper middle class, but are also… urban idioms that have ceased to exist in contemporary Russian and cannot be easily transposed into another language.” There is also a deliberately clumsy narrator.

In his translator’s note, Alan Myers says, “The chief problem facing the translator of Dostoevsky lies in coming to terms with the novelist’s idiosyncratic style, with its feverishly accelerating sentences and mixture of styles ranging from bureaucratese to the classical cadences of gentry prose.”

In The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation, Peter France says: “The special features of [Dostoevsky’s] writing offer an unusual challenge. While one may criticize the normalizing tendency so well illustrated by Constance Garnett, it does not seem that the literal echoing of the syntactical and stylistic peculiarities of the Russian is enough to convey the life of the text. Above all, translating Dostoevsky calls for daring.” (page 597)

What follows is a list of those who dared.

1887 · Fredrick Whishaw · The Idiot

1887 – Fredrick Whishaw

Who was Fredrick Whishaw?

Frederick James Whishaw was a British writer and translator, best known for children’s stories set in Russia and historical novels. In addition to translating The Idiot, he also translated Crime and Punishment and some of Dostoevsky’s shorter fiction: The Friend of the Family, The Gambler, Uncle’s Dream, The Permanent Husband.

Extract from the Whishaw translation of The Idiot

Get the AmazonClassics Whishaw translation of The Idiot

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Available as an ebook.

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Get the Hathi Trust Whishaw translation of The Idiot

Free to access. It's also free to download on Google Play.

Available as an ebook.

View page scans at Hathi Trust

1913 · Constance Garnett · The Idiot

1913 – Constance Garnett

Who was Constance Garnett?

Constance Clara Garnett was an English translator who played a pivotal role in bringing Russian literature to English-speaking audiences. Even where her translations were not chronologically first, she is often credited with popularizing key Russian works. Although some criticize her Edwardian style nowadays, her translations are still read.

Among her translations are Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace, and Anna Karenina.

About the Garnett translation of The Idiot

The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation edited by Peter France:
Garnett’s translations “have been largely ousted from the popular market by their numerous competitors, but they still retain their value. [They] read easily (though the relative formality of the style may strike later readers as old-fashioned), and the basic meaning of the whole Russian text is accurately rendered on the whole. It is true… that she shortens and simplifies. Nevertheless, her fluent renderings allow Dostoevsky’s current to pass over into English.” (page 596)

Extract from the Garnett translation of The Idiot

Get the Barnes & Noble Classics Garnett translation of The Idiot

Includes quotes from the novel, an author bio, extra material on the world of the author and the novel, an introduction by Joseph Frank, endnotes, and a list of works inspired by The Idiot.

Available as a paperback (ISBN 9781593080587, 608 pages).

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Get the Barnes & Noble Classics Garnett translation of The Idiot

Includes quotes from the novel, an author bio, extra material on the world of the author and the novel, an introduction by Joseph Frank, endnotes, and a list of works inspired by The Idiot.

Available as an ebook (ISBN 9781411432369).

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Get the Bantam Classics Garnett translation of The Idiot

Includes a brief author biography and an introduction by Anne Hruska which includes a crystal clear explanation of Russian naming conventions along with a list of characters.

Available as a paperback (ISBN 9780553213522, 720 pages).

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Get the Wordsworth Editions Ltd Garnett translation of The Idiot

Includes an introduction and notes by Agnes Cardinal.

Available as a paperback (ISBN 9781853261756, 592 pages).

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Get the Dover Publications Garnett translation of The Idiot

Very possibly out of print.

Available as a paperback (ISBN 9780486432137, 544 pages).

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Get the Dover Publications Garnett translation of The Idiot

Available as an ebook (ISBN 9780486114538).

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Get the Hathi Trust Garnett translation of The Idiot

Free to access. (No download.)

Available as an ebook.

View page scans at Hathi Trust

1915 · Eva Martin · The Idiot

Who was Eva Martin?

Eva M. Martin was an English writer and translator.

Extract from the Martin translation of The Idiot

Get the Project Gutenberg Martin translation of The Idiot

Free! Available in html, epub, Kindle, and plain text formats.

Available as an ebook.

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1955 · David Magarshack · The Idiot

Who was David Magarshack?

David Magarshack was a British biographer and translator of Russian works by Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Goncharov, Gogol and Tolstoy. Among his translations are Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and Anna Karenina.

Bloggers Karamazov: “David Magarshack, the Penguin Archive, and Translating Dostoevsky: A Chat with Cathy McAteer”
Cathy McAteer’s research on Penguin led her to detailed papers about Magarshack’s approach to translation. He had two goals: to become a financial success and to “refashion the Russian literature translated by Constance Garnett.” When he died, he was preparing a book (which was never published) on the practice of literary translation.

There is much more about Magarshack in Cathy McAteer’s 196-page book, Translating Great Russian Literature: The Penguin Russian Classics, published in 2021 by Routledge.

About the Magarshack translation of The Idiot

The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation edited by Peter France:
Magarshack “certainly corrects some of [Garnett’s] errors; he also aims for a more up-to-date style which flows easily in English…. Being more thoroughly englished than Garnett’s, Magarshack’s translations lack some of the excitement of the foreign.” (page 597)

Extract from the Magarshack translation of The Idiot

Get the Penguin Classics Magarshack translation of The Idiot

Includes an introduction by the translator. This edition is out of print. You may be able to find a second-hand copy using the links below.

Available as a paperback (ISBN 9780140440546, 624 pages).

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1965 · John W. Strahan · The Idiot

Who is John. W. Strahan?

According to the Washington Square Press edition, he was “a noted teacher of German, Russian, and Latin at Newark Academy. He received his B.A. from Amherst College, and his M.A. from Columbia University. In 1963 he edited and restored the authorized translation of Tolstoy’s Resurrection, published by Washington Square Press.”

About the Strahan translation of The Idiot

Back cover says “This new American version is by John W. Strahan and is based upon the 1956-58 soviet edition of Dostoevsky’s Collected Works and the Constance Garnett translation.”

Extract from the Strahan translation of The Idiot

Get the Washington Square Press Strahan translation of The Idiot

Includes an author biography, an introduction by the translator, a selected bibliography, explanatory notes, and a list of characters. This edition is out of print. You may be able to find a second-hand copy using the links below.

Available as a paperback.

1980 · Henry Carlisle and Olga Andreyeva Carlisle · The Idiot

Who are Henry Coffin Carlisle and Olga Andreyeva Carlisle?

As a translating team, they translated Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. Separately, they have written several novels. Henry was born in the US; Olga, the descendant of a Russian literary family, was born and raised in France.

» Henry Carlisle’s LA Times obituary

» More about Olga Carlisle

Extract from the Carlisle translation of The Idiot

Get the Signet Carlisle translation of The Idiot

Includes an introduction by Linda Invanits, an afterword by Gary Rosenshield, notes, and a selected bibliography.

Available as a paperback (ISBN 9780451531520, 688 pages).

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Get the Signet Carlisle translation of The Idiot

Includes an introduction by Linda Invanits, an afterword by Gary Rosenshield, notes, and a selected bibliography.

Available as an ebook (ISBN 9781101433058, 765 pages).

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1992 · Alan Myers · The Idiot

Who was Alan Myers?

He was an English translator of poetry, non-fiction, and fiction in Russian, including A Gentle Creature and Other Stories by Dostoevsky and The Queen of Spades and Other Stories by Pushkin.

About the Myers translation of The Idiot

This translation retains the (potentially confusing) varying forms of Russian names. Name and patronymic; shortened patronymics; and diminutives.

The introduction begins with a kind spoiler warning: “Readers who don’t want to know the plot of The Idiot beforehand might prefer to read this Introduction after the book itself.”

In his translator’s note, Myers says, “[T]he translator must strive to preserve [Dostoevsky’s] distinctive style, while maintaining a convincing natural flow in the English translation. I have aimed at scrupulous accuracy with regard to the original, repetitions and all, unless the effect was outlandish enough to draw attention to itself and hinder the reader’s appreciation.”

The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation edited by Peter France:
“[T]he best version [of The Idiot] currently available [in 2000]…. Myers manages to convey this type of frantic orality [the distraught voice of a tragic narrator] better than any other translator.”

Extract from the Myers translation of The Idiot

Get the Oxford World's Classics Myers translation of The Idiot

Includes an author bio, an introduction by William Leatherbarrow, a select bibliography, a chonology, a list of characters, a map of St. Petersburg, and explanatory notes.

Available as a paperback (ISBN 9780199536399, 688 pages).

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Get the Oxford World's Classics Myers translation of The Idiot

Includes an author bio, an introduction by William Leatherbarrow, a select bibliography, a chonology, a list of characters, a map of St. Petersburg, and explanatory notes.

Available as an ebook.

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2002 · Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky · The Idiot

Who are Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky?

Husband-and-wife team Richard Pevear (born in the US) Larissa Volokhonsky (born in Russia) are famous for their translation of Anna Karenina but have also translated a number of other works in Russian together, including works by Bulgakov, Gogol, Pasternak, Chekhov, Turgenev, and Pushkin as well as Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, The Master and Margarita, and War and Peace. Separately, Pevear has also translated works in French, Italian, Spanish, and Greek, including The Three Musketeers.

About the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of The Idiot

This translation retains the (potentially confusing) varying forms of Russian names. Name and patronymic; shortened patronymics; and diminutives.

The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation edited by Peter France:
The translation strategy used by David McDuff and by Pevear and Volokhonsky “leads to literal rendering, including an attempt to echo in English the syntax and word order of the Russian—and since Dostoevsky, both in his narrative and his dialogue, exploits the freedom of Russian word order to the full, the resulting English translation sometimes seems distinctly odd—deliberately so, of course…. Pevear and Volokhonsky, while they too stress the need to exhume the real, rough-edged Dostoevsky from the normalization practiced by earlier translators, generally offer a rather more satisfactory compromise between the literal and the readable. In particular, their rendering of dialogue is often livelier and more colloquial than McDuff’s.”

Extract from the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of The Idiot

Get the Vintage Classics Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of The Idiot

Includes notes, an introduction by Richard Pevear, a list of characters, and a note on the topography of St. Petersburg.

Available as a paperback (ISBN 9780375702242, 656 pages).

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Get the Vintage Classics Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of The Idiot

Includes notes, an introduction by Richard Pevear, a list of characters, and a note on the topography of St. Petersburg.

Available as an ebook (ISBN 9780553901894).

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Get the Everyman's Library Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of The Idiot

Includes notes, an introduction by Richard Pevear, a list of characters, and a note on the topography of St. Petersburg.

Available as a hardcover (ISBN 9780375413926, 672 pages).

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Get the Everyman's Library Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of The Idiot

Includes notes, an introduction by Richard Pevear, a list of characters, and a note on the topography of St. Petersburg.

Available as a hardcover (ISBN 9781857152548, 680 pages).

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2003 · Constance Garnett revised by Anna Brailovsky · The Idiot

Who is Anna Brailovsky?

She is a translator and editor born in the former USSR and raised in New York City. She translates from German and Russian into English.

» Visit her website

About the Garnett/Brailovsky translation of The Idiot

In her revision of the Garnett translation, Anna Brailovsky has corrected inaccuracies wrought by Garnett’s drastic anglicization of the novel, restoring as much as possible the syntactical structure of the original.”

Extract from the Garnett/Brailovsky translation of The Idiot

Get the Modern Library Classics Garnett/Brailovsky translation of The Idiot

Includes an introduction by Joseph Frank.

Available as a paperback (ISBN 9780679642428, 720 pages).

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2004 · David McDuff · The Idiot

Who was David McDuff?

He was a Scottish editor, literary critic, and translator of poetry and prose from Russian, Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian, Icelandic, and Danish. Among his translations are Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.

About the McDuff translation of The Idiot

This translation retains the (potentially confusing) varying forms of Russian names. Name and patronymic; shortened patronymics; and diminutives.

The introduction begins with a kind spoiler warning: “This Introduction reveals elements of the plot.” It goes on to describe what Dostoevsky’s life was like: He grappled with epilepsy, debt, and the difficulty of being an independent full-time professional writer.

The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation edited by Peter France:
The translation strategy used by David McDuff and Pevear and Volokhonsky “leads to literal rendering, including an attempt to echo in English the syntax and word order of the Russian—and since Dostoevsky, both in his narrative and his dialogue, exploits the freedom of Russian word order to the full, the resulting English translation sometimes seems distinctly odd—deliberately so, of course. McDuff carries this literalism the furthest of any of the translators…. At times, indeed, the convoluted style might make the reader unfamiliar with Dostoevsky’s Russian question the translator’s command of English. More seriously, this literalism means that the dialogue is sometimes impossibly odd—and a result rather dead.”

Extract from the McDuff translation of The Idiot

Get the Penguin Classics McDuff translation of The Idiot

Includes a chronology, an introduction by William Mills Todd III, suggestions for further reading, a note on the translation, and notes.

Available as a paperback (ISBN 9780140447927, 768 pages).

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Get the Penguin Classics McDuff translation of The Idiot

Includes a chronology, an introduction by William Mills Todd III, suggestions for further reading, a note on the translation, and notes.

Available as an ebook.

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2010 · Ignat Avsey · The Idiot

Who was Ignat Avsey?

He was a British lecturer, critic, and translator of works from Russian into English. Among his translations are Dostoyevsky’s Village of Stepanchikovo, Humiliated and Insulted, and The Brothers Karamazov.

» Read his obituary in The Guardian

Extract from the Avsey translation of The Idiot

Get the Alma Classics Avsey translation of The Idiot

Includes a note on the text, endnotes, extra material on Dostoevsky's life and works, a translator's note, and a select bibliography.

Available as a paperback (ISBN 9781847493439, 704 pages).

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Other Info and Resources

The Idiot is a challenging book! If you want to not only read it but read about it, try:

If you’re interested in the development of The Idiot, see below for Dostoevsky’s notebooks on the subject.

If the biographical aspects of The Idiot interest you, you might be interested in a biography of Dostoevsky. Scholar Joseph Frank has written (among other things) a five-volume series on the life of Dostoevsky.

  • Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849
  • Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859
  • Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation, 1860-1865
  • Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871
  • Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881

It is available in an abridged one-volume version (see below).

Get The Notebooks for The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

"This is an invaluable aid to the understanding not only of the finished work of art, but also of Dostoyevsky's strangely tortured yet confident creative process." — Modern Fiction Studies.
"Superbly edited by Edward Wasiolek and well translated (despite difficult problems of rendering) by Katharine Strelsky." ― The New York Times Book Review.

Available as a paperback (ISBN 9780486814148, 256 pages).

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Get The Notebooks for The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

"This is an invaluable aid to the understanding not only of the finished work of art, but also of Dostoyevsky's strangely tortured yet confident creative process." — Modern Fiction Studies.
"Superbly edited by Edward Wasiolek and well translated (despite difficult problems of rendering) by Katharine Strelsky." ― The New York Times Book Review.

Available as an ebook.

Get Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time by Joseph Frank

"A magnificent one-volume abridgement of one of the greatest literary biographies of our time."

Available as a paperback (ISBN 9780691155999, 984 pages).

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Get Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time by Joseph Frank

"A magnificent one-volume abridgement of one of the greatest literary biographies of our time."

Available as an ebook.

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Get Lectures on Dostoevsky by Joseph Frank

"From the author of the definitive biography of Fyodor Dostoevsky, never-before-published lectures that provide an accessible introduction to the Russian writer's major works."

Available as a paperback (ISBN 9780691207919, 256 pages).

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Get Lectures on Dostoevsky by Joseph Frank

"From the author of the definitive biography of Fyodor Dostoevsky, never-before-published lectures that provide an accessible introduction to the Russian writer's major works."

Available as an ebook.

Conclusion

What’s the best The Idiot translation?

There is no one best translation; which one is best depends on what you’re looking for.

If you want a free ebook, get the Martin translation from Project Gutenberg.

If you want a good balance between smoothness and faithfulness, get the Myers translation from Oxford World’s Classics.

If you want the trendy translation, get the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation from Vintage or Everyman’s Library.

More Dostoevsky

Other Novels by Fyodor Dostoevsky

  • The Village of Stepanchikovo (aka The Friend of the Family)
  • Humiliated and Insulted (aka The Insulted and Humiliated, The Insulted and the Injured, Injury and Insult)
  • The House of the Dead (aka Notes from a Dead House, etc.)
  • Notes from Underground
  • Crime and Punishment
  • Demons (aka The Possessed, The Devils)
  • The Adolescent (aka A Raw Youth, An Accidental Family)
  • The Brothers Karamazov

Novellas by Fyodor Dostoevsky

  • Poor Folk
  • The Double
  • The Landlady
  • Uncle’s Dream
  • The Gambler
  • The Eternal Husband

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