If I buy a "Barnes & Noble Classics Series" edition of a book that is in public domain, can I be confident that it is "correct," in the sense of being unabridged, un-bowdlerize, and identical to the original?

Answers to the likely follow-up questions:

Why Barnes & Noble? I have a gift card.

What book? The Brothers Karamazov by Fydor Dostoyevsky; translated by Constance Garnett

Everybody knows Garnett is inferior to Pevear/Volokhonsky (or whomever you prefer); why would you want her translation? Two reasons:

  1. I read the P&V translations of Demons and did not like it nearly as much as I had liked Crime and Punishment (Sidney Monas translation) or The Idiot (not sure whose translation, but almost certainly pre-dated P&V). It could be that it's just a lesser book, of course.
  2. One of my main reasons for wanting to read it is that several authors and other thinkers that I really enjoy/admire considered it a big influence on them - and it happens that most of the folks in mind would likely (or definitely) have read the Garnett translation. If it was good enough for William Faulkner, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Walker Percy, Dorothy Day, etc, it should be good enough for me. I may read another translation some time, but I want to read what they read.

What's your concern exactly? Before I had the epiphany that I wanted to read the translation that helped shape the evolution of the 20th century novel, I did a lot of searching around looking for opinions on the "best" translation. The main thing that concerned me about Garnett was that, because her translation is in the public domain now, you have to worry about getting versions that are abridged, badly formatted, etc.

The only Garnett translation available from B&N is from their "Barnes & Noble Classics Series." It seems like I should be able to trust B&N to publish a quality text (the quality of the binding and such is less important to me), but I just want some outside opinions.

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    I read George Eliot's Daniel Deronda in a Barnes & Noble Classics Edition. The only problem with it was that while some of the footnotes were very useful (explaining obscure facts that many of the readers in 1876 would have known), others contained spoilers.
    – Peter Shor
    Aug 19 '20 at 0:36
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    I would say that the main issue with republishing Garnett's translation of The Brothers Karamazov is whether the text was transferred correctly from a hardcopy original (e.g. the original 1912 Macmillan edition) to digital copy for modern printing processes. Which edition did B&N use, did the transfer the entire text without omitting words or even entire lines, did they modernise spelling, etc. If this was done recently, bowdlerisation should be less of a concern. [to be continued]
    – Tsundoku
    Aug 19 '20 at 9:19
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    I am assuming you are interested in this specific translation / novel, since your title is much broader (and possibly too broad) and that the quality of Garnett's translation is not part of the focus of your question.
    – Tsundoku
    Aug 19 '20 at 9:20
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    Yes, sorry, I don't have a lot of experience on Stack Exchange, and my impression was that the title question should be as simple as possible. It is the general question behind my specific question. But, yes, I am specifically interested, at the moment, as to whether I specifically can trust their edition of Garnett's translation. (I also thought the generalized title would help prevent a bunch of comments on what the "best" translation is).
    – Sven3B
    Aug 19 '20 at 19:52

Unlike, say, Dover Editions which are photoreproductions of public domain texts, the Barnes & Noble classic editions are, in fact, newly typeset texts. They don't give any attribution to their source text on the copyright page and are probably not working from Project Gutenberg texts which can often include OCR errors, especially in longer/more obscure texts which get less attention. Since B&N has a commercial interest in keeping book buyers happy, I would assume that they've had the text professionally proofread before going to press so it shouldn't have any gross errors or omissions.

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    I hadn't actually realized I could look at the title and copyright page from their website. The guy they have listed as the Consulting Editorial Director, George Stade, seems pretty legitimate, as does the person responsible for the Intro and Notes, Maire Jaanus. The fact that they are newly typeset is probably the key piece of information I didn't have. That makes me a lot more confident, given that somebody put actual work into it, rather than scanning with OCR.
    – Sven3B
    Aug 19 '20 at 19:56

I would not recommend the Barnes and Noble editions. To establish a sound version of a text, a good text editor or a reliable translator are essential. B & N does not use either of these, simply reprinting public domain texts and translations instead. This makes their books inexpensive but their texts unreliable.

A text editor looks at all the early editions (and at manuscripts, where available) of a given text and assesses the differences between them to try to come up with an authentic, complete version. Modernizing spelling and standardizing punctuation is also part of a text editor's work. The text editor decides, for example, whether Hamlet's soliloquy in I.ii begins:

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt


O, that this too too sallied flesh would melt


O, that this too too sullied flesh would melt.

See this question and Tsundoku's answer for a discussion.

Since B & N simply typesets old editions anew, their texts are usually outdated. As of January 1, 2021, works published in 1926 are public domain, so a B & N edition will rely on some text published that year or earlier. If a more reliable edition was published in, say, the 1940s, based on a newly discovered manuscript or simply on a more careful collation of earlier printed versions, that more reliable and often standard text would not be found in the B & N edition because it wouldn't be out of copyright yet.

The problem is worse with translations. To take a very well-known example, English editions of The Count of Monte Cristo most often use an anonymous 1846 translation published by Chapman and Hall. One of the reviewers on the B & N page for this novel says that there is no credited translator, which is an indication that it too uses that same anonymous translation. This translation leaves out passages that would offend Victorian sensibilities, for example, three paragraphs that describe a sexual dream Franz D'Epinay has after consuming some hashish at the Count's invitation. Relying on such outdated translations, the B & N editions too often present expurgated versions in an antiquated idiom.

I've also found that their paperback editions are not attractive; the paper is cheap and the typeface ugly. Their so-called collectible editions, as in the linked example for The Count of Monte Cristo in the previous paragraphs, are leather-bound and presumably use better paper. But if I'm going to pay $25 for an edition of that novel, I'd spend it on a reliable, new translation, such as Robin Buss's Penguin Classics edition, which is a much better text at a comparable price.

In your case, since you're specifically looking for the Garnett translation and already have a gift card that can't be spent elsewhere, the B & N version would work fine for you. But in general, I think their editions are best avoided.


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