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I am reading Pevear & Volokhonsky's translation of Crime and Punishment. In part II, chapter 6, Raskolnikov is at the "Crystal Palace" restaurant, where he runs into the clerk Zamyotov and they have a conversation about a gang of counterfeiters that were caught trying to change their false notes at a bank. Zamyotov remarks that it must take nerves to do something so brazen:

To risk such horror for a hundred-ruble award! To take a false banknote, and where? — to a banking house, where they do know a hawk from a handsaw — no, I'd get flustered.

The phrase "know a hawk from a handsaw" is, of course, an allusion to Hamlet, and fits well with other elements of this chapter, namely Raskolnikov contemplating suicide, talking cryptically and acting crazy with Zemyotov, and coming across a woman who is drowning in the river.

Is this allusion in the original Russian, or is it an invention of P&V? If it is an invention, is it relatively faithful to the original? Constance Garnett (not necessarily known for her fidelity to the original) rendered the same phrase as "a bank, where it's their business to spot that sort of thing."

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    A third possibility is that Dostoyevsky used an obscure Russian reference that English speakers wouldn't know, and Pevear & Volokhonsky replaced it with know a hawk from a handsaw.
    – Peter Shor
    Jan 6, 2023 at 1:46
  • @PeterShor yes, that’s certainly a possibility! Or, he might even have used a Russian idiom that was used as the translation for “know a hawk from a handsaw” when Shakes. was translated to Russian!
    – Kevin Troy
    Jan 6, 2023 at 3:26

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To answer your question, let's refer to the Russian original. Here's the relevant passage:

Идти с фальшивым билетом — куда же? — в банкирскую контору, где на этом собаку съели, — нет, я бы сконфузился.

My literal translation:

To go with a counterfeit banknote — and where? — to a banking office where they have eaten a dog on it — no, I would be embarrassed.

It uses a quite well-known Russian idiom to have a dog eaten on something, which means "to be very experienced and knowledgeable at something". Its origin is obscure but likely not related to any literary works. The passage would certainly not be understood by an English reader if translated word-by-word, so translators try to pick English idioms to match the style of the original. As Pete mentions, another translation uses "to know [something] inside out", while yours goes with a Shakespearean quote.

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If the original contained a Shakespeare allusion, then all English translations would include it.

Here is a different translation, where it is rendered as "where they know that kind of thing inside out"

So, it is almost certainly added by the translators.

All translations are adaptations to a greater or lesser extent. If a character cracks a joke, it probably doesn't translate directly, so the translator will have to substitute a different joke. A literary reference is often swapped for a more familiar reference.

I know of at least two instances where this happened. I know because the translator said so in the introduction to the printed text.

  • The original text of Cyrano de Bergerac contains a reference to a play that would be familiar to French audiences in 1897. The English translation by Anthony Burgess substitutes "Oh, that this too, too, solid nose would melt."

  • In Gogol's play The Government Inspector, the young anti-hero pretends to be a poet, among other things. When Marya asks him to compose a poem for her, he begins "Marya's like a red, red, rose..." The original being a Russian poem that he ripped off.

So it could very well be that the original text has a literary reference that was changed in one translation, and dropped altogether in another.

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  • O my Luve is like a red, red rose. That's newly sprung in June. — Robert Burns.
    – Peter Shor
    Jan 6, 2023 at 16:02
  • I think you’re probably right, but not accepting for now in case someone fluent in Russian and familiar with the original text can enlighten us. That said, it’s not necessarily the case that a Shakes. allusion in the original would be noticed by all translators, if they weren’t familiar with the translation D had been familiar with.
    – Kevin Troy
    Jan 8, 2023 at 0:46

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