Here is the traditional Frisbee summer picture of a book in a bicycle helmet. This enormous, 4-pound, 1,273-page Vintage Classics edition of War and Peace tipped the helmet. Next week, I’ll carry a different, slightly smaller Oxford edition, hoping it will balance at 2 pounds.
I’m fascinated by different editions and translations anyway. The word “translation” comes from the Latin transfero, “to carry across,” and if you have ever attempted to translate the literature of one language into another, you will understand the difficulties. Structures of languages are sometimes incompatible: English depends on word order, while inflected languages depend instead on word endings, with a more flexible arrangement of words that can’t quite be conveyed in English. This is especially a problem with poetry. Since I don’t know Russian, and am totally dependent on translations, I’m just relieved I’m reading prose. And War and Peace is such an engrossing novel that it reads easily in any translation.
This year my goal is to alternate reading the four translations I have and to finish the translation I like best. Here are a few preliminary words about them, in order of the date of translation: Constance Garnett, Louise and Aylmer Maude, Anthony Briggs, and Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
1. Constance Garnett’s translation (1903). I am very fond of Garnett, who translated 70 Russian works in the late 19th century and early 20th, among them Tolstoy, Turgenev, Gogol, and Chekhov. It is said that she wrote very quickly and if she didn’t understand a paragraph, she skipped it and went on. It reads very well anyway, and her translation of War and Peace was praised by Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad, and D. H. Lawrence.
Orlando Figes in The New York Review of Books said of Garnett in 2007:
“No one did more to introduce the English-speaking world to Russian literature than Constance Garnett (1862– 1946)…. A friend of Garnett’s, D.H. Lawrence, recalled her ‘sitting out in the garden turning out reams of her marvelous translations from the Russian. She would finish a page, and throw it off on a pile on the floor without looking up, and start a new page. The pile would be this high…really almost up to her knees, and all magical.'”
And you may have read it, too. The Garnett translation is available in the Modern Library edition and countless others.
2. Louise and Aylmer Maude (1922-23). Like Garnett, the Maudes were determined to promulgate Tolstoy’s writings, and Maude’s translation of War and Peace was considered the best. Tolstoy gave the Maude translation his seal of approval. It is my favorite, and it is available free at Project Gutenberg.
There is a new revision of the Maude translation, by Amy Mandelkar, published in 2010. I’m content with the original Maude, but perhaps this will turn up in the used bookstore eventually. Yes, I want this one, too.
According to the Oxford University Press catalogue:
“The Maudes’ translation of Tolstoy’s epic masterpiece has long been considered the best English version, and now for the first time it has been revised to bring it fully into line with modern approaches to the text. French passages are restored, Anglicization of Russian names removed, and outmoded expressions updated.”
3. The Anthony Briggs translation (2005). I’ve just begun it and am very much enjoying it, though it’s not quite as smooth as Garnett’s or the Maude: he feels those two are too smooth anyway. Briggs’ is a controversial translation, because he renders the dialect of the soldiers as working-class slang. So far I’m reading the “peace” parts, and they’re very readable; in fact, I’d like to keep reading it, because the 100 pages I’ve read are absorbing. We’ll see what I think of the war slang. It’s a lovely book, with good notes and chapter summaries.
In an article in The New Statesman in 2005, Briggs, a former professor of Russian at the University of Birmingham, wrote about his translation, and said that earlier translations by Garnett and Maude are good but too grammatical, especially in dialogue.
“The experience of English readers should be as close as possible to that of Russians reading their own language, and this calls for a wider range of speech registers, especially in dialogue, but also in the narrative. To get near the unconstrained flow of the original, ordinariness needs to be infused into the translation. However, this does not mean that Tolstoy’s words should be brutalised. There were occasions when I considered expressions such as “hooliganism”, “between a rock and a hard place” and “we’ve been rumbled”, before rejecting them as too modern.”
4. The Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation, 2007. This husband-and-wife team, Pevear an American and Volokhonsky a Russian, live in France, and they began working together on Russian translations when Pevear was reading The Brothers Karamazov and Volokhonsky noticed some inadequacies in the translation. Volokhonsky does the original literal translation, and Pevear polishes it.
They won the PEN/Book of the Month Club Prize for their translations of The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina.
They have restored the French to War and Peace, so that French dialogue (Russian aristocrats often spoke French, and Tolstoy wrote parts in French) appears on the page and is translated in footnotes. There is so much French in the first chapter of the P-V edition that I was put off and started with the Maude. The restoration of the French has been made much of in reviews, but I prefer just getting the flavor with a few French sentences now and then.
It’s a beautifully-designed book, with detailed notes and a historical index.
In an interview in The Millions, they said:
“We turn back to [Tolstoy), we keep reading him, because in his artistic work he deals with universal conditions and almost never with topical issues, and because he has such an extraordinary gift for concrete realization.”