Isaac Babel Garrett’s translation of War and Peace is in the public domain, so it’s the version you’ll probably get if you download a free copy. She hired a secretary who would read the Russian text to her aloud, and she would dictate back the English translation.
The Severe and Volokhonsky translation is a common choice to pick up in bookshops, and it is serviceable. But I struggle to read it, and I feel it loses the magic of other translations, like Anthony Briggs’s.
The Maude's knew Tolstoy well, spent a long time living in Moscow, and spoke impeccable Russian. The Maude translation used to be more clunky, and it was criticized for including anglicized character names.
My older and battered edition of War and Peace is Penguin’s earlier paperback, with a portrait of a Russian princess on the front cover. “The picture of everything that people consider to be their happiness and greatness, their sorrow and their humiliation, is complete.
From IN Strabo’s review of War and Peace, Zara, January 1870. I started Tolstoy Therapy back in 2012 to share my healing journey through anxiety and PTSD with books.
We’re on the trail, preparing to ride 22 miles to a small college town. We’ll take pictures of the goldfinches, the llamas, and the cows along the way.
But first I have to load my book in the pannier, the Penguin Deluxe Classic edition of War and Peace, translated by Anthony Briggs. In 2005, Penguin published Anthony Briggs excellent translation.
In his note on translation, he lauds earlier translations, mentions Constance Garrett, says that the Maude's’ version of War and Peace “is still read as a classic in its own right, and the errors are so few as to be negligible,” and that Rosemary Edmonds (1978) and Ann Hannigan’s are sound. He points out that phrases from earlier translations like, “Can this be I?”, “in quest of fowls,” and “ejaculated with a grimace” seem dated.
If the Maude's’ dialogue seems stilted at times, Briggs more colloquial language can be refreshing. Then in 2008, a new translation by the award-winning Richard Severe and Larissa Volokhonsky was published, and it eclipsed Anthony Briggs in the reviewers’ minds.
Severe and Volokhonsky include all the French, with pages of footnotes. Compare these two sentences translated by Briggs and Maude's and see which you prefer.
Scene: The Rostov's are preparing to leave Moscow, because Napoleon and the French are coming to occupy it, and Countess Rostov has asked Sonya, a poor cousin, to write to her son, Nikolai, and free him from obligation, so he can marry an heiress. “The ghastly upheaval of the Rostov's’ last days in Moscow had repressed all the dark thoughts that Sonya now found so burdensome.
She was glad to find temporary relief in practicalities. “The bustle and terror of the Rostov's’ last days in Moscow stifled the gloomy thoughts that oppressed Sonya.
Do you prefer “ghastly upheaval” to “bustle and terror”? War and Peace is such a fast-paced novel that it’s hard to stop and think about the language.
No matter how often you read it, it is vivid and absorbing; you become anxious about the war and the foolishness of Pierre and Natasha; find yourself on General Kutuzov’s, because he knows that no military planning will affect what happens, and that it’s rare that the troops even to manage to be in the right place: and you hope against hope that this reading there might be a better outcome for Prince Andrey, Petra, Sonya, and Platoon. Briggs does, however, make an anachronistic statement about women translators that a Penguin editor should have omitted for the sake of not alienating his audience.
A few years ago they published a volume of Louisa May Alcott’s children’s books: Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys. Then last year they published Laura In galls Wilder’s children’s books.
Women are underrepresented by LOA (I looked up the stats, and it was appalling). They seem to be sending a message, particularly with their highlighting of Wilder, that women are children’s writers.
There must be some first-rate women writers whose estates would allow LOA to publish their work. I love LOA, and don’t mean to insult their work in any way, and I own many of their books.
There was the time I read Elizabeth Haskell’s Wives and Daughters and a friend tried to persuade me it wasn’t in the canon. Men have a canon, a list of the Best 100 Books, which includes Tolstoy, so I can read War and Peace to my heart’s content, and Jane Austen, thank God.
Find out more about one of our most recommended books by reading the expert commentary about War and Peace below. At night, I stayed awake in the hut where we were staying to find out what happened next by the light of a small lamp, long after everyone else had gone to sleep and trying my best not to disturb anyone.” Read more... “One of the key questions that Tolstoy asks in the appendix is the central question of War and Peace : how can we explain the fact that, on orders, millions of people go out and kill one another, when they know that killing another human being is morally wrong?” Read more... “The reason I chose War and Peace is that it is the greatest novel of all time and I still think it is even after reading it five times…. As a novelist, when you begin to write in this era it is like the elephant in the room, especially if you love it as much as I do.
It’s a demotic theory of history, though not necessarily a socialist view.” Read more... “One doesn’t have to invent the bicycle, there is one: it’s War and Peace. It’s about how Russia won the Napoleonic wars, and moved into the first row of nations who dealt with European history.
Tolstoy, War and Peace Lucy on January 17, 2014, My well-worn copy of War and Peace. However, there were a few points I decided to leave for another post, including: side-by-side comparisons of the two translations and an investigation into whether Briggs is actually the translator to blame. I wish I could speak Russian and read War and Peace in all its original glory, but alas that won’t be happening any time soon.
However, non-Russian speakers like myself can easily compare translations side-by-side in order to think a little more about the original content and the various ways of interpreting it in English. I know I could bring other translations into the equation, but for this post I’ll stick to Briggs and P&V.
I’ll introduce you to my copy of War and Peace, translated by the wonderful Anthony Briggs. The old oak, quite transformed, spreading out a canopy of juicy, dark greenery, basked, barely swaying, in the rays of the evening sun.
Juicy green leaves without branches broke through the stiff, hundred-year-old bark, and it was impossible to believe that this old fellow had produced them. The old oak was completely transformed, now spreading out a canopy of lush dark foliage and stirring gently as it wallowed in the evening sunshine.
Succulent young leaves with no twigs had burst straight through the hard bark of a hundred years; it was almost impossible that this old fellow should have grown them. ‘Yes, it’s the same oak,’ thought Prince Andrei, and suddenly a causeless springtime feeling of joy and renewal came over him.
‘No, life isn’t over at the age of thirty-one,’ Prince Andrei suddenly decided definitively, immutably. ‘Oh yes, that’s the one,’ thought the prince, spontaneously overwhelmed by one of those surges of delight and renewal that belong to springtime.
Vladimir Nabokov, in his Lectures on Russian Literature, maintains that “the third, and worst, degree of turpitude” in literary translation, after “obvious errors” and skipping over awkward passages, Is reached when a masterpiece is banished and patted into such a shape, vilely beautified in such a fashion as to conform to the notions and prejudices of a given public.
All the characteristic idioms, the bumpy syntax, the angularities, and the repetitions that had largely been removed in the interests of “good writing” by Garrett and her followers I realize that the Anthony Briggs translation isn’t for everyone, and I know many people enjoy the Severe & Volokhonsky translation very much (some of you even commented on Part I of this post).
The “British isms” and the flowing writing are also reasons why I liked it (you can hate me for this), even if these weren’t part of the original and aren’t necessarily accurate. I started Tolstoy Therapy back in 2012 to share my healing journey through anxiety and PTSD with books.
But he does a pretty thorough accounting, singling out Louise and Aylmer Maude as “the masters,” and he quotes Tolstoy’s own assessment of their work: “Better translators … could not be invented.” He mentions the obvious clearing up of little anachronisms that we’d expect in the first new translation in nearly forty years (the changing of “gay” when it’s used to mean “merry,” for instance), but then goes on to criticize previous translations for a certain prissiness, which he attributes to the fact that most of the translators were women of a “particular social and cultural background.” He proposes to make the dialogue more naturalistic, especially that among “soldiers, peasants, and all the lower orders.” (Giving the benefit of the doubt, I suppose we can presume Briggs to have had some experience with soldiers.
In reading this book, however, one is struck by how far one must go (more than 100 pages) before running into any patch of dialogue involving soldiers or the lower orders. Perhaps that is one of the secrets of its popularity: phenomenally rich, aristocratic people are always easier to take in translation, in a far-off country, and when long dead.
The novel has its share of widowed noblewomen in need of money, but their speech can’t be expected to differ from that of their luckier friends, whose husbands are still alive. As for soldiers, it is a question of taste whether you would prefer a Russian general in Austria in 1805 to be looking for excuses to “blow his top,” as Briggs portrays him, or would just as soon have your general wishing to find “a further excuse for wrath,” as Louise and Aylmer Maude delicately put it.
And yet, Briggs’s version risks sounding like a child’s pirate movie made by Australians. His penchant for spoken language, I trust, encouraged him to transliterate a German colonel so that the officer’s speech reads like parody (“‘He reason by, my good sir,’ he said, in his German accent, ‘EEA just at he Emperor knows is too’”), reminiscent of “So they call me Concentration Camp Erhard,” in Ernst Cubits’s great To Be or Not to Be.
Nonetheless, I find it charmingly hilarious that a translator will work through a 1,358-page book with the hope that the insertion of slang will bring the novel he’s long loved to new mass audiences. Translations may work this way too; each good one gives us another element of the original, a strand, however fine, that wasn’t visible to us in English before.
The strand that Briggs is particularly sensitive to in Tolstoy’s work is the great variety of spoken language within the book. In fact, French was used so widely in the first edition that a renowned Soviet linguist called it a bilingual work.
Of course, most writers understand that the variety of contradictory detail in even a particularly boring human being, transposed to the page, would fail to be believable as that of one person. Like Austen (and unlike George Eliot or Proust), Tolstoy writes fairy tales, but his have jagged, realistic endings.
Girls whom Austen and Eliot would render as twits emerge in Tolstoy’s work as full, complex characters, even with the abundant evidence of their spoiled immaturity. Consider the Countess Rostov, whose husband has, by no evil greater than living the big life they were each brought up to expect, run through his family fortune.
But Tolstoy first shows us the countess (who has had twelve children) slipping money to her impoverished, widowed childhood friend. They wept for their friendship, their kindheartedness and the unfortunate need for lifelong friends to soil their hands with anything as sordid as money, and they wept also for their lost youth … But the tears of both women were sweet … This is our introduction to the woman who later calls her niece, the girl her son loves, a “scheming hussy.” It is a lovely passage, not for any play of language but for its capacious empathy, the narrator’s description of the women’s sorrow skipping, like a well-thrown stone on the surface of a lake, from the emotional burden of charity between old friends to their tearful nostalgia for days gone by.