Read on for the long answer, comparing four of the best translations of War and Peace … 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.
With any of the translations on this list, read the first chapter to see how you get on with the writing style before purchasing. “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.
Why has the book War and Peace been chosen by philosophers, historians and novelists as one of the most important ever written? 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. Back in January, I wrote a list of reading goals.
One of them was to read either Anna Karenina or War and Peace. As it happened, my local library put together what they called the Big Book Club in an effort to tackle books with extraordinary page lengths, starting this summer with Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
If you’re not up to ascending the mountain that is War and Peace, take a gander at these quotes, and you’ll just about get the gist. Then, go and tell your friends you’ve read the monster (abridged, if you want to be extra truthful).
“The ancients left us examples of heroic poems in which heroes constitute the entire interest of history, and we still cannot get used to the fact that, for our human time, history of this sort has no meaning.” “ ‘All kings except the Chinese wear military uniforms, and the one who has killed the most people get the greatest reward … They come together, like tomorrow, to kill each other, they slaughter and maim tens of thousands of men, and then they say prayers of thanksgiving for having slaughtered so many people (inflating the numbers) and proclaim victory, supposing that the more people slaughtered, the greater the merit.
When you buy through these links, Book Riot may earn a commission. In the first production of “The Idiots Karamazov,” at the Yale Repertory Theater, Garrett was played by a student at the drama school named Meryl Streep, who portrayed the aged “translated” as a muddled loon.
Cervantes complained that reading a translation was “like looking at the Flanders tapestries from behind: you can see the basic shapes, but they are so filled with threads that you cannot fathom their original luster.” And yet they persevere: here comes Edith Grossman, four centuries later, quixotically encountering the Don and his Sancho on behalf of a new generation of English readers. Without translators, we are left adrift on our various linguistic ice floes, only faintly hearing rumors of masterpieces elsewhere at sea.
She translated seventy volumes of Russian prose for commercial publication, including all of Dostoevsky’s novels; hundreds of Chekhov’s stories and two volumes of his plays; all of Turgenev’s principal works and nearly all of Tolstoy’s; and selected texts by Her zen, Goncharov, and Trotsky. A friend of Garrett’s, D. H. Lawrence, was in awe of her matter-of-fact endurance, recalling her “sitting out in the garden turning out reams of her marvelous translations from the Russian.
Without Garrett, the nineteenth-century “Russians,” as Ezra Pound called them, would not have exerted such a rapid influence on the American literature of the early twentieth. In “A Moveable Feast,” Hemingway recounts scouring Sylvia Beach’s shelves for the Russians and finding in them a depth and accomplishment he had never known.
In Dostoevsky there were things believable and not to be believed, but some so true they changed you as you read them; frailty and madness, wickedness and saintliness, and the insanity of gambling were there to know as you knew the landscape and the roads in Turgenev, and the movement of troops, the terrain and the officers and the men and the fighting in Tolstoy. Tolstoy made the writing of Stephen Crane on the Civil War seem like the brilliant imagining of a sick boy who had never seen war but had only read the battles and chronicles and seen the Brady photographs that I had read and seen at my grandparents’ house.
Among the most astringent and authoritative critics of Garrett were Russian exiles, especially Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Trotsky. Nabokov, the son of a liberal noble who was assassinated at a political conference, left Russia in 1919.
She worked with such speed, with such an eye toward the finish line, that when she came across a word or a phrase that she couldn’t make sense of she would skip it and move on. Garrett is often wooden in her renderings, sometimes unequal to certain verbal motifs and particularly long and complicated sentences.
The typescripts of Nabokov’s lectures, which he delivered while teaching undergraduates at Wellesley and Cornell, are full of anti-Garnett vitriol; his margins are a congeries of pencilled exclamations and crabby demurrals on where she had “messed up.” For example, where a passage in the Garrett of “Anna” reads, “Holding his head bent down before him,” Nabokov triumphantly notes, “Mark that Mrs. Garrett has decapitated the man.” When Nabokov was working on a study of Gogol, he complained, “I have lost a week already translating passages I need in ‘The Inspector General’ as I can do nothing with Constance Garrett’s dry shit.” A less imperious but no less discerning critic, Korea Tchaikovsky (who was also a famous writer of children’s books), esteemed Garrett for her work on Turgenev and Chekhov but not for her Dostoevsky.
Soon, she tried her hand at translating minor pieces, beginning with Goncharov’s “A Common Story” and Tolstoy’s “The Kingdom of God Is Within You” and then moving on to her favorite of the Russians, Turgenev. In 1894, she left behind her infant son and her husband and made a three-month trip to Russia, where she drove long distances through snowstorms by sleigh, visited experimental schools, and dined with Tolstoy at his estate.
When Garrett returned to England, she began an ascetic lifelong routine of housekeeping, child-rearing, and translating. Mornings, she made oatmeal for her son David, and then, according to her biographer Carolyn Heilbronn, “she would go round the garden, while the dew was still on the plants, to kill the slugs; this was a moment of self indulgence.” Garrett was a sickly woman, suffering from migraines, sciatica, and terrible eyesight, and yet her ailments did not deter her from working as a translator.
She turned down an offer from Tolstoy’s close friends Louise and Aylmer Maude to collaborate on a translation of War and Peace and did it on her own. Garrett went nearly blind working on War and Peace.” She hired a secretary, who read the Russian text to her aloud; Garrett would dictate back in English, sometimes grabbing away the original text and holding it a few inches from her ailing eyes.
Larissa was born in Leningrad; her brother Henri is a poet who was a rival of Trotsky. After she emigrated, in 1973, she translated “Introduction to Patristic Theology,” by John Hausdorff, a Russian Orthodox priest and thinker.
Then, Richard, who has never mastered conversational Russian, wrote a smoother, more Englisher text, constantly consulting Larissa about the original and the possibilities that it did and did not allow. They went back and forth like this several times, including a final session in which Richard read his English version aloud while Larissa followed along in the Russian.
Their hope was to be true to Dostoevsky, right down to his famous penchant for repetition, seeming sloppiness, and melodrama. The editors there sent the text along to an Oxford don, who objected to Alysha Karamazov being called an “angel”; in the margin he wrote instead “good chap”; another marginal note said, simply, “balls.” Oxford University Press turned them down.
Severe called back and shyly asked if, perhaps, North Point could come up with a bit more money. “P/V,” as they would come to be known in the academic journals, went to work on “The Brothers Karamazov.” In time, they would become the best -selling and perhaps the most authoritative translators of Russian prose since Constance Garrett.
We moved to France illegally on a tourist visa, and it was finally a policeman who told us that we needed to ‘regularize our situation,’ as he put it.” Unlike Garrett, who started small and then worked her way up to the big, baggy monsters of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Severe and Volokhonsky began with the bulkiest and most complex masterpiece imaginable.
“The Brothers Karamazov” is, to use Mikhail Bakunin’s famous term, the most polyphonic of Dostoevsky’s novels, the one with the most voices, tones, and textures braided into the text. Tolstoy and Chekhov are far clearer, more serene; perhaps, among the main nineteenth-century texts, only Gogol’s “Dead Souls,” with its singular vocabulary and jokes, is as difficult for a translator.
He says, ‘Be prepared for anything.’ Then, ‘lowering his eyes, he himself prepared to step across the threshold to the carriage.’ Dickens would never have joked at such a moment. “Translators too often look for the so-called Russian sensibility, and, lo and behold, they find it: the darkness, the obsessiveness, the mystic genius.
In order to re-create some sense of the tone of the original, Severe and Volokhonsky have to rely on their own literary instincts, but they have also devised a set of guidelines. In the Sidney Mona's “Crime and Punishment,” the translator uses “pal” instead of something like “old boy.” “We won’t do that,” Severe said, making the face of a child who has inadvertently eaten a Brussels sprout.
Even when they desperately needed the money, they refused an offer to translate Victor Profane’s fantastically dirty novel, “Russian Beauty.” Nor did they find much to admire in a recent scandalous text from Russia, Vladimir Stroking’s “Blue Lard.” “It was the only book I ever asked to have removed from my house,” Volokhonsky said. “It seemed to me that English prose had become textureless, flavorless, flat, naïve, a kind of dull first person.
Severe and Volokhonsky told me that they considered Nabokov’s “Onegin” one of the great triumphs of translation, even though it is nothing like their own work. Nabokov, who regarded “The Gift” and “Lolita” as his best novels, thought that his “Onegin” was perhaps the most important project of his life and, at the same time, like all translation, innately futile.
In 1955, just as he was setting out on the project, he published a poem in this magazine on the impossibility, the insult, of translation : His intention, as he makes clear in the introduction, is not to provide a traditional “poetic” rendering, a pleasurable English “Onegin,” like Abraham Yarmolinsky’s, James Fallen’s, or Charles Johnston’s noble attempts.
For his part, Nabokov intended to provide the reader with a literal-minded “crib, a pony,” as he once told an interviewer. “And to the fidelity of transpose I have sacrificed everything: elegance, euphony, clarity, good taste, modern usage, and even grammar.” He had no hope for “Onegin” as an English poem.
Let me repeat that unless these are thoroughly understood and remembered, all “general ideas” (so easily acquired, so profitably resold) must necessarily remain but worn passports allowing their bearers shortcuts from one area of ignorance to another. Despite the stubbornly eccentric and unlovely texture of Nabokov’s “Onegin,” the work was generally well reviewed, especially by those who understood and accepted his intention and did not go looking for an English poem.
The most notable exception was Edmund Wilson, who decided in July 1965, to wage battle against the translation in the pages of The New York Review. Since 1940, just after Nabokov’s arrival in the United States, Wilson and Nabokov enjoyed a warm friendship, a constant Dear Colony–Dear Bunny correspondence full of mutual instruction, jocular competition, one-upmanship, and traded enthusiasms.
Wilson had been extraordinarily kind to Nabokov, making introductions for him that led to teaching jobs, a Guggenheim fellowship, contracts with book publishers, and publication in The New Yorker and The New Republic. Wilson did not hesitate to tell Nabokov that he did not like “Bend Sinister,” “Lolita,” “Ada,” and other major works.
In the course of his career, he learned several languages in order to “work up” his projects: Russian and German to write on Marx and Lenin in “To the Finland Station,” Hebrew for “The Dead Sea Scrolls,” Hungarian to read Andre ADY and other poets. When it came to Russian literature, the correspondence between Nabokov and Wilson was rather like that between an amused, patient teacher and an eager, overreaching student.
Wilson’s publication of “The Strange Case of Pushkin and Nabokov,” in The New York Review of Books, was an assault from the back of the class: Since Mr. Nabokov is in the habit of introducing any job of this kind which he undertakes by an announcement that he is unique and incomparable and that everybody else who has attempted it is an oaf and an ignoramus, incompetent as a linguist and scholar, usually with the implication that he is also a low-class person and a ridiculous personality, Nabokov ought not to complain if the reviewer, though trying not to imitate his bad literary manners, does not hesitate to underline his weaknesses.
As Mr. Wilson so justly proclaims in the beginning of “The Strange Case of Pushkin and Nabokov,” we are indeed old friends. A patient confidant of his long and hopeless infatuation with the Russian language, I have always done my best to explain to him his mistakes of pronunciation, grammar, and interpretation.
Wilson never relented in his argument that Nabokov’s translation was nearly unreadable as a poem (and here he was right), but, with time, he seemed to regret the affair. There were a few last desultory letters in the years left to them, but Nabokov could never fully forgive the “Onegin” affair and other slights, including a wounding passage about his wife, Vera, in Wilson’s memoir “Upstate.” A quarter century of intense friendship ended.
In a letter to the Times Book Review in November 1971, Nabokov wrote, “I am aware that my former friend is in poor health but in the struggle between the dictates of compassion and those of personal honor the latter wins.” Wilson died in June 1972. By listening to Larissa talk with her émigré friends in Paris, by reviewing thousands of small matters of translation, Severe has certainly picked up a great deal of Russian, but not its outlandishly rich vocabulary, the complicated grammar, with its maddening various verb conjugations, shades of tense, reflexivity, cases, endings, perennial gymnastics.
“Please take out your mirrors, girls,” the future author of “Lolita” instructed his students at Wellesley, “and see what happens inside your mouths.” Many of his students went into his courses hoping to read Tolstoy in the original (as I did) and left satisfied if they could mutter a simple “These boys are standing on those bridges.” Her drafts and proofs provide literal renderings of the original and plenty of signposts, but the final authority is his.
Since the great success of “The Brothers Karamazov,” Severe and Volokhonsky have translated (for a variety of publishers) all the major Dostoevsky novels and many of his stories; Mikhail Bulgaria’s “The Master and Margarita”; a selection of Chekhov’s short stories and one of his short novels; and, most famously, Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina.” He said that the hardest part of starting a long project like “Anna Karenina” was “getting the voice,” capturing the narrative tone that will run throughout the book.
Despite their growing reputation in the United States, they failed to impress the editors at Penguin in London. Severe thought that he had solved the problem by taking out some of Tolstoy’s more repetitive or over emphatic passages.
“Then we got a persnickety copy editor who kept telling us that things might read obscene in a way we hadn’t intended,” he said. At Viking-Penguin in New York, Caroline White, a senior editor, ordered a print run of thirty-two thousand, with the hope that some strong reviews would mean that the new edition would displace Garrett, the Maude's, and other translations on the academic market.
White informed them that Viking-Penguin would print an additional eight hundred thousand copies of their translation in a single month. Soon the buses, subways, and coffee shops of America were filled with people reading Tolstoy.
Flush, though not rich, Severe and Volokhonsky split their time between the apartment in Paris and a farmhouse in Burgundy. They have been thinking about future projects, including the stories of Nikolai Lesson, famous for “Lady Macbeth of the Sense District.” But they cannot look too far ahead, because the publisher Every man has engaged them to translate the novel that E. M. Forster insisted was the greatest of all, and that is certainly the longest volume in the nineteenth-century lineup: War and Peace.” Volokhonsky is about two-thirds of the way through with her first draft, and Severe about six hundred pages into his.
In the battle scenes, we have to come up with the words for particular kinds of guns and cannons, for military tactics. There is a huge hunting scene, so we have to find very particular words for the wolves, the foxes, the kinds of dogs, the horses, the color of the horses, their gaits, the shape of their paws and hooves and the way they wagged their tails.
Severe, especially, has read some theory about translation : Walter Benjamin, José Ortega y Asset, Roman Jacobson, and, of course, Nabokov. At the end of our last conversation in Paris, Severe went to his shelves and pulled down a volume in French, and read a prayer by Larboard addressed to St. Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin.
Severe snapped the book shut and picked up the Maude translation of War and Peace, ” which he’d been reviewing for his own work. About your questions: I don’t know how “new” it is to translate the French passages in War and Peace.” Edmonds keeps only the Eh Bain, Mon prince” of the opening speech, but puts the rest in English, whereas Tolstoy has the first ten lines in French, along with many other extended dialogues in the opening chapters.
The Maude and Garrett versions translate all of it into English, as they do, for instance, Napoleon’s letter to Murat, and the German of Farther’s disposition before Austerlitz. Tolstoy used French for a reason, or for several reasons: to give the tone of the period; to play on the ironies of a French-speaking Russian aristocracy suddenly finding itself thrown into war with France; to suggest a certain frivolity and crookedness in characters like Prince Vasily and the witty Bilirubin.
Interestingly, when Napoleon banters with his troops, he does so in French, but when he talks seriously, Tolstoy lends him Russian.