Echoes of Tolstoy

Natasha Randall is a critic and the translator, most recently, of Yevgeny Zamyatin's "We" for Modern Library Classics.

War and Peace

Leo Tolstoy

Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield

Ecco: 886 pp., $34.95

War and Peace

Leo Tolstoy

Translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

Alfred A. Knopf: 1,276 pp., $37

The poet William Matthews once said of his classical counterparts that they are “kept alive by a process of continual translation, an enterprise that grows on itself like a coral colony.” Translation is not one act; it is a continuing gesture. There is no such thing as a definitive translation -- in fact, there’s nothing definitive in the whole business, not even the dictionaries.

Two new versions of “War and Peace” have emerged this fall, the fruits of tremendous effort on the parts of the prolific translators Andrew Bromfield, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Both are immense gestures.

“War and Peace” is edifying and beautiful, with page-turning episodes of intrigue and possibly the most exhaustive portrait of Napoleon’s clashes with Russian forces. The action takes place between 1805 and 1820, and about 500 characters enter its pages. It’s full of great stories, but there’s no discernible plot. The central characters belong to the Russian nobility, and their lives are propelled by the vagaries of war and the mercies of peace. There are duels, reversals of fortune, deaths, births and love affairs. And there is war, of course.


Enter Bromfield’s translation: the “more peace, less war” version, and the genetic mutation in this coral colony of translations. Bromfield used an early first draft that is considerably shorter than the final version -- about two-thirds as long -- and in it, fate deals different cards. The book contains less philosophical rumination, fewer scenes of battle and the story lines wrap up a little more neatly. Its cover announces it as the “original version,” but what it ought to say is “based on an early manuscript, compiled by a Tolstoy scholar for over fifty years, and heavily edited and arranged by a Russian publisher in the year 2000.” This book is, in the words of its Russian publisher, “half as long and twice as interesting,” and, best of all, it has a happy ending (in which Petya Rostov and Prince Andrei don’t die). Its publication, of course, has outraged Tolstoy scholars in Russia and elsewhere, and many other people too. Bromfield’s is a case of a good translation of contaminated material.

This version attempts to make “War and Peace” more novelistic by tidying it up form-wise. But it was never supposed to be a novelistic novel. Tolstoy himself wrote in the essay “A Few Words A Propos ‘War and Peace’ ”: “What is ‘War and Peace’? It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less an historical chronicle. ‘War and Peace’ is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed. Such a declaration of the author’s disregard of the conventional forms of artistic prose might seem presumptuous. . . . “ In this case, the disregard and presumption lie with Bromfield’s publishers. Bromfield, it is said, will be publishing a translation of the longer, final version in the next couple of years -- a translation that will undoubtedly rise to the surface as one of the best yet.

Pevear and Volokhonsky’s version is based on the traditionally accepted original manuscript. Their translation follows hot on the heels of last year’s contribution by Anthony Briggs. And prior to that, there were Englishings by Constance Garnett, Rosemary Edmonds, Ann Dunnigan, Clara Bell, N.H. Dole, Leo Wiener and, notably, an early translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude that Tolstoy himself approved. So, with previous translations numbering roughly 10, what is the point of a new one?

The role of translation has changed over the last century. At first, as in the case of Garnett, translators were faced with a truly epic task. They heaved these weighty classics into the English-reading world, although they had little access to Russia and only a smattering of reference books with which to work. They derived many words from the very literal dissection of their Russian roots, prefixes and suffixes. There was no Internet, no air travel, no inter-library loan. Then, as universities sprang into action, there was another spate of translations -- many performed in the name of academia. Now, there’s an impulse to refresh the classics. It’s a sort of Renaissance in Russian re-translation.

Translations are suspicious things. Which one should you trust? The answer is: none of them. What gets lost in translation? A lot. And a lot gets added. Translating is like mathematical division. One language just doesn’t always fit neatly into another, and you always have remainders. Whether it’s added nuance or missing nuance, English rarely fits perfectly into the space left by a Russian sentence.

The Russian language, in comparison to English, is just built differently. It has many more joints to its sentences. Things can be rearranged easily. For example, in Russian, you can say “You I love,” “Love I you” and “I love you” -- and in each case, you would be perfectly correct. Also, Russian words express a lot of motion -- for example, the infinitive “to find” is configured as “to into-walk,” conjuring the moment of walking into something you’re seeking. And consider translators of poetry: Russian words are immeasurably easier to rhyme than English ones (it’s to do with the changeable endings). These features of the Russian language, among others, mean there is rarely a direct fit for anything.


These two new translations contain stunning moments. Pevear and Volokhonsky have mastered Tolstoy’s shorter lines, his elliptical impressions: “As horses shy, crowd, and snort over a dead horse, so people crowded around the coffin in the drawing room.” Another beautiful little moment: “Drops dripped. Quiet talk went on. Horses neighed and scuffled. Someone snored.” Bromfield has a wonderful fluency with Tolstoy’s prolonged moments:

“That evening, when Pierre stepped up on to Anna Pavlovna’s porch, he was met by the same court footman as before, who opened the door with the same significant and solemn air as before and announced Pierre’s name as he walked over the carpet into the same dark-crimson velvet drawing room, where the silent aunt was sitting in the same armchair with the same indifferent air, with all her features and her entire pose expressing a placid and devoted sadness at Buonaparte’s godless successes.”

Briggs, whose recent version was well-received, said Tolstoy’s prose is relatively simple to translate -- although it took him four years and 4,000 hours at the computer. Both the Pevear-Volokhonsky team and Bromfield have been quicker about it. All of them, it seems, have made their endeavors for the sake of bringing more readers to the great Russian classic.

Bromfield is very evocative about the language of the book, describing it as “often craggy and rough, yet it achieves a piercing clarity that is as merciless as it is miraculous. This relentless percipience is relieved by softer moments of impressionism. . . .”

In his introduction, Pevear gives us less of an impression that he and Volokhonsky enjoyed translating Tolstoy. He writes: “It is not good or bad Russian prose, it is Tolstoyan prose.” He explains that short sentences, the repetitions of words and a talent for capturing moments are some of the hallmarks of Tolstoy’s prose; he also points out that many of these features were overlooked in previous translations.

All translations of “War and Peace” are difficult in some ways and marvelous in others. Awkward clauses tend to stick out in every translation; many feats of translation are easily passed over.


But the important work of a translator is to figure out his or her filter -- that is, to figure out the algorithm you’ll use, through which you will pull the Russian.

It takes some time spent with the author to feel his or her voice and conjure its English echo. And it is a consistent echo that is the mark of a good translation. There is no such thing as a “definitive translation,” but new and ringing echoes that breathe new life into the classics