From the Archives: The Latest from Yasnaya Polyana
War and Peace
By Leo Tolstoy
Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
|At an early point in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, sappy, picture-perfect, God-bothering Princess Mary Bolkonski writes a letter to a friend whose brother has just been killed in Turkey. The princess’ letter is full of platitudes about servitude and acceptance, and at one point she refers to “the infinite goodness of the Creator, whose every action, though generally incomprehensible to us, is but a manifestation of His infinite love for His creatures.”
To Tolstoy’s readers, a similar calm confidence in the author’s inscrutable ways is a pure source of envy. We yearn for such serenity as we traverse the time zones of War and Peace; we yearn for it, but we don’t get it.
Every other huge book employs some different strategy, universally more merciful: Tale of Genji lures us with chatter, endless incantatory chatter, until we find we’ve quite painlessly frittered away a hundred, a thousand hours. Finnegans Wake throws an arm around our shoulder and refuses to let us go until we’re word-drunk enough to think we’ve got the gist. Proust’s great epic (whichever rococo title you’re partial to) wraps itself around us like the mists of a Turkish bath, warming us and softening us until we can scarcely tell where we leave off and Proust begins. Ironically enough, even Tolstoy’s own Anna Karenina is a wonderment of conversational ensnarement, pulling us without pain further and further into its labyrinth.
War and Peace is different. It doesn’t care about soliciting its potential readers; it doesn’t care if it has potential readers – its author was a complicated, fallible man, but he created a great monstrous living monument, a thing that is so brutally and ineluctably itself that its readers are presented with two and only two options: quit after the first thirty pages, or undergo the entire book, as a moral, even as a physical thing that happens to the reader. (For this reason it should never be included on any school curriculum; teachers don’t assign War and Peace, life does.) Tolstoy enthusiasts – even only Tolstoy survivors – are apt to say the reading experience he presents in War and Peace is unique in this regard. It isn’t, of course – there is, after all, nothing new under the sun – but there is nonetheless only an impressive single precedent: Homer’s Iliad, which is likewise pitiless and all-encompassing.
It need hardly be stressed that a work as long and complex as War and Peace would loom as something of an Everest north slope to any potential translators out there. Linguistic fluency only does you so much good against a monster like this. Tolstoy’s prose itself lacks anything like the sharp beauty of Turgenev, much less Pushkin, Russian writers of such luminous prose and verse that hopeful translators must almost be geniuses themselves to get the job done. Tolstoy’s prose is altogether more humble, but only in the sense that the ground, the bottomless earth is humble. His narration, especially in War and Peace, verges between an Olympian omniscience and a colloquial minuteness that to even the wisest head can often seem baffling.
Add to this obstacle a more fundamental one: it’s a singular irony that the definitive Russian novel should have no definitive form of its own. Tolstoy serialized the first few sections of the novel for a Russian periodical in 1865 and 1866. He then brought out the whole work in 1868 and 1869, with emendations and revisions. Then in 1873 the entire work was published again, but in a substantially different form than those previous, with a very large and very invasive set of textual changes by the author (the French passages, for instance, were removed, and most of the philosophical and expository arias were hacked out of the main body of the text and annexed to appendices).
A fourth edition reprinted this one. A fifth edition appeared in 1886 under the direction of Tolstoy’s wife (Tolstoy himself had by this point come to hate his magnum opus, calling it rubbish and washing his hands of it, which was certainly not a helpful thing to do, like the enthusiastic organizer of a 20-person hayrack ride who five minutes in withdraws in a pout over some trifle and leaves everybody else to jolt awkwardly along, singing half-hearted jingles and picking spiders out of their pants), and this edition ignored all the textual changes Tolstoy made in the third edition, choosing instead to adhere to the second, 1868-69 edition, only not quite, since some of the textual changes Tolstoy made for that edition were ignored for this edition. The Count was still no help, hunkered down in his family estate of Yasnaya Polyana teaching his serfs to find God while everyone else in the world, quite probably including God Himself, was grappling with this bizarre drinking-game of a textual history he’d left behind him.
Translators must therefore not only grapple with the oddities of Tolstoy’s prose, they must perforce become textual scholars as well as orthographical sleuths (or perhaps psychics), since Tolstoy’s handwriting was very nearly indecipherable – a fact that comes into play not only with his wife, who copied out his day’s work each evening (making who knows how many innocent but perhaps telling mistakes), but with his publishers, who had to deal with that handwriting in the form of endless line-edits. Rendering all this into English is consequently a terrifying task and one few have undertaken
The latest in this small but valorous company is the celebrated translating team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, whose joint labors on behalf of Russian literature have succeeded in bringing fresh vigor to the whole concept of translating – a process which surely reached a weird kind of zenith when the duo’s jazzy, garrulous translation of Anna Karenina was chosen for the Oprah Winfrey Book Club and became a bestseller. One pictures the Count grudgingly accepting an invitation to appear on the show to promote the selection, a tasteful floral display the only thing separating Oprah’s toothy, invincible chirpiness from his intense (and, one suspects, intensely malodorous) presence. It’s like something out of Chekhov, and Pevear and Volokhonsky made the connection happen.
Their War and Peace is, naturally, immense, a great cinder-block of a thing done as beautifully as Knopf has ever produced a book. The binding is necessarily firm, the pages are thin and bright, and although something this large could never fit well in the hand, it props up on a reading desk like an adornment. It’s poised to invade the holiday booklists like Napoleon perched outside Moscow. A new War and Peace is a de facto event.
Readers will be faced with the question of what to do about it. Few of those readers will have any Russian; fewer still, in the multi-tasking 21st century, will have the time to read the novel in any language. Pevear and Volokhonsky have a superb track record (their translations of Gogol in particular will stand for a century uncontested), and their production is physically exquisite but nevertheless, every harried reader will be asking the same question: does the world need another translation of War and Peace?
Theirs is not the first translation, of course. There’ve been a handful in the last century, and with the publication of this new opus, all of them become targets for the suppressed irritation of a legion of critics. It won’t be sufficient to praise Pevear and Volokhonsky; it’ll become standard policy to hand-in-hand hurl bricks at all their text-mangling Victorian-appeasing predecessors. No doubt the bulk of this abuse will be heaped on Constance Garnett, whose 1904 translation made her a lightning rod for the collective ire of the Western intellectual world (as evinced in such writerly hyperventilators as Nabokov, who never seemed able to reconcile himself to the flaws of his own translations).
This would be odd and unfair. After all, Louise and Aylmer Maude, whose translation appeared in 1922, are better targets for vituperation: they knew Tolstoy well and worked with him (at least at first) to craft their own translation. And surely the biggest target of all is Rosemary Edmonds, whose 1957 translation for Penguin has certainly reached more readers than any other, easily more than Pevear and Volokhonsky’s ever will.
Readers faced with this intellectual free-for-all will be forced to make inquiries, to weigh aesthetics, and most of all, to partake of basically schoolboy spot-comparison of rival passages.
There is no help for it, as vaguely humiliating as it is: if the common (i.e., Russianless) reader is to make any helpful assessment of this new translation, he must determine for himself whether or not the world needs another rendition of War and Peace. He cannot rely on the pronouncements of book reviewers, since such deadlined creatures, prone both to laziness and to lying, will routinely strike a uniform pose when confronted with this 1,224-page leviathan: they’ll claim a blasé, soup-to-nuts familiarity with every detail of its sprawling plotlines, and they’ll heavily imply fluency in Russian, when in reality they’re having trouble getting through the Classics Illustrated version of the thing. And even if this weren’t the case (there may be the occasional instance in which it isn’t), who has the moral foundation, to say nothing of the carpal wherewithal, to trust such a monumental undertaking to a third party? Richard Pevear, in his translator’s preface, tells his prospective readers that he and his collaborator have striven to reproduce more faithfully than their predecessors the rhythm, the flow, and the idiosyncrasies of Tolstoy’s style. The conscientious critic can only stand back and try to let both past and present speak for themselves.
So we’ll look at three passages for this Tolstoyan sleigh-ride, each situated randomly but locating a discrete moment, in which a particular effect is presumably being sought. The first of these passages is the moment when Nikolai Rostov is dreaming of a glorious encounter with his emperor, the Czar Alexander. Here’s the moment in Louise and Aylmer Maude’s translation:
“No, I won’t miss my opportunity now, as I did after Austerlitz,” he thought, expecting every moment to meet the monarch, and conscious of the blood that rushed to his heart at the thought. “I will fall at his feet and beseech him. He will lift me up, will listen, and will even thank me. ‘I am happy when I can do good, but to remedy injustice is the greatest happiness,’” Rostov fancied the sovereign saying. And passing people who looked after him with curiosity, he entered the porch of the emperor’s house.
This is the Edmonds version:
‘No, this time I won’t miss my opportunity as I did after Austerlitz,’ he thought, prepared every moment to meet the Monarch, and conscious of the blood rushing to his heart at the idea. ‘I will fall at his feet and beseech him. He will lift me up, hear me out and even thank me. “I am happy when I can do good, but to remedy injustice is my greatest happiness.”’ Rostov fancied the Emperor saying. And passing people who looked after him with curiosity, he entered the porch of the Emperor’s house.
This is the Pevear and Volokhonsky version:
“No, I’m not going to let the chance slip now as I did after Austerlitz,” he thought, expecting to meet the sovereign at any moment and feeling the blood rush to his heart at the thought of it. “I’ll fall at his feet and plead with him. He’ll raise me up, listen to me, and even thank me. ‘I’m happy when I can do good, but to set right an injustice is the greatest happiness,’” Rostov imagined the words that the sovereign would say to him. And he walked past curious onlookers up the porch of the house which the sovereign occupied.
It hardly requires a fluency in Russian to count that go-round a loss for Pevear and Volokhonsky. The passages are essentially identical. No particularly indigenous stylistic traits have been either saved or discarded. So we move on to our next little bit of text, this time something more subjective and so perhaps more helpful: the moment Prince Andrei is wounded in the battle of Austerlitz. The Maudes give it this way:
“What’s this? Am I falling? My legs are giving way,” thought he, and fell on his back. He opened his eyes, hoping to see how the struggle of the Frenchmen and the gunners ended, whether the red-haired gunner had been killed or not and whether the cannon had been captured or saved. But he saw nothing. Above him there was now nothing but the sky – the lofty sky, not clear yet immeasurably lofty, with gray clouds gliding slowly across it. “How quiet, peaceful, and solemn; not at all as I ran,” thought Prince Andrew – “not as we ran, shouting and fighting, not at all as the gunner and the Frenchman with frightened and angry faces struggled for the mop: how differently do those clouds glide across that lofty, infinite sky! How was it I did not see that lofty sky before? And how happy I am to have found it at last! Yes! All is vanity, all falsehood, except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing but that. But even it does not exist, there is nothing but quiet and peace. Thank God! …”
Here is Rosemary Edmonds:
‘What’s this? Am I falling? My legs are giving way,’ he thought, and fell on his back. He opened his eyes, hoping to see how the struggle between the Frenchmen and the gunners had ended, and anxious to know whether the red-haired artilleryman was killed or not, whether the cannon had been captured or saved. But he saw nothing. Above him there was now only the sky – the lofty sky, not clear yet still immeasurably lofty, with grey clouds creeping softly across it. ‘How quiet, peaceful, and solemn! Quite different from when I was running,’ thought Prince Andrei. ‘Quite different from us running and shouting and fighting. Not at all like the gunner and the Frenchman dragging the mop from one another with frightened, frantic faces. How differently do these clouds float across that lofty, limitless sky! How was it I did not see that sky before? And how happy I am to have found it at last! Yes, all is vanity, all is delusion except these infinite heavens. There is nothing, nothing but that. But even it does not exist, there is nothing but peace and stillness. Thanks be to God!…’
This is Pevear and Volokhonsky:
“What is it? Am I falling? Are my legs giving way under me?” he thought, and fell on his back. He opened his eyes, hoping to see how the fight between the French and the artillerists ended, and wishing to know whether or not the red-haired artillerist had been killed, whether the cannon had been taken or saved. But he did not see anything. There was nothing over him now except the sky – the lofty sky, not clear, but still immeasurably lofty, with gray clouds slowly creeping across it. “How quiet, calm, and solemn, not at all like when I was running,” thought Prince Andrei, “not like when we were running, shouting, and fighting; not at all like when the Frenchman and the artillerist, with angry and frightened faces, were pulling at the swab – it’s quite different the way the clouds creep across this lofty, infinite sky. How is it I haven’t seen this lofty sky before? And how happy I am that I’ve finally come to know it. Yes! Everything is empty, everything is a deception, except this infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing except that. But there is not even that, there is nothing except silence, tranquility. And thank God! …”
Here at least we begin to have meaningful differences to sink our teeth into. The Maudes’ ‘Prince Andrew,’ for instance, is jarringly Anglophone, and the presence of a mop on a battlefield is a puzzlement in Edmonds and Maude that’s instantly cleared up by its transformation to a swab in Pevear and Volokhonsky. Tolstoy’s weakness for repeating the same word with tight frequency (most noticeably in this case ‘lofty’) is preserved in all three cases, which somewhat undercuts Pevear’s implication that he and his writing partner are the first to be scrupulous about such things. In all three versions, the haunting immediacy of the moment – Tolstoy takes us inside Prince Andrei’s perceptions, right up to the moment he loses consciousness and (we think) his life – is effectively conveyed. The Maude version and that of Pevear and Volokhonsky score over the Edmonds for their choppy, exclamation-pointed immediacy, although the fact that only Pevear and Volokhonsky have Prince Andrei asking if his legs are failing him instead of stating it is just grounds for the Russianless reader to wonder if they skewed it a bit for dramatic effect.
In short, the results are still fairly inconclusive, which begins to be damning for Pevear and Volokhonsky. They have based their literary career – not to mention their justification for translating War and Peace – on a claim of bringing the English and the Russian closer together than any previous translator has done (they claim this only as a team – Pevear knows no Russian, so Volokhonsky is essentially functioning, at least initially, in – gasp – the exact same capacity as Constance Garnett: translating everything and then submitting it to an editor). If the potential reader must hunt for evidence of this innovative new approach, it begins to be unclear just how big an innovation it really is. But we’re short an example, so we move on to our third, this time involving the villain of the piece, Napoleon Bonaparte himself. This is the scene in which he grants Balashev an interview and proceeds to rant his way through it like De Niro’s Capone in The Untouchables. This is how the Maudes render it, with Napoleon speaking:
“Yes, I know you have made peace with the Turks without obtaining Moldavia and Wallachia; I would have given your sovereign those provinces as I gave him Finland, and now he won’t have those splendid provinces. Yet he might have united them to his empire and in a single reign would have extended Russia from the gulf of Bothnia the mouths of the Danube. Catherine the Great could not have done more,” said Napoleon, growing more and more excited as he paced up and down the room, repeating to Balashev almost the very words he had used to Alexander himself at Tilsit. “All that, he would have owed to my friendship. Oh, what a splendid reign!” he repeated several times, then paused, drew from his pocket a gold snuffbox, lifted it to his nose, and greedily sniffed at it.
“What a splendid reign the Emperor Alexander’s might have been!”
Edmonds makes it this way:
“Yes, I know you have made peace with the Turks without obtaining Moldavia or Wallachia – while I would have given your Sovereign those, just as I presented him with Finland. Yes,” he went on, “I promised Moldavia and Wallachia to the Emperor Alexander, and I would have given them to him, but now he will not get those fair provinces. Yet he might have united them to his Empire in a single reign would have extended Russia from the Gulf of Bothnia to the mouth of the Danube. Catherine the Great could not have done more,’ declared Napoleon, growing more and more excited as he paced up and down the room repeating to Balashev almost the very words he had used to Alexander himself at Tilsit. ‘All that, he would have owed to my friendship. Ah, what a glorious reign, what a glorious reign …!” he repeated several times, then paused, drew from his pocket a gold snuff-box, lifted it to his nose and greedily sniffed at it. “What a glorious reign the Emperor Alexander’s might have been!”
And Pevear and Volokhonsky:
“Yes, I know you’ve concluded a peace with the Turks, without getting Moldavia and Wallachia. And I would have given your sovereign those provinces, just as I gave him Finland. Yes,” he went on, “I promised, and I would have given the emperor Alexander Moldavia and Wallachia, but now he won’t have those beautiful provinces. He might, however, have joined them to his empire, and within one reign he would have expanded Russia from the Gulf of Bothnia to the mouth of the Danube. Catherine the Great couldn’t have done more,” Napoleon was saying, growing more and more flushed, pacing the room, and repeating to Balashov almost the same words he had spoken to Alexander himself at Tilsit. “Tout cela il l’aurait du a mon amitie … Ah! Quel beau regne, quel beau regne!” he repeated several times, stopped, took a gold snuffbox from his pocket, and inhaled greedily through his nose.
“Quel beau regne aurait pu etre celui de l’empereur Alexandre!”
And just that quickly, we have a genuinely large difference to talk about – a few in fact. Of course the attentive reader will have noticed that the Maudes allot the Danube not one but two mouths, but such things are trivial (except perhaps to the people living on the spot, or spots). More important is the question of whether or not each passage accurately conveys the weak, stuttering, tyrannical megalomania of Bonaparte, his whiney sense of persecution at being snubbed by those he wishes to subjugate.
Pevear and Volokhonsky’s ‘I promised, and I would have delivered’ comes closer to this tone than either of the other two, and they opt for ‘flushed’ rather than ‘excited,’ which has a slightly more corporeal feel to it. An argument could be made that Edmonds preserves best a certain movie-serial melodrama about the whole scene, but the most important point is clearly against the celebrated new translating duo.
Because nobody can read French anymore (except possibly the French), and plopping great yardages of it into what is an enormously predominantly English translation does one thing and one thing only, and all your revisionist aims go thudding to the ground: it stops your readers from reading what you’ve written.
Pevear and Volokhonsky give their serviceable translation in footnotes at the bottom of the page, but that hardly mitigates the interruption, and it’s only barely warranted by their own philosophy of conveying the nuts and bolts of Tolstoy’s personal style. What personal style, one is compelled to ask, is validated by having Napoleon lapse into French at the damnedest moments? Tolstoy might have abandoned the popular viability of his work, but honestly, is that any reason for his translators to follow him off the same cliff?
Tolstoy’s notorious French passages can serve a purpose untranslated – to underscore the Francophile enervation of the Russian upper class, for instance, or to stress the dissonance of cultures in a continent ruled by a Corsican. But what’s the point of translating half of Napoleon’s comments here (the half that comes from the Russian) but leaving the other half (that half that comes from the French) untranslated, forcing the reader to fracture his attention at a pivotal moment in a dramatic scene? The point can only be a purblind adherence to a philosophy of translating, and the fact that such a philosophy could be given precedence over the thaumaturgy of the scene itself (it happens throughout this translation) would have earned Pevear and Volokhonsky the thunderous disapproval of the author (who was writing for an audience fluent in both languages and therefore an audience which wouldn’t have to stop and prowl around at the foot of the page to find out what the hell Napoleon was saying). It might be a more accurate approach, but it’s coldly inhospitable.
|This new translation is dotted with helpful maps, and the endnotes are full of interesting clarifications of the arcana Tolstoy hauls into his narrative. But even in the book’s end matters this note of chilly inhospitality is sounded: the quick two-line chapter and section summaries – which the Maudes used with Tolstoy’s full approval (at least, again, at first: the man could be difficult) – are presented only here, at the end of the book, hundreds and sometimes thousands of pages from where they would have done the weary, wandering reader any good.
Such a reader will only need to acquire this new translation of War and Peace out of curiosity, or under a completist’s compulsion. Those seeking merely (merely!) to grapple with Tolstoy in English will be better served by consulting virtually any of the sturdy, non-trendy versions already extant. At least, until Oprah calls.
Steve Donoghue served as an Assistant Government General in Mandalay following the Third Anglo-Burmese War, and though he never shot an elephant, he did spend many hours conversing with them. He retired when the Empire fell and he now hosts the literary blog Stevereads.