A Return to “War and Peace”

My “War and Peace” collection

I am rereading War and Peace, my favorite novel. (Well, it is tied with my other favorite, Charlotte Bronte’s Villette).  I have read Tolstoy’s classic 12 times since I was 18, when it changed my concept of the novel, and I’ve written  about it eight times at my old blog Mirabile Dictu.

Tolstoy’s masterpiece is more than a blockbuster novel:  it is a portal to 19th-century Russia, particularly to society in Moscow and Petersburg . And may I say the Rostov family and their awkward, fat friend Pierre seem as real to me as many people I know?  I am also fond of Nikolai Rostov’s military comrades in the Napoleonic Wars, especially the doppelgängers,  Denisov (lisping, comical noble, valiant ) and Dolokhov (valiant, a devoted son, but also nasty, jealous, and immoral). Both men fall in love with Rostov women, Denisov with Nikolai’s sister Natasha and  Dolokhov with Nikolai’s cousin Sonia.  (Is there a latent, transferred homosexuality here?)  When rejected, Denisov is embarrassed and knows he overstepped boundaries, but Dolokhov takes revenge by bankrupting Nikolai at cards.

My favorite character is Marya Bolokhonskaya, a plain young spinster who finds joy in doing good works, household duties, and religion.  We wonder, Will she ever escape her eccentric, often verbally abusive father?  Will any man ever see her inner beauty? But we admire her practicality in not living for silly flirtations and fashion.

I know something of the perils of translation, and so I was  fascinated by an essay I recently found by Michael R. Katz, “War and Peace in Our Time.” He muses on the coincidence of the publication of  three new translations of W&P in the first decade of this century.  In analyzing the reasons for the resurgence,  he traces the history of the English translations of W&P, beginning with the prolific  Clara Bell.  He considers the older translations by the English couple Louise and Aylmer Maude and the American translator Ann Dunnigan notable.  Of the new, he is  interested in the much-lauded translation by the famous couple Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky and that of the British translator Anthony Briggs.

The word “translation” comes from the Latin translatum, a past participle of the verb transfero, “carry across.” If you have ever attempted to “carry across” the literature of a foreign language into English writing, you will understand the difficulties.  Structures of languages are sometimes incompatible: English depends on word order, while inflected languages like Greek and Latin depend on word endings. The  flexible arrangement of words in inflected languages can’t quite be “transferred” to the English structure.

Since I have not read Ann Dunnigan’s translation, recommended by Michael R. Katz,  I decided to try it.   I popped the Signet paperback of the Dunnigan translation into my bike pannier for reading on the go. But here’s what I learned when I took a break at Starbucks:  War and Peace cannot be ideally read at a coffeehouse. Who knew?  Dunnigan’s translation is accessible and affecting, but not in a crowded cafe.

HERE ARE EXCERPTS FROM A POST I WROTE AT MIRABILE DICTU IN 2015, “The War and Peace Collection: Is Rosemary Edmonds’ Translation the Best?”

I reread War and Peace every year.

I started reading it again on New Year’s Day and just finished it a few hours ago.

And now I’m ready to start again.

 War and Peace says everything, no?  Why read anything else?  The translator Rosemary Edmonds wrote,  “War and Peace is a hymn to life.  It is the Iliad and the Odyssey of Russia.  Its message is that the only fundamental obligation of man is to be in tune with life.”

Tolstoy’s brilliant, entertaining chronicle of Russia during the Napoleonic wars is a pageturner.  Tolstoy said it was not a novel.  “It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed.”

I am loving Rosemary Edmonds’s superb translation of War and Peace.  This afternoon I was particularly moved by the pages describing Denisov’s grief over the senseless death of Petya Rostov.  The bleak contrast between the reactions of the unfeeling officer Dolokhov and the brave, kind, lisping officer Denisov made me cry.

When Dolohov notes Petya is “done for” and rides away from the corpse, expecting Denisov to follow,

Denisov did not reply.  He rode up to Petya, dismounted, and with trembling hands turned Petya’s blood-stained, mud-bespattered face–which had already gone white–towards himself.

“I always like sweet things. Wonderful raisins, take them all,” he recalled Petya’s words. And the Cossacks looked round in amazement at the sound, like the howl of a dog, which broke from Denisov as he quickly turned away, walked to the wattle fence and held on to it.

Which is your favorite translation of War and Peace? Constance Garnett?  The Maudes?  Anthony Briggs?  Pevear and Volokhonsky?

24 thoughts on “A Return to “War and Peace””

  1. War and Peace is so deservedly a classic! I read the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation a couple of years ago. It was interesting, in that I could back-translate almost directly into the original Russian a lot of the time. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing is up for debate…

    1. I know they’re controversial–I adored their translation of Dr. Zhivago but there was a huge British backlash. (Why did Ann Pasternak hate it? Jealousy?) I liked their W&P but shallowly prefer the Maude because the paperback is more compact.

      1. The P&V translation is a monster of a book! I actually strained my chest from holding it up to read it. My Russian version was in two volumes, which was much more manageable.

    2. I read that apparently Volokhonsky translates the novel word for word directly, then Pevear, who does not know the Russian language, modifies it. That’s perhaps why it sounds like the original. However, it sounds like a goofy way to translate a work to me. :-Z

      1. They’re quite controversial in the Russian translation world because of their unusual technique and their very literal translations, but they’ve also gained a lot of publicity for classical Russian literature, so no complaints there!

      2. Well, collaboration is time-honored among Tolstoy translator: I wonder how the Maudes did it? There’s another collaborative couple!

        1. Well, they are controversial, as Elenea says. But Pevear, a comp lit prof, does know Russian! He and Volokhonsky were both translators in their own right before they met. (He translated French novels and Russian children’s books.) But in their collaboration they aim to be accurate and readable,. I think they succced, though i prefer the older translations There’s a good interview with them in The Paris Review.

          On Wed, Apr 17, 2019 at 11:39 PM Thornfield Hall: A Book Blog wrote:


  2. My first W&P read was the Rosemary Edmunds in the 70s (after seeing the incomparable Anthony Hopkins as Pierre in the BBC mini-series). at the time, Penguin issued it in a two volume movie tie-in edition. The last time I read it was the Anthony Briggs in 2006 which i quite liked. The Briggs was straighforward and easy to follow. I have thought about the P&V but it is pretty far down the list for a reread.

    1. Gina, I have never seen the film. Now that I know Hopkins was in it I must relent. I do love Rosemary Edmonds. Briggs IS good, but I must confess the Maude has always been my favorite. Give me the old-fashioned Edwardian style!

      1. Anthony Hopkins IS my Pierre forever! this was made early in his career (1972-73) and I watched and waited for him to be in other things for years before he really “Broke Out” in the 80s. It may not be a polished production but it is beautifully sincere and not a bit slick. The series is on DVD, its probably somewhere on streaming, but being old school I can vouch for the DVDs! The way its broken up on each DVD, and having been made in serial format for the BBC, its somewhat like what a serial novel would have been upon initial publication. Also it gives the viewer a chance to catch up and look up whatever may have not been clear initially. Highly recommend!

        1. I’ll look for it at the library! I THINK a newer series is available for live-streaming, but I heard nothing but bad about that one. I do love Anthony Hopkins and can visualize him as Pierre.

  3. I read the Aylmer Maude translation for W&P……. I tried Pevear and Volokhonsky for Anna Karenina and found it ‘meh’ then read it in another translation (I think Aylmer Maude) and loved it! P&V, to me, make the language so simplified, wooden and lifeless. Now I cannot bear to read their translations. I know Constance Garnett gets a bad rap for making the translations too much ‘hers’ but they are so readable and interesting that I’m happy to read anything translated by her. I haven’t tried any of the others yet.

    1. Honestly, I like all the translations, but the Maude is my favorite. Garnett is also a lovely writer, and I don’t know why people are so hard on her. When you compare translations sentence by sentence there’s usually very little difference.

  4. I think I told you that I have 4 (maybe 3 but 4 books) and I haven’t read one! What does an indecisive person do? Which do I read? I’m not getting any younger.

    1. It’s really a fun read, but you don’t have to read anything you don’t want to! Anna K is equally brilliant and shorter.

  5. Well, Kat, we have War and Peace as our favorite in common. As you know 😄! I’m interested to read that Mary is your favorite character and I’m intrigued by your suggestion of homosexual interest between Dolokhov and Denisov!
    I have an old Dutch translation and for blog purposes I downloaded the Maudes’ translation, and I like that one. But translations are personal, it’s always an interpretation. What I like about the Maudes’ is that they knew Tolstoy and communicated with him, and their notes are good and interesting.

    1. I was thinking maybe D & D had a thing for Nikollai but maybe that’s too Freudian! I love the Maudes. And Tolstoy did approve their work!

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