Anthony Briggs’ Translation of War and Peace & Read What You Want to Read

war-and-peace-briggs-bigWe’re on the trail, preparing to ride 22 miles to a small college town. Click click click!  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.

“That’s too heavy.  That’s why you have back problems.”

“It’s a new translation, and it’s what I’m reading.”

” What’s wrong with the old Rosemary Edmonds?”

“We don’t HAVE the Rosemary Edmonds.”

We have the 1923 Maude translation.  He has read it once, and I have read it many times.

In 2005, Penguin published Anthony Briggs’ excellent translation.

Briggs’s translation is vigorous and compelling.  It was the first new translation in 40 years.  In his note on translation, he lauds earlier translations, mentions Constance Garnett, says that the Maudes’ 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 Dunnigan’s  are sound.

So why a new translation?  It is a way of finding a modern audience.  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 Maudes’ dialogue seems  stilted at times, Briggs’ more colloquial language can be refreshing.

Then in 2008, a new translation by the award-winning Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky was published, and it eclipsed Anthony Briggs’ in the reviewers’ minds. How are they different?   Pevear and Volokhonsky include all the French, with pages of footnotes.  Briggs  translates it.  It’s a matter of taste.

war-and-peace-maudeAlthough Brigg’s translation is excellent, I am most familiar with the Maude translation.  Compare these two sentences translated by Briggs and Maudes and see which you prefer. Scene: The Rostovs 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, Nikolay, and free him from obligation so he can marry an heiress.  She is, as you can imagine despondent.

Here is Briggs’ translation:

“The ghastly upheaval of the Rostovs’ 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.

Here is the Maude:

“The bustle and terror of the Rostovs’ last days in Moscow stifled the gloomy thoughts that oppressed Sonya.  She was glad to escape from them in practical activity.”

Different styles.  Do you prefer “ghastly upheaval” to “bustle and terror”? “Repressed” to “oppressed”?  “temporary relief in practicalities” to “escape from them in practical activity”? They mean the same thing.

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, Petya, Sonya, and Platon.

I have very much enjoyed the Briggs translation, as I have the others.

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.  He writes:  “…from Constance Garnett onwards they have been produced by women of a particular social and cultural background (Louise having contributed more than Aylmer to the Maudes’ version), with some resulting flatness and implausibility in the dialogue, especially that between soldiers, peasants and all the lower orders.”

Being female has nothing to do with translating Russian.  Class, perhaps.

READ WHAT YOU WANT.  And now I am going to make an inquiry:  do men try to control women’s reading?

The canon sends strange messages to women.  Library of America, my favorite nonprofit publisher in the U.S., has made some strange choices about publishing women’s books.  A few years ago they published a volume of Louisa May Alcott’s children’s books:  Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys. Many thought these were not the most representative of her work.  Then  last year they published Laura Ingalls 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. I mean, why not publish Caroline Gordon or Hortense Calisher?  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.  But….

MORE ON THE MEN’S CANON.  Boyfriends, husbands, ex-husbands, friends’ boyfriends, friends’ husbands, and friends’ ex-husbands can’t help making comments about my reading.

Wives and Daughters GaskellThere was the time I read Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters and a friend tried to persuade me it wasn’t in the canon.

“Why would you read that?”

“It’s a classic,” I said.

“Penguin is just trying to sell books.”

“No, it’s a really good book.”

There’s nothing you can do about it.  Some men don’t like women’s books.

I went back to my reading.

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.  Gaskell?  No.  They never heard of her, and maybe they don’t like the women in gowns on the cover.

Ross Poldark“That’s a fusty-looking book.”

It’s a used copy of My Lady Ludlow.

But what if I want to read something pop? Ross Poldark?  Is that allowed?  Many of my friends are big Poldark fans.

“Why are you reading that?”

Much, much teasing.

How about Rumer Godden?  Not quite first-class, eh?  Kingfishers Catch Fire happens to be one of my favorite books.

So whom are you allowed to read, and how often?  Are the rules different for women?  Are we expected to read more mathematics or science?  Less?


End of rant.

12 thoughts on “Anthony Briggs’ Translation of War and Peace & Read What You Want to Read

  1. A very interesting post, and of the two versions you quote I actually prefer the Maudes! I think the response to a translation/translators is always going to be a very personal one, and I have never responded well to Pevear and Volokhonsky. The Briggs version is ok, but I do have the Maudes on my tbr and I think I would go for that. I guess it’s to do with what sort of style of writing you like/are used to/have been brought up on! And that statement by Briggs about women translators would put me off anyway…..

    As for canon writers – men are just a bit fascist about women writers at times. They seem to expect women to read other women a la “silly women novelists”. Personally, I pay no attention whatever to what men expect and read exactly what I want, whether it’s Tolstoy or Agatha Christie!!


  2. The Maudes’ writing is beautiful, and I certainly recommend it. It holds up. I was racing through Briggs’ edition, and think it is equally good. The language is slightly more modern. I could read either of them happily.

    That paragraph in the translator’s note could easily have been deleted, and I am ignoring it because I like the translation anyway. Penguin, what were you thinking?

    Yes, we’ve got our own canon. There’s the canon, and then there’s the non-canon. Agatha Christie is so-o-o-o-o good.


  3. About my only strong negative opinion on a translator is Dmitri Nabokov’s translations of his father’s Russian novels. I would love to see Pevear and Volokhonsky do one of Nabokov’s Russian novels using the original Russian version, because Dmitri’s translations made these novels unnecessarily dull.
    When I was getting into Russian literature I really liked David Magarshack’s translations, but he didn’t do Tolstoy.


  4. I’ve read little Nabokov, but read your post on him a week (or two?) ago with interest. I loved David Magarshack’s translation of Oblomov. I didn’t pay much attention to translators when I was young, and probably was reading a lot of Constance Garnett. It does seem that Pevear and Volokhonsky are the most popular translators at the moment, and I loved their Doctor Zhivago.


  5. Tony, yes, I love Pasternak! You’ve got to try it. Not only a Nobel winner, but a classic. (And I don’t think they allowed him to win the Nobel. And possibly it wasn’t published in Russia originally? But honestly I don’t remember for sure. But it’s a fascinating story.) I just wish he’d written more fiction.


  6. 1.) I’ve been working on that canon issue at Best’s. It’s important to me that the books by women match or out-number books by men. Enough efforts like that over a long enough period of time–ten years? twenty?–might go a long way toward changing perspectives on the canon.

    2.) I vote for bustle and terror.


  7. Edward, what is Best’s?

    I agree that it’s important for women’s books to be available. Nora Johnson, Caroline Gordon: great American writers, not widely read anymore.

    I’m voting for “ghastly upheaval” because I love that word “ghastly.” I wonder what the Russian equivalent is? But “bustle and terror” is also powerful.


  8. I think I prefer the Maude translation. Now I have to search out my ancient, battered Penguin edition because I’m curious to see who the translator was!


  9. Well, I love the Maude. Their translation is outstanding, and they are very graceful writers. But I have found Briggs’ dialogue less stilted, and the story is just as riveting. It is interesting to see what modern translators do with a text.

    I wonder what Penguin you have. Was that the Rosemary Edmonds? I’ve never read it! But I have a theory that it’s almost impossible to go wrong with War and Peace.


  10. Pingback: Do I Have a Crystal Ball? The Tolstoy Renaissance – mirabile dictu

  11. I realize your post goes back a few years, but I wanted to tell you I appreciated it. I came here seeking additional information on the various translations of War and Peace, and have settled on Briggs as my translator of choice. I know that P & V are all the rage these days, but in the excerpts I read, their translation came across as very awkward and clunky.


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