The War and Peace Collection: Is Rosemary Edmonds’ Translation the Best?

My

My “War and Peace” collection.

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.

No, Kat, you cannot!

Tolstoy

Tolstoy

But 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.

Of course it is a novel, or I would not love it so much, but it also mixes in history and philosophy. Every character is vivid; every scene so realistic that I feel I live in nineteenth-century Russia.  I have read five different translations, and have a collection of four on my shelves: in the photo at the top of the page, you see the Maude translation (Oxford World Classics paperback, top), the Anthony Briggs translation (brown Penguin trade edition, second from top); the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation (Vintage paperback with the orange spine, third); and the Rosemary Edmonds translation (Folio Society, two-volume set).

Frontispiece of the Folio Society edition, 1997 reprint. Edmonds translation

Frontispiece of the Folio Society edition, 1997 reprint of Edmonds’ translation

I just read the Edmonds translation for the first time.  It was first published by Penguin in two volumes in 1957.

I was drawn to it because it was available in two volumes.  It is easier to heft one 700-page volume than one 1,400-page book.

Is Rosemary Edmonds the best translator of Tolstoy?  I am enraptured by her prose.

Her style is simple and graceful, neither too literary nor too literal.  It lies somewhere between the Edwardian elegance of the Maudes and the deliberately rough fidelity of Pevear and Volokhonsky to Tolstoy’s allegedly awkward syntax and inelegant repetitions.

Edmonds is a translator who allows you to forget you are reading.  You fall into the book and live there.

This afternoon I was particularly moved by Denisov’s grief over the senseless death of Petya Rostov.

It is the constrast between the reactions of the unfeeling officer Dolohov and the brave, kind-hearted, lisping officer Denisov that 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.

Much of the action in War and Peace revolves around Moscow and Petersburg society.   I love the descriptions of  the balls in Moscow, the political salons in Petersburg, the hunts in the country, Natasha’s singing, the name-day parties, Nikolai’s fondness for simple army life, Pierre’s experiences with the Masons, Andre’s thoughts on God, Maria’s faithfulness and intelligence, and the orphaned Sonya’s struggles to remain true to her love for Nicholas in the face of disapproval from the Countess.

The award-winning Pevear and Volokhonsky are widely considered the best Russian translators these days.    In  The New York Review of Books , Orlando Figes explains it is because they do not over-refine Tolstoy’s language and succeed in replicating his somewhat awkward style in English.

In the English-speaking world there is a common perception, largely due to Garnett’s translations, that Tolstoy’s style is classically simple and elegant. This is only partly true. Tolstoy writes with extraordinary clarity. No other writer can recreate emotions and experience with such precision and economy. His moral lexicon is penetrating and direct, without the nuances and ambiguities that make Pushkin so complex, and in this respect Tolstoy’s writing is relatively easy to translate (“goes straight into English, without any trouble,” Garnett said ). But there are other elements of Tolstoy’s literary style, in War and Peace in particular, awkward bumps and angularities that have been ironed out, not just in Garnett’s translation, but in most of the subsequent translations of this masterpiece.

Which is your favorite translation? Constance Garnett?  The Maudes?  Anthony Briggs?  Pevear and Volokhonsky?  And does the translation really matter?

12 thoughts on “The War and Peace Collection: Is Rosemary Edmonds’ Translation the Best?

  1. I’ve yet to read War and Peace but I loved the Maudes’ rendering of Anna Karenina. Having said that, Edmonds’ translation has garnered many plaudits. I am less comfortable with P-V as you know – so will probably be happy to stick with the Maudes, particularly as they were contemporary with, and knew, Tolstoy!

    • You can’t go wrong with the Maudes! Their writing is super, but Edmonds is also brilliant. The problem with the new translations is that they’re replacing these old ones we love that have served generations of readers. And when you compare them line by line, there are minimal differences!

      • That’s what concerns me. And they don’t *need* to be changed – we don’t update Dickens into modern language and terminology, so why do we need to do so with a book written at the same time(ish)?

        • It would be nice if some less well-known Russian novels were translated, But there are different philosophies of translation, and people debate them endlessly. I have yet to read a bad translation of Tolstoy!:) I do love the Maudes, and have read their AK and W&P numerous times. Now if only I could get the Edmonds translation of AK…

  2. You inspire me. I read the Maude translation several years ago. It was a two-volume edition (easier to hold) and I liked it quite a bit. Now I think I should go around again with Edmonds.

  3. I tried the Maude translation the first time I read W&P, but only got about 200p in. I found it hard going – but I was 17 at the time and possibly biting off more than I could chew! I read (and completed) the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation two years ago – I’d studied some of the history and had read more classics by that point, so I can’t say for sure if it was the translation or my readiness for the text that made the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation better.

    • I do think the P&V is very good indeed! I have found their translations excellent, but I started with the Maude and love that, too. I had a Norton edition long ago with excellent notes, and that certainly helped me through the history. Of course P-V are very thorough in their notes, too.

  4. I am posting this comment for Camille Sixtine, because the comment button was not working for her. Camille writes:

    I too am a compuulsive reader of “War and Peace”. I first read it as a child in a consideraby abridged version for children that was nonetheless 300 pages. But this was just the skeleton of the book. It focussed on the characters and the story, and left out all of Tolstoy’s long comments on his work. I loved Natasha at first sight as she was bouncing everywhere and my father thought we had something in common. I fell in love with Prince Andrei and was mortified by his death. I did not underdstand Piotr, and some twists of the plot, but enjoyed the bubbling Rostov family.

    I have read it again and again since then in French of course and also in English.

    These are two different books. I do not recognise the words of Tolstoy and his characters when in English. This is not the same music to the inner ear, not the same rythm, not the same words and feelings, not MY “War and Peace”.

    I do not speak Russian but I have watched the film adaptation by the Russian director Sergei Bondarchuk, with subtitles in French. However, I was taken away by the Russian language I was hearing, and that was another “War and Peace”, a wonderful one that rung true with the story, the characters, the landscape, the interiors, and the off voice of Tolstoy that was heavily felt.

    Does that mean that “translators are traitors”, as the Italian saying is going?

    I think not.

    I think words lead lives in each languages and moreover are endowed with our individual meanings that refer to our experiences. That is blatant in “War and Peace” but it is the same when I read Balzac, for instance, in English with an English speaking reading group. Their understanding is different from mine and ours as French. You cannot translate “bourgeoisie” by “middle class” – this refers too class strata that are different, for example.

    So I well believe, in this instance, that you have to choose among various tranlations from Russian to English. But think of the number and wealth of all the variations by translation of this book in the whole world!”

    • Camille, what a fascinating perspective on translation! Languages do reflect different cultures, and it is true that in Engliah the Maude translation is a classic in its own right. Modern translators try to achieve greater fidelity to Tolstoy’s style, but it is all bewildering to us. Amazing to think of us all having opportunities to read this in so many different languages. Thank you for this comment! We were not getting the big picture at all! here!

  5. I can’t understand why everyone doesn’t read and like the Levear/Volokhonsky translation!! (not sure of spelling!!)…….from what I’ve read about it, it’s the closest to the Russian language you can get in english……Briggs, from what I’ve read, uses British slang phrases…….not exactly authentic in a Russian novel, eh? as for Maude, I read somewhere years ago that if he didn’t like a certain phrase, etc,. in Tolstoy, he’d just change it to what he thought it should be….so why is his translation so highly thought of? never read it & don’t plan to, as every page, I’d be wondering…’hmmmm is there anything on this page he didn’t like and thus changed”??????? oh well, to each their own, but for me, ANY Russian work translated by L/V is the best……period…….

    • I like all the translations, and do enjoy the Pevear/Volokhonsky. But there does seem to be some prejudice against them, especially among English readers. Maybe Pevear is too American?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s