Translations of Anna Karenina: Constance Garnett, Maude, or Pevear & Volokhonsky?

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The Maude translation of Anna Karenina (Everyman)

“All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”–Anna Karenina, translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude

I am a fan of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, though I prefer his heftier classic, War and Peace, which is an action-packed popcorn read, almost like reading a movie.  But since Anna is shorter (though still long), it is more popular and accessible both to the literati and the common reader.  It was chosen as an Oprah book club selection in 2004, and though it’s not “the Harlequin romance of its day”  described at her website guide , her fans read and loved it.  And that’s what matters.

My favorite book.

My favorite book.

In fact, everybody loves  Anna Karenina.   Rufus Wainwright, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jilly Cooper, and David Brooks list it as one of their favorite books–and could a singer, a literary novelist, a pop novelist, and a New York Times columnist be more different?  The novelist  Robert Hellenga told me in 2014 in an interview here that he has read it “so often that I tend just to dip into in when I need a shot of writing adrenaline.”

I collect editions of Anna Karenina the way a friend collects Bakelite bracelets. At the moment I have five, one of them a glitzy Folio Society edition. I have four different translations, but my favorite is Aylmer and Louise Maude’s, the translation approved by Tolstoy–and get it while you can, because Everyman and Dover are now its only print publishers, I think. (You can also find the Maude in a used Oxford World Classics edition, but beware, the 2016 paperback has a new translation by Rosamund Bartlett.)

An illustration from the Folio Society edition of Anna Karenina

An illustration from the Folio Society edition of Anna Karenina

I love almost all translations of Anna Karenina–I enjoyed David Magersack’s in high school,  and recently discovered Rosemary Edmonds– but some critics are so adamant in their partisanship that they get hysterical over new translation.

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Constance Garnett’s translation (the revised version(

One of these partisans is the brilliant critic Janet Malcolm. In her article, “Socks:  Translating Anna Karenina,” in The New York Review of Books (6/23-16),  she eccentrically endorses Constance Garnett’s translation.  She explains that English and American readers have “until recent years…largely depended on two translations, one by the Englishwoman Constance Garnett and the other by the English couple Louise and Aylmer Maude, made respectively in 1901 and 1912.”

She quotes the scholar Gary Morson, who is infuriated by the new translations.  He wrote,

“I love Constance Garnett, and wish I had a framed picture of her on my wall, since I have often thought that what I do for a living is teach the Collected Works of Constance Garnett. She has a fine sense of English, and, especially, the sort of English that appears in British fiction of the realist period, which makes her ideal for translating the Russian masterpieces. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were constantly reading and learning from Dickens, Trollope, George Eliot and others. Every time someone else redoes one of these works, reviewers say that the new version replaces Garnett; and then another version comes out, which, apparently, replaces Garnett again, and so on. She must have done something right.”

I admit, Constance Garnett’s Tolstoy hasn’t worked out for me.  I found it clunky, but it was a revised edition of her translation.  (You can download a free e-book version of her original translation, and perhaps that’s the one to read.)  And Garnett has a reputation for writing rapidly and sometimes skipping parts she doesn’t understand. Malcolm thinks this is a sexist interpretation of her work.  And she may be right.

But Malcolm also admits Garnett made thousands of mistakes, and that the revisions in a recent Modern Library edition are often awkward.

Why is Garnett our only choice?  Because Malcolm and Morson  hate the award-winning translators Ricahrd Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (and skip anything in between). I am a fan of P&V’s stunning work, and their translations are now widely taught in American universities. Their lyrical translation of Doctor Zhivago made me finally appreciate Pasternak:  the only other English version is a lacklustre 1958 translation cobbled together hastily in a couple of months after Pasternak won the Nobel. Reading that had led me to assume that Pasternak won only for his politics.

Pevear, an American, and his wife, Volokhonsky, a Russian, have a fascinating philosophy of translation.  They don’t want to write elegant Victorian-style English:  they like to “Russianzie” the English, to capture Tolstoy’s own sometimes awkward, quick style,  complete with occasional inversions, without attempting to pretty it up.  And yet, it is elegant, if different from the Edwardian translators.

This new philosophy of more literal translation has been applied occasionally to Greek and Latin classics lately, so I am familiar with it. People try different things to capture the nuances of a language.

Malcolm wants a certain elegance.  But if you think she loathes P&V, wait till you see what she has to say about Marian Schwartz.

She writes,

Another argument for putting Tolstoy into awkward contemporary-sounding English has been advanced by Pevear and Volokhonsky, and, more recently, by Marian Schwartz,4namely that Tolstoy himself wrote in awkward Russian and that when we read Garnett or Maude we are not reading the true Tolstoy. Arguably, Schwartz’s attempt to “re-create Tolstoy’s style in English” surpasses P&V’s in ungainliness.

I understand wanting to pass on tradition and preferring the old to the new, but I also appreciate the “quiet revolution” of the new translators, as Susannah Hunnewell refers to P& V in The Paris Revew.

Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translations have been lauded for restoring the idiosyncrasies of the originals—the page-long sentences and repetitions of Tolstoy, the cacophonous competing voices of Dostoevsky. Though ­almost unanimously praised by reviewers and Slavic scholars, they have a few critics who accuse them, in fierce blog posts, of being too literal or prone to unidiomatic turns of phrase. Pevear, who is sometimes drawn into the online jousting, never apologizes for erring on the side of the unfamiliar sounding over muting the original.

I’m in both camps:  the old and the new. It is always good to have more than one translation at bookstores.

31 thoughts on “Translations of Anna Karenina: Constance Garnett, Maude, or Pevear & Volokhonsky?

    • People feel so strongly about P&V! Some translators are better for some authors than others. I love the Maude consistently but for instance the Garnett only works for me with Turgenev. Yet i know people who swear by Garnett’s Chekhov.

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  1. I’ll admit to not having read Anna Karenina at this point in my life, however I have read War & Peace by Pevear & Volokhonsky, and loved their translation! I think when I get around to reading Anna, I’ll use two different translations and compare them as I read. Translation isn’t something that I often think about, but it can have a MASSIVE impact on how we read these classic texts – make them palatable, or destroy them, or take away the original atmosphere.

    I once read someone say they refuse to read translated works because what is writing but one person choosing one word, and then deciding on the next. I think that’s naive and stupid, but I think you need to treat translated works as having been influenced by the translator.

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    • I have had very good experiences with P&V! The Maude was recommended by a random person in the library years ago and is also stunning. Yes, we could not possibly read every language so where would we be without translators?

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  2. I thought Janet Malcolm’s article was fascinating. I’ve read Anna three times. Once in the late 70s after seeing the BBC series (it was the tie-in edition so not sure about translator, I think it was Garnett) & I’ve read the OUP Maude translation twice over the years. P& V certainly polarise fans of Russian classics! I’ve read some of their Tolstoy short story translations & didn’t find it too clunky. The article made me want to reread Anna & I’m tempted by the new translation by Rosamund Bartlett.
    BTW, I’m 200 pp into Genji & loving it. I’m trying not to read too much about it as I starting reading the Introduction to the Penguin edition & already know more than I wanted to know about the plot. I do love the footnotes & line drawings in this edition but I’m tempted to buy the Seidersticker as well for comparison. I do love long books!

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    • Yes, I’ve never seen so many people excited about translators since P&V arrived with their Dostosevsky in the ’90s. Oh, I’m so glad you’re enjoying Genji. I did wait till I was into it before I read the intro. I look forward to hearing what you think of the Tyler (the one I don’t have!).

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  3. 1st of all – thanks much for this blog!!
    Having read both Anna K. and War and Peace very late in life I admit I went for P/V’s much acclaimed translations and greatly enjoyed them. I intend to read the Maude version now and after reading Janet Malcolm’s article and coming here… I checked out both Garnett’s and Maude’s versions and just wonder why both would translate “a pauvre malade” (the countess’ invitation to spend the evening with her right at the beginning…) with “a poor invalid”… Isn’t “a poor sick woman” in P/V’s version good enough??? Isn’t that what it means in French?

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    • Yes, “invalid” is one of those old-fashioned words! I think P&V are splendid and even pioneers of a new way of translation, but I also love the Maude and don’t mind their Victorianisms.
      What shocks me is that so many dislike P&V. It really is fun to compare translations!

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  4. I enjoyed reading this and profited from it. To play devil’s advocate everyone does not love Anna Karenina. Quite a number of women readers dislike it very much for its depiction of the inevitability of Anna’s fate, for the way she is presented as erotically enthralled. A much poorer novel, Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde, ought to be called Newenden because it’s real subject is a man miserable in marriage for all sorts of good reasons who falls in love with someone who attracts him physically but more she is a deeply congenial soul — to be with her is to make him feel living is worth while.

    I find AR powerful anyway for all the other reasons people like Tolstoy and liked Keira Knightley’s deeply empathetic take and Stoppard’s screenplay which modifies Tolstoy’s position somewhat.

    To me at this point everything Janet Malcolm write is to be taken with a lot of salt. She recently trashed Jonathan Bate’s biography of Ted Hughes: she has a long-standing hatred of Plath (and trashed Anne Stevenson’s biography of Plath). Malcolm even characteristically has specific agendas and she rarely admits to them. I’m not alone in thinking and writing that.

    That said, I suggest Malcolm prefers the older English because she want to lose herself in the past. I to nowadays find Garnett clunky. Often recent translations modernize, make smooth, deliberately give a contemporary patina, but that’s not true of Maude or P-V. I read AK in the P-V. I read their Dr Zhivago.

    We are on Trollope19thCstudies to read War and Peace this summer and I have the P-V. It’s accurate and tries to evoke the earlier world through our eyes. How can they not?
    Still, the readings aloud of War and Peace by David Case is of the Garnett and it’s superb. So Garnett. I trust you’re exaggerating when you characterized W&R as an action packed popcorn adventure story. It’s not that like in either of the 3 movies I’m now watching and re-watching (1966 Bondarchuk, 1972 BBC Pulman, 2015 Davies). it’s a serious anti-war book exploring the society of Russia in the Napoleonic era through the eyes of the later 19th century.

    I just bought myself both biographies: Wilson and Bartlett

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    • This is certainly not Janet Malcolm’s best work. She sounds like a beleagured Roman general fighting off the barbarians! It’s one thing to love the old translations, another to condemn all the new.
      Oh, you’ll love W&P. It IS a popcorn read! I don’t mean that Tolstoy isn’t a brilliant writer, nor that he doesn’t discuss politics, philosophy, farming, education, women’s role, the peasant, and other social issues, but this is one of the fastest and most fascinating novels I’ve ever read. I wish people were not intimidated.

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  5. On so many disliking P & V – I think most readers greatly enjoy reading them – mainly critics have an issue with their translations i.e. acclaim and success!!! Though I’m not sure they’ve become rich as stated in J. Malcolm’s article it’s great to hear someone can make a good living by translating Russian literature in the 21st century!!!

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    • Yes, you’re probably right about the “acclaim and success” envy issue. Malcolm does sound silly, thinking Constance Garnett is the last word in Russian translation, when she doesn’t even read Russian. (Nor do I, but I don’t pretend I’m an expert.) Yes, I wondered if P&V really ARE rich.

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  6. I want to amend my comment: not only is Malcolm’s range of quotation inadequate but she’s not correct that V-P have the market on translations from the Russian. Out of curiosity I pulled down my copies (all English) of the books cited: for Anna Karenina I have a translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky, but for War and Peace (beautiful brand new Oxford edition with character lists, good notes) is by Louise and Aylmer Maude (who knew Tolstoy) as revised by Amy Mandelker; and for Dr Zhivago (similarly recent good edtion) the translators are Max Hayward and Manya Harari. I looked at my CDs of Tolstoy read aloud: Case reading Tolstoy used the Garnett, but Davina Porter reading Anna Karenina is a copyright Wm Collins translation (alas person not named) but it’s not Garnett; ditto for th same company Philip Madoc reading Dr Zhivago.

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    • Our bookstore stocked up on War and Peace after the miniseries, and had V and P, Constance Garnett, and Anthony Briggs. So there was a choice. But, alas, no Maude, which is really preferred by most to the Garnett, and even in the 1970s Garnett was not taught at all at the university because of her inaccuracies!

      Malcolm only mentions a few of the translations of AK–that’s the great weakness of the article. A new one was published by Oxford in 2015 by Rosamond Bartlett. She should have considered that: Oxford is a big seller.

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  7. The particular translation of a book is not something I typically think of, though I have been thinking more about the difficulties it poses now that I’ve started reading Italo Calvino’s “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler” because of the translational difficulties I’ve noticed in it. I’ve actually explored Anna Karenina through the lens of classical music (https://ifmermaidsworesuspenders.com/2015/08/07/classical-music-stories-1-anna-karenina-part-1/) on my blog. Just in case you’d be interested!

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  8. After reading about how wonderful the MAUDE translations of TOLSTOY are I got lucky to find at Amazon.com a beautifully edited kindle version by carefullycraftedclassics.com for only $2.99. So this is my 2nd read of AK which I greatly enjoy, after having read P&V’s version before.

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  9. I guess I’m missing something here but can someone please explain the meaning of “boys and old men skating for hygienic reasons” in AK when Levin goes to see Kitty who’s skating at the lake… Thanks!

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    • Aha! I laughed over your difficulty here, but did find an alternate translation of the phrase “for hygienic reasons”in Rosamund Bartlett’s new translation. She says “for health reasons.” Much more modern!

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  10. Great post! People regularly ask me which translation is better, and in future I shall refer them to your post. I read most Russian literature in Dutch, so it’s hard for me to say. I have the Aylmer Maude translation of War and Peace and it’s very good, I thoroughly enjoyed the P & V translation of The Master & Margarita, but it makes perfectly good sense to me that Garnett is a better choice for Turgenev. These are all different writers, that require a different understanding and approach.

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  11. As a native speaker of Russian, I’m curious about out literature translations into English. I’ve checked those translations of Tolstoy, and here’s what I can tell. Since school Tolstoy has been associated to me (and many other fellow Russians) as something unbearably dull, his overly wordy style that drags on and on, coupled with long pages of French. Very little sense and story-telling, instead: a lot of needless narration about thoughts and descriptions beyond necessary. When I checked his translations into English, I’ve found out just how they’re so much more readable and consistant, while those French pages are completely translated into English, leaving American readers with full illusion of its “masterpiece’s literary talent and accomplishment. Indeed, his English translations are far more flowing and lighter in style, while they’re enormously adapted for the English-speaking readers. When it comes to translation, part of the author’s fascination and charm lies in the translator’s talents, and, as a result, a translation can change the original to the better drastically, so much that the original dull and mediocre piece will turn into a “mastrepiece” that everyone praises. At the same time, if the original lags behind in quality and consistency, let alone bad style and lack of logic, no best translator can help fix the damaged good and covering up its flaws.

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    • Well, what a fascinating perspective! I do love Tolstoy, but even the translations can be very different from each other. Perhaps what you way is why Pevear and Volokhonsky are sometimes criticized for their rough English: they say it’s like that in Russian.

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

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