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.