Friday, January 11, 2008

Review of Pevear and Volokhonsky's Translation of War and Peace

Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Knopf, 2007.

There is a mass of conflicting opinion on Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation of War and Peace, which appears to center primarily on two issues: the English style, which is less than eminently literary, and the retention of Tolstoy’s French in the text with footnoted translations. Before dealing with them, however, I’ll briefly describe the edition.

It’s a big book, at xviii + 1273 pp., and tastefully presented. It includes a useful introduction by Pevear (which should be read before criticizing the translation), an appendix containing Tolstoy’s 1868 essay “A Few Words Apropos of the Book War and Peace,” endnotes, an “Historical Index,” and a plot summary. The endnotes are denoted by superscript numerals in the text, the footnotes by the usual sequence of asterisk, dagger, etc. I found the endnotes very useful: they elucidate the obscure details of the period, often mentioned by Tolstoy, which only a specialist would know. Unfortunately, I noticed several typos, probably ten or more; and suprisingly for Knopf, the “and” in “War and Peace” is capitalized in both places on the dust jacket, yet not on the spine. I hope the dust jacket has been corrected in future printings. Although these minor details didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story, they did detract from the pleasure I was expecting in owning a well-produced copy of a great book.

Now for the contentious issues. The first I am not qualified to judge because I know no Russian. I first read War and Peace in the Maudes’ version – I have never read Garnett or Briggs – and fell in love with it. From what I remember, it seemed more literary and I believe it did read more smoothly than P and V, which often breaks the rules of good English style (and pains my ear). But if some reviewers are right that it echoes the Russian, then I’d rather read a sometimes awkward but faithful English version than a polished but misleading one. There is a fine line, however, between faithfulness and bad style – I’m reminded of the old dictum that, when translating from Latin to English, if one language must yield to the other, Latin should yield to English; and when translating from English to Latin, if one language must yield, English should yield to Latin. Of course, unless I learn Russian, I’ll never know whether P and V transgressed this rule.

As for retaining Tolstoy’s French – remember that Tolstoy interspersed Russian with bits of French for a reason, and that P and V are merely following the practice of all the Russian editions by printing the French as Tolstoy wrote it and footnoting translations. It’s interesting that apparently Tolstoy faced the same criticism when the book was published that P and V face today: it’s pedantic, it’s clumsy, it’s a pain to glance back and forth from the text to the footnote, etc.; and in a way it is. (He defends himself on p. 1218 of P and V’s edition in “A Few Words Apropos of the Book War and Peace.”) But to translate all Tolstoy’s French along with the Russian into English, without alerting the reader in any way, is to ruin what Tolstoy was trying to accomplish by showing the Russian nobility’s dependence on a foreign tongue. Princess Marya’s friend Julie, for example, a Russian (but significantly called only by a French name), doesn’t even know how to say “un peu amoureux” in her native language. I think the clumsiness of the footnotes is worth it, because it preserves Tolstoy’s intentions – the English editions which translate War and Peace as if the whole book were in one language lose an essential dimension of the work – but I admit that for those who don’t read French, the footnotes are a pain. Of course, for those who do read French, it’s great fun: I especially enjoyed being exposed to new idiomatic usage.

All in all, I think the prospective reader of War and Peace who doesn’t know French should probably read it first in the Maudes’ version (not Garnett or Briggs), to avoid being excessively frustrated by the footnotes, and only then move on to P and V.

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