We recently discussed the new Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace; Sam Sacks has alerted me to a review (in Open Letters, of which he is the Fiction Editor) by the puckish Steve Donoghue (who claims he “served as an Assistant Government General in Mandalay following the Third Anglo-Burmese War“; he is in reality the Nonfiction Editor of the journal). The review is pretty negative, though largely, as far as I can tell, on the odd grounds that the translation retains the French: “nobody can read French anymore (except possibly the French).” There are some useful comparisons of passages in three translations, but the most interesting feature to me was this discussion of the history of the text, which has “no definitive form of its own”:

Tolstoy serialized the first few sections of the novel for a Russian periodical in 1865 and 1866. He then brought out the whole work in 1868 and 1869, with emendations and revisions. Then in 1873 the entire work was published again, but in a substantially different form than those previous, with a very large and very invasive set of textual changes by the author (the French passages, for instance, were removed, and most of the philosophical and expository arias were hacked out of the main body of the text and annexed to appendices).
A fourth edition reprinted this one. A fifth edition appeared in 1886 under the direction of Tolstoy’s wife (Tolstoy himself had by this point come to hate his magnum opus, calling it rubbish and washing his hands of it, which was certainly not a helpful thing to do, like the enthusiastic organizer of a 20-person hayrack ride who five minutes in withdraws in a pout over some trifle and leaves everybody else to jolt awkwardly along, singing half-hearted jingles and picking spiders out of their pants), and this edition ignored all the textual changes Tolstoy made in the third edition, choosing instead to adhere to the second, 1868-69 edition, only not quite, since some of the textual changes Tolstoy made for that edition were ignored for this edition. The Count was still no help, hunkered down in his family estate of Yasnaya Polyana teaching his serfs to find God while everyone else in the world, quite probably including God Himself, was grappling with this bizarre drinking-game of a textual history he’d left behind him.
Translators must therefore not only grapple with the oddities of Tolstoy’s prose, they must perforce become textual scholars as well as orthographical sleuths (or perhaps psychics), since Tolstoy’s handwriting was very nearly indecipherable – a fact that comes into play not only with his wife, who copied out his day’s work each evening (making who knows how many innocent but perhaps telling mistakes), but with his publishers, who had to deal with that handwriting in the form of endless line-edits.

If I ever knew any of that, I’d forgotten it.


  1. I’ve finished the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation since you last posted about this. I *can* read French and was glad to see it there since it gives an interesting peek into Tolstoy’s choices of when to translate it and when not to; a further layer of translation mayhem.
    I didn’t hate the translation (and was almost never jolted by clumsiness, which is my main reason to hate translations if I’m unaware of “inaccuracy”). But I don’t read Russian and don’t know, therefore, why a new translation was deemed necessary (or worth paying for) by the publishers, both this one and Briggs. Having read 200 pages of Maude before I bought this copy, I may go back and finish it again in that version, which certainly read well in English…

  2. Jeffrey Gantz’ review in The Phoenix a few weeks ago objected to leaving the French and German in, with the English on the side, too. Well, actually, he imagined that “readers” would be bothered by it. And suggested using a funny typeface instead. (I’m almost certain that this Jeffrey Gantz the arts editor is the same as the translator of The Mabinogion and so on.)

  3. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t this kind of textual indeterminacy fairly common for 19th Century novels, with a lot of them changing radically between serial and collected forms?

  4. I loved Tolstoy’s decision to give the French in French. Perhaps the argument over whether to keep it that way is one of the best for having e-books, in a form that permits one to choose (it shouldn’t be that hard to have Options, as one does in DVDs, so that one could select a version that kept the French or gave a translation). I’m sorry to hear that this reviewer thought nobody knew French, anyway, because French is the one language I don’t feel apologetic about quoting, having the impression that it is a language commonly taught in schools.

  5. Waargh! I completely left out the crucial bit of my comment. Redo:
    Please correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t this kind of textual indeterminacy fairly common for 19th Century novels, with a lot of them changing radically between serial and collected forms, with the varying versions getting republished and translated in turn?
    To give a f’rinstance, I seem to recall that Victor Hugo’s work would often be translated from the serialized version and then not retranslated for decades.

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