17 October 07
War and Peace: A New Translation
I’m making slow but delicious progress on War and Peace. A book this long and this good is not to be gobbled, and my reading so far has been limited to before bedtime, already disrupted these days because of post-season baseball (the less said about THAT, the better). Daylight is less and less but when there is any I’m digging and digging in the garden, racing to cage my raised beds against burrowing rodents (and contemplating above-ground cages too against bunnies, ground squirrels, and birds) so I can get my winter vegetables in before it gets too cold (though as Numenius’ brother, who lives in Indiana, said on Sunday night, “cold” is a relative term…). Anyway, as anyone who’s ever dug in a garden knows, there is always at least four times as much dirt as you think, no matter how big (or how small) the hole. It’s slow. And I don’t want to hurt my back, so it’s even slower.
But slow digging gives you ample time to think, and I’ve been thinking a lot about translation lately. I got the Maude and Maude translation of War and Peace out of the library a couple of weeks ago and it’s certainly very readable, comfortable, quaintly archaic with kindly, if slightly pedantic, footnotes (it was published in the early 1940s and features Clifton Fadiman’s comparison of Napoleon’s folly with Hitler’s in a fascinating and prescient foreword). I was then alerted to a translation, published just this week, by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, a translating dynamo couple living in Paris. I bought it yesterday.
A quick dig through a decent library catalog unearths well over 15 English translations (many long out of print) of this book. Why so many? Having worked for a publisher I can picture, and hear in my head, the wrangling that must have gone on in editorial meetings as the Advocate dismissed all previous versions, arguing that this translation would be the best, most complete, most contemporary, most relevant, most true to the original, most poetic, most imbued with the spirit of Tolstoy. It’s a hugely expensive undertaking, and the folks at Knopf must really be expecting people to run out and buy the new translation (list price $39, obviously heavily subsidized by the Borzoi imprint) even if they have an older one (or, if they are Language Hat, several) on their shelf. A gamble. Banking, perhaps, on the stardom of the translators?
Looking, so far, as though it was worth it. Reading Richard Pevear’s account of how they work on a translation as a partnership makes me shudder at the sheer effort involved (she, a native speaker of Russian, does the first pass, closely following the Russian; he then works through it, referring to the Russian throughout, making sure it reads as “English”; they then work together through his version, refining and perfecting it.) (I love her insistence on a phrase Tolstoy used in the Russian describing horses galloping over a bridge, “transparent sounds,” which has consistently been translated as a “thud” or “clang” of hoofs, both of which have perfectly adequate Russian equivalents; Pevear says “transparent sounds” is “pure Tolstoy” and notes how if there hadn’t been two of them working on it it would have gotten overlooked.)
Translation is always a labor of love. I don’t care how much these two got paid for this one: it can never, ever have been enough to compensate them for the three years of their lives that went into it. I haven’t read much so far (dithering between starting at the beginning or continuing on to Austerlitz and beyond and returning to the beginning when I’ve finished the whole novel) but it’s going to get read one way or the other.
The Reading Room at the New York Times is working through the new translation, led by Sam Tenenhouse. If you’ve ever wondered whether to read this book, the time might be now… or reread it, in its new English incarnation, the American edition at least set in Tshichold’s Sabon and printed on luscious smooth paper, ragged fore-edges, embossed gold foil neo-Victorian dust jacket, a comfortable but sumptuous brick on your lap for weeks…
Postcript: Ecco has also just published a new translation, by Andrew Bromfield, War and Peace: Original Version. It is essentially Tolstoy’s first draft and much shorter than what he ended up with after three years of revisions. Viking published a version last year by Anthony Briggs. Wow. That editorial meeting discussion must have been really interesting…