Monday, October 27, 2008

War and Peace: The Two New Translations

There are two new translations of "War and Peace" on the market.

"War and Peace" has survived all cultural climate changes and continues to find readers—there are at least four different translations currently in print. The irony is that it does this almost in spite of its translators. The best-known was done by Constance Garnett in 1904. Garnett was a woman in a hurry—she translated some 70 Russian books into English—but what she gained in speed, she lost in subtlety. Her version of "War and Peace" isn't bad, but it's not exactly Tolstoy either. It has a sort of one–size-fits-all quality. (Joseph Brodsky, the Nobel Prize-winning Russian poet, said that English-speaking readers couldn't tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky because they'd hadn't been reading their prose, they'd been reading Garnett's.) Only two years ago, a new translation appeared by an Englishman, Anthony Briggs. This version is brisk and efficient—two words no one ever applied to Tolstoy—but the characters, particularly the servants and soldiers from the ranks, talk as if they'd just wandered in from a Dickens novel.

Good translation is something like what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about obscenity: he couldn't define it, but he knew it when he saw it. When you read T. E. Lawrence's translation of the Odyssey or even the fragment of the Aeneid that Seamus Heaney has produced, you see, as if for the first time, the potency of these works. But if agreeing on the criteria for a great translation has proved impossible, that has never stopped people from debating what constitutes a good one, or about whether it is an art or a craft, or about the possibility—or impossibility—of ever truly rendering one language's reality into another tongue. In any case, it is hard not to feel sympathy for Tolstoy's translators, even the bad ones. They have their work cut out for them.

Pevear and Volokhonsky labored for three years on "War and Peace." Besides "Anna Karenina," the couple has translated 14 books by most of the major 19th-century Russian writers, including Dostoevsky, Chekhov and the notoriously difficult Gogol. "They're all hard," Pevear says, but "War and Peace" presented a unique set of challenges. "Other translators have said they find Tolstoy comparatively easy to translate," Pevear says. "If you assume that Tolstoy is not really a stylist and that his work can be paraphrased into smooth English, the task may become comparatively easy. But once you pay close attention to his words, they become as difficult to translate as any."

Pevear points out that Tolstoy constantly uses words and phrases in odd combinations, such as when he describes the "transparent" sound of horses' hooves on a wooden bridge or when he writes that "drops dripped" from the leaves of trees. The temptation is always, when translating, to make things make sense, to smooth things out. But then it isn't Tolstoy. There were as well all the "hunting terms, terms for the specific colors of horses' coats, for the shapes of dogs' paws, for the gait of a wolf being pursued. Russian has its own rich and inventive vocabulary for these things, for which there are often no equivalents in English," Pevear says. Then there was the question of how to handle the slang of soldiers and peasants. "Replacing them with standard Cockney or redneck jargon, as has been done, is a great mistake," he says, "because those 'languages' bring their own worlds with them."

If Pevear and Volokhonsky have an edge as translators, it is that they don't just respect the original but trust it completely. "I said to Richard," Volokhonsky says, " 'Let's translate "War and Peace." We'll be in good hands'." As a result, all the modernity of the book—and it does seem the most modern of almost any classic novel from the 19th century—comes from Tolstoy's outlook on life, not from the language of this translation, which remains blessedly free of any contemporary lingo. "Our reasons for making a new translation have nothing to do with keeping up with the supposed changes in modern English," Pevear says. "Quite the opposite. We go back into Tolstoy's prose as a specific artistic medium; we try to pay the closest attention to his way of using Russian; we want our English version to be more Tolstoyan, not more contemporary. Tolstoy is modern enough as it is. We want, as far as possible, to do in English what he does in Russian."

air enough, but Tolstoy has been moving English readers for more than a century, and the translations haven't seemed to matter. Pierre is still Pierre, his belly spilling out of his waistcoat. Andrei is still lying wounded on the battlefield at Austerlitz, staring at the sky as if for the first time. Isn't the story what's most important, and not the particulars of its translation? Pevear will have none of that: "You could tell people what is portrayed in Rembrandt's 'Return of the Prodigal Son' and move them deeply. But the telling would have little to do with the experience of looking at the unique disposition of color, light, space, scale, line, texture, brushwork in Rembrandt's painting, which also happens to depict the return of the prodigal son. It is the same with a work in words. Words have color, shade, tone, texture, rhythm, pacing, disposition, structure; they can quote, echo, parody other words; they can be unexpected, infinitely suggestive, mercurial; they can also beat and repeat like a drum. That is the nature of Tolstoy's artistic medium; his 'story' comes clothed in all these elements of style as he alone used them, and which alone create the impression he wanted to make. Of course he used them 'instinctively,' and not for the sake of effect (though he was a far more conscious and even experimental stylist than is sometimes thought). The translator, on the other hand, has to do consciously what the author did instinctively. And yet it must seem instinctive—that's the final test." To anyone who attempts this latest translation, it will be clear quite quickly that Pevear and Volokhonsky aced that exam.

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