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Reading translations of Tolstoy

I’ve just finished reading War and Peace for the second time. I first read it almost exactly 20 years ago, around the time of my twenty-first birthday. It had a large impact on me. Before then, I had considered myself decidedly un-literatury. I had never enjoyed a novel at the same level I enjoy film or music. Since then I have read some good books and authors, but Tolstoy is still my favorite writer.

Every now and then I get a Tolstoy mood, and then read or re-read something of his. This latest craving came after reading Clive James’s excellent article1 on the BBC’s adaptation of War and Peace. A few days later, in a Dublin bookstore, I found a pocket Penguin tome with two Tolstoy short stories I didn’t know, and I read it in a coffee shop during an overcast and beautiful Sunday afternoon. I decided it was time to re-read War and Peace.

The translation I read the first time was Rosemary Edmonds’s. I had read articles praising the more recent work of Pevear and Volokhonsky, and downloaded both versions to my Kindle. I found the P&V at times rough when compared to Edmonds, but it was better rendered into Kindle, so I stuck with it.

And yet, as often happens with me, I started to be bothered by details, started to grow restless, first with the kindle, then with the book itself. I read some articles that were critical with the P&V translation, and told myself that I agreed with them. After buying Briggs’s 2008 recent edition on beatiful hardback and switching to it half way through, I decided everything was much better.

And yet again, after a hundred pages I started to be dissatisfied. I noticed that the new book seemed a bit too smooth, too polite, too British. I compared some of my favorite fragments to the P&V translation.

From book 2, part 5, chapter 19:

He did not know that Natasha’s soul was filled with despair, shame, humiliation, and that it was not her fault that her face happened to express calm dignity and severity.

(Pevear & Volokhonsky)

He was not to know that Natasha’s heart was overflowing with despair, shame and humiliation, and she could hardly be blamed for her face happening to look all calm, aloof and austere.


From book 2, part 3, chapter 3:

“Mon cher,” Princess Marya would say, coming in at such a moment, “Nikolushka musn’t go for a walk today: it’s too cold.”

“If it were warm,” Prince Andrei would answer his sister with particular dryness at such a moment, “he would go only in his shirt, but since it’s cold, you must put warm clothes on him, which is why they were invented—that’s what follows from the fact that it is cold, and not that the child should stay at home when he needs air,” he would say with particular logicality, as if punishing someone for all that secret illogical work that was going on inside him.

On these occasions Princess Marya reflected on how such mental work dries men up.

(Pevear & Volokhonsky)

“Listen, my dear,” Princess Marya might say, coming in at just such a time, “Little Nikolay can’t go out for a walk today. It’s too cold.”

“If it happened to be hot,” Andrey’s tart response would be on such occasions, “he would go out in his smock, but since it’s cold you must dress him in warm clothing designed for that purpose. That’s what happens when it’s cold, not staying indoors when the child needs some fresh air.” He would pronounce all this with an exaggerated sense of logic, as if he needed to resolve his own inner illogicalities by secretly taking them out on someone else.

It was at times like this that Princess Marya thought how desiccated men’s minds become with all that intellectual activity.


Briggs here gets it quite wrong. To begin with, I don’t like this “Listen” coming from Princess Marya, very much against character in my opinion. And then secretly taking them out on someone else … but it was not the retribution that was being kept secret, but the cause of it. In any case, I love the paragraph in P&V.

One last Briggs vs. P&V comparison.

From the epilogue, part 1, chapter 5.

The thought of marrying a rich heiress, which his female relations suggested to him, he found revolting.

(Pevear & Volokhonsky)

He had no time for the idea of marrying a rich woman, which his female relatives kept suggesting.


I like P&V much better. It is more direct, and to me it seems truer.

So why, then, had I been tired by P&V? Their detractors complain about rough, un-gramatical English, but on one hand, it doesn’t seem un-gramatical to me, and on the other, being a non-native English speaker, I think I am less aware of non-idiomatic English, or more indulgent of it.

I think the problem with P&V is that it is occasionally sloppy, to the point of not making sense. It would have benefited from a few more rounds of error checking. Two examples:

From book 1, part 1, chapter 8.

[…] suddenly, from the neighbouring room came the sound of several men and women’s feet running to the door, the crash of a tripped-over and fallen chair, and a thirteen-year-old girl ran in, bundling something in her short muslin skirt […] a student in a raspberry-coloured collar, an officer of the guards, a fifteen-year-old girl, and a fat, red-cheeked boy

We’re being introduced, for the first time, to the adolescent Natasha, Nikolay, Sonya and Boris, and the child Petya. men and women’s feet?

From book 2, part 5, chapter 19:

“So it’s not true that he’s married?”
“No, it’s true.”
“He was married, and long ago?” she asked. “Word of honour.”
Pierre gave her his word of honour.
“Is he still here?” she asked quickly.
“Yes, I just saw him.”

I get confused here. Who says “Word of honour.”? Is it Pierre? Then, is “Pierre gave his word of honour” just an explanation of what he had just said quite plainly?

These two are small examples, but there were many other sentences I had to read twice and puzzle out.

At this point I started reading articles on the different War and Peace editions, and several spoke highly of the Maude translation, one of the oldest. I had always avoided the Maude translation because of its anglicization of Russian names. But I found out that in a revision from 2010, the anglicization had been removed, and the French passages had been restored to French, with the English translation in footnotes. I bought the edition.

So how did the 2010 Maude fare on the passages where P&V stumbled?

[…] suddenly from the next room were heard the footsteps of boys and girls running to the door and the noise of a chair falling over, and a girl of thirteen, hiding something in the folds of her short muslin frock […] a student with a crimson coat-collar, an officer of the Guards, a girl of fifteen, and a plump rosy-faced boy in a short jacket.

“Then it is not true that he’s married!”
“Yes, it is true.”
“Has he been married long?” she asked. “On your honour? …”
Pierre gave his word of honour.
“Is he still here?” she asked, quickly.
“Yes, I have just seen him.”

These avoid the confusion of P&V. How about the meatier passages that P&V do so well on and that Briggs defangs?

He did not know that Natasha’s soul was overflowing with despair, shame, and humiliation, and that it was not her fault that her face happened to assume an expression of calm dignity and severity.

“Mon cher,” Princess Marya entering at such a moment would say, “little Nikolai can’t go out today, it’s very cold.”

“If it were hot,” Prince Andrei would reply at such times very drily to his sister, “he could go out in his smock, but as it is cold he must wear warm clothes, which were designed for that purpose. That is what follows from the fact that it is cold; and not that a child who needs fresh air should remain at home,” he would add with extreme logic, as if punishing someone for those secret illogical emotions that stirred within him.

At such moments Princess Marya would think how intellectual work dries men up.

The idea of marrying some rich woman, which was suggested to him by his female relations, was repugnant to him.

Very well indeed, and close to P&V. With several other of my favorite passages I noticed that I liked both Maude and P&V, with the slight preference going sometimes to one, sometimes to the other.

How about Edmonds? Comparing against P&V and Maude, I noticed some of the indirectness of Briggs, though less pronounced. It did me just fine all those years ago, and if I had not started reading on the Kindle, I might well have stuck with it.

I only bought the 2010 Maude translation when I was on the last 40 pages of War and Peace, and I liked it quite a bit. Now I’m tempted to re-read the whole book using Maude, but that really should wait.