Michael R. Katz
War and Peace in Our Time
All happy readers need excuses to read or reread the classic, and all unhappy readers grow confused over which translations to select.
--Bob Blaisdell, SFGate.com (November 25, 2007)
new versions of Tolstoy’s monumental War and Peace (first
published 1865–69) have appeared in print during the last few years and they have managed to create some controversy. The first (Viking, 2005), an “English academic version,” by
Anthony Briggs, former professor of Russian at the University of Birmingham,
includes an afterword by Orlando Figes, professor of history at the
University of London and author of a cultural history of Russia (Natasha’s
Dance); the principal competition (Knopf, 2007) is by the dynamic duo of freelance translators, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, a married couple living in France who have published highly regarded renderings of works by Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Bulgakov; the third entry (HarperCollins, 2007) is by Andrew Bromfield, the founding editor of the Russian literary journal Glas, who
has also translated Boris Akunin, Vladimir Voinovich, and Victor Pelevin,
among other writers. This last publication claims to be the “original version” of Russia’s
most famous novel, never before translated into English and appearing
in print for the first time.
Compared with manifestations of Dostoevsky in English,
the writings of Tolstoy have suffered less at the hands of his early translators.
Although his works were slow to gain recognition in England, they soon became
very popular in America. According to Rachel May in her groundbreaking study The Translator and the Text (1994),
by the year 1889 there were twenty-seven separate editions of Tolstoy’s
novels and stories published in the United States. Of course, not all readers
were equally impressed, and some were outraged. Writing in Literary World (Boston),
the critic Maurice Thompson observed that Tolstoy’s novels are “as dirty and obscene as the worst parts of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.”
The main question for us to consider now is why there should suddenly be such a surge of interest in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, when there is certainly no shortage of translations of this famous work. Indeed, there have been at least ten previous
English versions, the first translated (from the French) and published in 1886
by one Clara Bell, an enormously prolific professional translator; the second,
in 1889, by Nathan Haskell Dole, an extraordinary character, writer, and journalist,
whose apparent lack of skill in the enterprise was such that Tolstoy himself
felt compelled to beg him to stop translating his works. The indefatigable Constance
Garnett also undertook this demanding project, as did another husband-and-wife
team, the highly reliable Louise and Aylmer Maude (who knew Tolstoy personally);
the first Penguin edition (1957) was done by Rosemary Edmonds, followed a decade
later by Ann Dunnigan’s in Signet Classics (1968). Of all these many previous
versions, the two that have best stood the test of time and the stricter test
of scholarly examination are those produced by the Maudes and Ann Dunnigan.
But why do we have three brand new translations now and why have they caused such a stir? Well, for one thing, as everyone knows, we are currently at war. A quick search of the internet with the two words “Tolstoy” and “Iraq” yields a wealth of articles with titles such as “Perhaps Saddam Read Tolstoy and Bush’s People Didn’t” (Ben Bagdikian, countercurrents.org, 2003) and “No Military Hope, So Send More Troops” (W.
Patrick Lang and Ray McGovern, consortiumnews.com, 2006), not to mention the
posts in various weblogs opining on the subject.
On July 17, 2007, in a New York Times op-ed
column entitled “Heroes and History,” David Brooks observed:
Many will doubt this, but Bush is a smart and compelling presence in person, and only the whispering voice of Leo Tolstoy holds one back.
Tolstoy had a very different theory of history. Tolstoy believed great leaders are puffed-up popinjays. They think their public decisions shape history, but really it is the everyday experiences of millions of people which organically and chaotically shape the destiny of nations—from the bottom up.
If what is taken to be Bush’s theory of history is correct, the right security plan can lead to safety, the right political compromises to stability. But if Tolstoy is right, then the future of Iraq is beyond the reach of global summits, political benchmarks, and the understanding of any chief executive. One blogger, Peter Linehan, in a recent entry under the heading Meanderings entitled “War and Peace and the Iraq War,” makes a direct connection along these lines between current events and a new rendition of the Russian classic:
While reading the new translation of War and Peace I started to notice parallels between Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and the American war in Iraq. Tolstoy contended that great men don’t make history. Instead all the people, no matter what their status, fate, and even God make history.
He says that once all the French army and the other European nations’ armies amassed, Napoleon couldn’t control them. They advanced to Moscow, even though it led to their undoing. Rational thought would have shown them that they couldn’t prevail in the long run.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, as they say, or for that matter even a political scientist, talking head, or “pundit” to see the obvious point. We have been waging two unsuccessful wars for over five years, and all sorts of presumptuous claims have been made about the impact we will have not only on the Middle East but also on world history, especially if we succeed in establishing democracy in Iraq.
There are other reasons, of course, in addition to the novel’s topicality and its possible contemporary relevance, for this renewed attention to Tolstoy’s work. After all, the last translation of War and Peace was published forty years ago, which in “translation-years” is more than an entire lifetime. The comprehensive Encyclopedia of Literary Translation into English (Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000) cites the version by Ann Dunnigan as “the best” of the lot up to that point. The survey of Tolstoy in translation included in that compendium argues that Dunnigan “is faithful to the text and does not hesitate to render conscientiously those details that the uninitiated may find bewildering. . . . This should be the general reader’s choice.” Other versions of War and Peace have survived in various reprints, particularly the work of the Maudes, who have the singular distinction of having translated the novel not once, but twice. W. W. Norton chose their revised version (1933) for inclusion in its series of Critical Editions, and for good reason. George Gibian’s slightly revised Maude, combined with his annotations and critical apparatus, make this edition a very good choice as a teaching text in any course where Russian is not the language of instruction. But the Maudes did their work in the 1920s: for many readers, that must seem almost prehistoric in “translation-years.” So, it was time for a new version: past time, perhaps.
Besides, Pevear and Volokhonsky had already gained recognition for having translated all five of Dostoevsky’s major novels, plus several of his shorter works, and they were coming off their remarkably successful translation of Anna Karenina (2000). As everyone knows, that book, with its highly suggestive cover, had been chosen by Oprah Winfrey for inclusion in her popular book club, as a result of which this team of translators had earned a good deal of money. Our Slavic listserv was abuzz with lively debate as to whether such popularization ultimately ennobled or debased the entire scholarly profession.
A new version of War and Peace proved to be both well timed and timely. Moreover, there was something of the “Everest syndrome” about the whole enterprise. As readers will recall, the British mountaineer George Mallory, when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, is said to have replied, “Because it’s there.” So the longest novel written in Russian, and, according to some commentators, the greatest novel ever written in any language, like Everest, was simply there. It was just waiting to be climbed (again). Constance Garnett had done it. The Maudes had done it twice. It was only a matter of time before someone else did it now. And who better than Pevear and Volokhonsky?
But what of Briggs and Bromfield? Briggs’s version was the first of the new translations to emerge. Appearing in 2005 and weighing in at 1,358 pages, it takes the prize for the longest text. It has several useful aids for the reader: a sixteen-page chapter by chapter summary of the action; brief factual descriptions of three key battles (Schöngrabern, Austerlitz, and Borodino); fifteen pages of footnotes; a list of the novel’s main characters; and several helpful maps. In his introduction, Professor Briggs also tackles the question of why a new translation might be needed just now: he cites the changes that have taken place in the English language and the need to accommodate new readers by making use of phrases “more closely attuned to their way of speaking.” He claims to have edited out many “infelicities” and corrected numerous “errors and ambiguities.” Most intriguing, Briggs argues that previous versions had been done by women of a “particular social and cultural background” (this is not entirely true, of course: consider Nathan Haskell Dole and Leo Wiener), and not only in the rendering of the battle scenes, but even in the dialogue “among soldiers, peasants and all the lower orders,” these “feminine” translations, in Briggs’s view, suffer from an “excess of niceness and exactitude.” Having scrutinized the translations and written about the book for the last forty years, I confess that this is not something that I had ever observed, nor am I convinced that the claim is accurate.
Briggs is English, and the language and style of his translation are clearly marked as British. Moreover, he translates all of Tolstoy’s French (approximately 11 percent of the novel) into English, maintaining that few readers today have a sound knowledge of French. As far as Tolstoy’s alleged “faults” are concerned, Briggs contends that he will attempt to reproduce the Russian style faithfully and will avoid any cosmetic falsification. So all of Tolstoy’s “undue repetition,” “grammatical inaccuracy,” and sentences of “excessive length” are there for all to see. He sums up his overall attempt as follows: “Without ever drifting too far away from the original, it does seem reasonable to aim for the kind of English that would have occurred naturally in its context and now sounds appropriate.”
If Briggs’s new version is the longest, Andrew Bromfield’s (2007) is clearly the most controversial. In a brief introduction, Count Nikolai Dmitrievich Tolstoy-Miloslavsky, a prominent Russo-British historian and author who writes under the name of Nikolai Tolstoy, although he is not really a direct descendant of Count Leo, declares that this is the “first version he [the author] completed,” and thus constitutes the “original version” of the novel. This is not true at all. The facts are these: in 2000 a certain Igor Zakharov published in Moscow in Russian what he claimed to be “the first complete edition of the great novel War and Peace.” He says that this text had been “recovered” by the Tolstoy scholar Evelina Zaidenshnur some twenty years earlier (1983) and published as a separate volume in the series Literaturnoe nasledstvo (Literary Legacy), even though it is the case that much of her material had first appeared in print in the ninety-volume Jubilee Edition of Tolstoy’s Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (Complete Collected Works). In fact, what Zaidenshnur published was her own “reconstruction” or Ur-text, retrieved from archives and reassembled in a credible order, but by no means can it be considered as the first or “original version” of the novel. It’s interesting reading, of course, especially if one has read and knows well the “conventional” War and Peace.
And how was this version marketed? Shamelessly. Not only as the “original version” with an introduction by a completely unrelated “Tolstoy,” but with a splendid commercial advertising enticement: “Half the usual length [only 885 pages!], less war and more peace, [and] almost no philosophical digressions.” The reader was going to find this rendering “a hundred times easier to read”; more cause for celebration: “Prince Andrei and Petya Rostov stay alive!” Not one footnote to worry about, but thirty crowd-pleasing illustrations, including photographs and drawings by a popular artist and illustrator, M. S. Bashilov.
As a matter of fact, there are considerable and significant differences between this text and the novel we know. Platon Karataev, for example, the peasant-soldier whom Pierre encounters during his captivity and who provides not only the all-important model of how one is finally to live one’s life, but also a simple statement of faith that occasions the hero’s ultimate spiritual breakthrough, is virtually missing from Bromfield’s text. And at the end, instead of complicated closing scenes recapitulating grand themes and suggesting continuity rather than conclusion, the putative “original” version has only this hastily outlined ending:
The two weddings [those
of Pierre and Natasha, Nikolai and Marya] were celebrated together on
the same day at Otradnoe, which had now come back to life and was flourishing
once again. Nikolai duly left for the regiment and entered Paris with
it, where he met up once again with Andrei.
While they were away Pierre, Natasha (now a countess
in her own right), Marya and her nephew Coco, the old Count Rostov and his wife
and Sonya also stayed on at Otradnoe for the whole summer and the winter of 1813
until Nikolai and Andrei could finally return.
So everyone lived (literally) happily ever after.
As for Tolstoy’s language(s), Bromfield also eliminates most of the French, leaving what he calls only a “gestural form,” to provide the flavor of its original presence and to remind the reader of its characteristic impact. He preserves Tolstoy’s “craggy and rough” style, his long, winding sentences, and his “slipping syntax.” But when it comes to Tolstoy’s signature repetitions, Bromfield asserts that the “hammering effect” of this pattern in the Russian text raises problems in English, allegedly a language “which abhors repetition of this kind.” In an attempt to address the problem, while it is the case that Bromfield’s translation deliberately “introduces small variations in the name of stylistic euphony, it occasionally mimics that repetition to enable readers to feel the force and strangeness of the original.”
Putting these efforts aside, we come to the third of the new versions, the one by the acclaimed Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (he whose Russian is less than fluent and she who is Russian). Right from the beginning of their introduction, they make their aims clear: they will get as close to Tolstoy in English as they did to Dostoevsky in their renditions of the eight works by that author published to date. As Orlando Figes concluded in his review of this translation, Pevear and Volokhonsky strive to achieve “absolute fidelity to the language of Tolstoy” (The New York Review of Books, November 22, 2007). They succeed in preserving the “broad and elaborately developed rhetorical devices” that Tolstoy employs and attempt to represent his “signature style,” with its periodic structure, emphatic repetitions, and epic similes. In addition, they insist on keeping all the French and German as Tolstoy had it, as well as mixed voicings, Gallicisms, Germanisms, and implied foreign accents. Obviously, this is a very serious translation, imposing the greatest demands upon the reader.
By way of assistance, however, the translators do provide a list of the principal characters, with notes on their Russian names; a comprehensive set of annotations (twenty-five pages); a historical index of important people and places (fifteen pages); a summary of the content of chapters (ten pages); and, finally, an 1868 preface by Tolstoy himself entitled “A Few Words Apropos of the Book War and Peace,” in which he “states his [own] view” of the work.
The appearance of these three mammoth (and competing) volumes within such a relatively short time attracted considerable critical attention and produced a flurry of articles. Among the most notable of these essays are those by David Remnick and James Wood in The New Yorker: “The Translation Wars” (November 7, 2005) and “Movable Types” (November 26, 2007); Orlando Figes in The New York Review of Books: “Tolstoy’s Real Hero” (November 22, 2007); Mona Simpson in The Atlantic Monthly: “Found in Translation?” (April, 2006); and a host of others with witty and not-so-witty titles, such as “This is not your mother’s Tolstoy” (Austin American-Statesman, January 22, 2006) and “War, no peace in Tolstoy translation spat” (CBC News, October 22, 2007).
So, if Bob Blaisdell, the author of our epigraph, is correct in asserting that “all unhappy readers grow confused over which translations to select,” is there any way to clear up their confusion and provide a little guidance? My own answer to that question would be a resounding “Maybe!” As a Slavist who has been reflecting on and translating Russian novels for the past half century or so, I’ll try to do my best to suggest which of the available English translations of War and Peace is to be preferred, recognizing, of course, that every reader has a right to maintain his or her own particular preference. Some who discovered Russian literature through the eyes of Constance Garnett can only be happy reading it through her eyes, and to them, all other translations seem too contemporary or artificial. Others prefer the Maudes, feeling that their proximity in time to Tolstoy and their friendship with him, not to mention their two translations of the novel in its entirety, are deserving of our gratitude, loyalty, and trust.
In order to arrive at a recommendation about which version of War and Peace might be judged the best, I have chosen to compare four translations: two older ones, and two newer ones. (Bromfield’s version has been excluded for two reasons: first, and most important, it isn’t a complete text of the novel; and second, the scene I have chosen to analyze is absent from Tolstoy’s early drafts.) The two older translations are those that have been most revered by scholars and readers in the past, until the moment that the latest versions appeared: namely, those by Louise and Aylmer Maude (1933) and Ann Dunnigan (1968). The two new versions are of course the ones by Briggs and Pevear-Volokhonsky.
Given the inordinate length of Tolstoy’s novel in any language, it would not be desirable or in any way even possible to compare the full texts of each of the four versions. The total number of pages would add up to over six thousand, in addition to the sixteen hundred or so pages of the original Russian text.
Under the circumstances, anyone attempting an assessment of this kind is compelled to rely on some sort of sampling method. There are an endless number imaginable, some more justifiable than others. For present purposes, I’ve decided to adopt an approach from Tom Roberts, a former student of mine, who is currently completing work at Stanford on “epiphanies” in Russian fiction. To put this notion in perspective, I’ll begin by noting how Morris Beja defines the term in his study Epiphany in the Modern Novel: “A sudden spiritual manifestation, whether from some object, scene, event, or memorable phase of the mind—the manifestation being out of proportion to the significance or strictly logical relevance of whatever produces it.” Modern fiction (especially Russian literature) abounds in such moments. Every novel by Dostoevsky, from Crime and Punishment to The Brothers Karamazov, contains one or more of these transformative experiences, undergone by one or more of the protagonists, as they make their way (more or less) toward spiritual enlightenment. These moments of insight or illumination are always sudden and extremely intense, typically spiritual, mysterious, never rational or intellectual, and often occasioned by something seemingly insignificant—for example, a casual phrase overheard or a brief conversation.
In War and Peace, it is, of course, the two main protagonists, Andrei Bolkonsky and Pierre Bezukhov, who experience the most significant epiphanic moments and who are transformed by them, if not immediately, then gradually, over the course of the novel. As a way of comparing and evaluating these four English renderings of Tolstoy’s work, I want to focus on one extended scene of epiphany: it is an event in Vol. iv, Pt. One, Ch. 12. The time is August 1812: news of the Russian defeat at Borodino has arrived; Moscow has been abandoned; Pierre has been arrested as an incendiary while wandering among the charred ruins of the city; he is interrogated and sentenced to death. He is led out to be shot and witnesses the execution of five men, but then he is unexpectedly pardoned. At this point he goes to join other prisoners of war and there encounters the simple peasant foot soldier Platon Karataev.
The scene opens as follows:
After the execution [of the five prisoners], they [the French] separated Pierre from the other accused men and left him alone in a small, ruined, and befouled church.
Pierre is isolated and in shock; in the ensuing narrative Tolstoy emphasizes his protagonist’s total lack of understanding of everything that is happening around him. In fact, forms of the verb “understand” (ponimát’/poimát’) are repeated three times, and close synonyms twice more (soobrazhát’ and bessmýslenny). The point is that Pierre’s intellect is totally incapable of comprehending the meaning of the events that have taken place: his incarceration, the executions, even the unexpected pardon. Tolstoy’s syntax (repeating negated forms of the verbs) emphasizes this non-understanding. The Maudes use the verb “understand” three times, but soften the negation, substituting “without understanding” (twice) and inserting the emphatic forms “did not understand” and “did not consider.” Ann Dunnigan uses the same substitution (“without understanding”), and then negates the nouns rather than the verbs: “drew no inference” and “had no notion.” So much for the established older versions.
Briggs’s version defies explanation: the single most important verb in the passage (“understand”) is missing entirely, and as a result there is only the slightest hint of negation: “without taking in a word of this,” “without the slightest idea,” “inconclusive,” “he had no idea what they meant.”
Pevear and Volokhonsky come to the rescue: they preserve both Tolstoy’s semantic and syntactic repetition. “Not understanding . . . not understanding . . . not understanding. . . . ” He did “not draw any conclusion. . . . ” The use of the present gerund (or verbal adverb), employed just as Tolstoy employs it, combined with its negation, places the necessary emphasis on Pierre’s lack of understanding, the absence of any rational capacity on his part to deal with such life-and-death matters.
This repeated insistence is followed almost immediately by a brief but critical thematic statement that serves to explain the protagonist’s total loss of faith:
. . . Pierre witnessed this terrible murder committed
by people who didn’t want to do it. . . . In him, although he did
not acknowledge it to himself, his faith in the orderliness [blagoustróistvo]
of the world [or universe], and in the human [soul], and in his own soul,
and in God, was destroyed. (literal
The declaration is simple and all-encompassing: Pierre has lost his faith in God, in order, in humanity, and in himself. The Maudes pluralize murder, as if counting the bodies, and generalize from “world” to “universe.” Dunnigan finds “terrible” too tame and opts for “horrifying.” Briggs strains for originality and resorts to “grisly murder,” suggesting something particularly gruesome on the order of Jack the Ripper. Moreover, instead of choosing language that calls attention to the “destroying” of Pierre’s faith in the order of the “universe,” Briggs says his faith was “undermined”—quite a different idea, since this means “to erode gradually, to wear away the foundations.” But the author suggests no such gradual development: Tolstoy insists that these dramatic events act at once to “destroy” Pierre’s faith. Suddenly, epiphanically. P-V restore Tolstoy’s simple good sense:
. . . Pierre saw this horrible murder. . . . Though he did not account for it to himself, his faith in the world’s good order, in humanity’s and in his own soul, and in God, was destroyed.
The most original example of the importance of Tolstoy’s syntactic repetition occurs in the next two paragraphs. Here the author is characterizing Pierre’s sense of dislocation, and he uses five indefinite pronouns in rapid succession (and several more soon afterwards) to portray his comprehensive confusion: the other men were interested in “something” about him; they were telling him “something” and asking him about “something”; he was led “somewhere”; he heard “some” voices, and so on. Pierre still doesn’t have a clue as to where he is, who is around him, what’s being said, or what’s going to happen next.
How do the translators cope with the author’s repetition? Most of them reduce what they perceive as tedious redundancy by eliminating one or more of the pronouns. Briggs overdoes it and omits three out of the five. Only P-V retain all five, conveying the bleak sense of desolation that Pierre experiences in this spiritual limbo.
When we come to the characterization of the all-important Platon Karataev, we perceive that Tolstoy insists on three essential, defining traits: Platon’s “roundness,” his “femininity,” and his store of folk wisdom. Translators have to cope with all three and attempt to convey the essence of this character’s nature to help explain his enormous impact on the hero. It is his lively speech, seemingly insignificant and offhand, that ultimately provokes Pierre’s epiphany and sets him on the road to rebirth, resurrection, and spiritual salvation.
Our first glimpse of Karataev finds him busily engaged in unwinding and coiling the strips or strings that fasten his leg-bands. Tolstoy’s key phrases describe the “circular movements” [krúglye dvizhéniya] of his winding and coiling, the circular embrace of his raised knees. The passage concludes:
Pierre felt something pleasant, soothing, and rounded [krúgloe] in these deft movements, in this orderliness in his little corner, even in the smell of this man. . . .
So while Pierre’s faith in God’s universe and in a harmonious cosmos had been “destroyed” and replaced by pervasive chaos and confusion, here, right in front of his eyes and nose, he is suddenly confronted by a living example of wholeness, of an intact “cosmos”—of “orderliness” [blagoustróistvo], the precise word repeated, but this time applied on the immediate, local level. Platon’s “roundness,” embodied in various circular movements and gestures, is seen as all-encompassing, enfolding, re-ordering, reassuring—and this foreshadows Pierre’s strange and wonderful dream of the pulsating globe that he will see immediately after Karataev’s death and just before the hero’s rescue by the Russian Cossacks from French captivity.
The Maudes translate krugloe as “circular” and then “well-rounded”; the latter phrase now seems too much like the self-promotional jargon of an aspiring applicant to an elite liberal arts college. Dunnigan prefers “complete” and thereby sacrifices the real meaning. Briggs anglicizes the peasant Karataev into someone who’s “neat and tidy,” though he keeps the epithet “rounded.” Again, P-V seem to manage the job best: Karataev’s are “rounded movements,” and he places his arms “around his raised knees”; witnessing this, Pierre finds something “pleasant, soothing, and rounded” in his movements. Indeed, P-V not only preserve this essential characteristic, but even heighten its intensity by using “around his knees” instead of settling for a verb like “embrace” or “clasp.”
The second trait that Tolstoy insists on is Karataev’s essential “femininity”—his kindness, tenderness, and loving generosity. In Russian this quality can be suggested in numerous ways, through the use of affectionate diminutives, euphonic epithets, and feminine nouns usually associated with women. Tolstoy uses all of these linguistic devices and endows the simple peasant foot soldier with the attributes of motherliness that once again “enfold” Pierre in a reassuring world and help him to reestablish order in his own universe. Most of the translators manage to render these traits adequately, calling attention to his kindness, simplicity, and concern, and to his singsong voice.
But when Karataev expresses his views in the idiom of the Russian folk, the abilities of the translators are tested, and they reveal their true worth. When Platon tries to relieve Pierre’s grief after the execution of the five soldiers, he says, “E, sokólnik, ne tuzhí”—literally, “Hey, little falcon, don’t [you] grieve.” The falcon [sókol] is a strong, positive image in Russian folklore, almost always paired with the epithet “bright” and usually depicted as smart, swift, and heroic. In fact, Karataev later acknowledges that “little falcon” [sokólnik] is his own nickname in the regiment. The verb “tuzhít’?” is often used in folk contexts and means to grieve, to feel sorrow deeply, alone and in silence.
And how do our four translations deal with Karataev’s form of folk speech? The Maudes say, “Eh, lad, don’t fret.” “Fret” suggests that one is giving oneself up to feelings of irritation, resentful discontent, regret, worry. Dunnigan’s rendering doesn’t seem much better: “Eh, don’t fret, dear man.” Briggs: “There you are, sweetie, don’t you worry.” (No comment.) And P-V: “Ah, don’t grieve, little falcon.” Though not perfect, I think this is the best that English can do.
There are numerous other examples we might consider, but let one more suffice, arguably Karataev’s most profound and influential pronouncement. Pierre interrogates him about how he is experiencing the captivity, the fall of Moscow, the military defeats. Platon replies with stoic acceptance: “Ne náshim umóm, a bózh’im sudóm”—literally, “Not by our intelligence, but by God’s judgment.” (This phrase originates in Thomas à Kempis’s devotional work, The Imitation of Christ .) Of course the word “intelligence” takes us back to the theme of understanding and intellectual comprehension. Karataev offers a folk saying that captures an age-old theme in Russian culture and in Tolstoy’s worldview. Man, history, the world, the universe—everything comes under God’s provenance. It is not as we humans decide, determine, or describe, that things occur: it is according to God’s will. It is this single, simple phrase that turns Pierre on a kopeck, as it were, and succeeds in heading him down the right road. But before we follow him down that path, let us look at the ways in which our translators attempt to cope with this pearl of folk wisdom.
The Maudes go for the literal meaning, without the slightest hint of folklore: “I say things happen not as we plan but as God judges.” Dunnigan does much better, providing a rhyme and preserving Tolstoy’s syntax by the addition of a conjunction: “Man proposes, but God disposes.” Briggs keeps the “but,” but opts for an odd rhyme that falls flat: “We’re at large, but God’s in charge.” In this instance, P-V’s version proves to be not quite as good as Dunnigan’s: they eliminate Tolstoy’s conjunction and trust to syntactic parallelism: “Man proposes, God disposes.” It’s short and catchy, but the omission of the “but” eliminates an important nuance.
Finally, we turn to the resolution of Pierre’s epiphany: the moment of illumination that comes as a result of his encounter with Platon Karataev. As the hero lies awake that night listening to the peasant’s regular snoring, Tolstoy writes:
. . . and he [Pierre] felt that the previously destroyed world was now rising up in his soul with new beauty, on some new and unshakable foundations.
The Maudes write that the “world that had been shattered was once more stirring in his soul.” Both verbs are inaccurate, as is the temporal adverb. Dunnigan has a curious verb and an unnecessary conjunction: “the world . . . was beginning to rise again . . . but with a new beauty.” Her “rise again” strikes me as too marked; she inserts the wrong adverb, and the conjunction is a problem. Briggs inserts several words and alters the syntax: “he could feel his ruined world rising up again in his soul with a new kind of beauty, and its new foundations were unshakable.” In the end, it seems to me that P-V strikes just the right note, preserving the meaning, syntax, and crucial repetition: “He felt that the previously destroyed world was now arising in his soul with a new beauty, on some new and unshakable foundations.”
The verb “destroyed” captures and recalls the annihilation of Pierre’s world that is described earlier in the encounter with Platon; the adverb “now” is the correct adverb for what is occurring at that moment; “arising” is the best way to represent the welling up of Pierre’s new feelings—not too religious, yet suggestive of some spiritual transformation. And the qualification “some” manages to convey the vague contours of this new faith in order and cosmos.
To summarize this brief comparison of the new versions available with the two most popular of the classic renditions of Tolstoy’s commanding work: the Maudes’ translation is generally serviceable, but it contains occasional errors and numerous examples of passages where they altered or “improved on” the style of the original. Dunnigan’s version seems too derivative from the Maudes, even to the point of repeating some of their most egregious errors, and she offers very little in the way of significant improvement. Bromfield, as indicated earlier, does not figure in this assessment because Pierre’s epiphanic enlightenment is absent from this so-called “original version.” Briggs’s language comes across as far too “British” for American readers; he adds unneeded qualifiers, strains for original synonyms that distort Tolstoy’s meaning, and ignores certain repetitions that have essential thematic significance. Pevear and Volokhonsky manage to preserve most of Tolstoy’s stylistic originality, both semantic and syntactic. Their efforts convey a much closer equivalent in English to the experience of reading War and Peace in the original.
It was the great translator of the classics, Robert Fitzgerald, who stated in a postscript to his translation of Homer’s Odyssey:
If you can grasp the situation and action rendered by the Greek poem, every line of it . . . and if you will not betray Homer with prose or poor verse, you may hope to make an equivalent that he himself would not disavow.
Tolstoy’s War and Peace has often been put in a league with Homer’s epic poems; in the end, it seems to me that the same might be said for Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation of his great novel.