Books April 2006

Found in Translation?

A new version of War and Peace seeks naturalism through slang— a questionable tack with a book whose originality is not its language

As for soldiers, it is a question of taste whether you would prefer a Russian general in Austria in 1805 to be looking for excuses to “blow his top,” as Briggs portrays him, or would just as soon have your general wishing to find “a further excuse for wrath,” as Louise and Aylmer Maude delicately put it.

Here is an exchange at the front, presumably among the “lower orders” (italics mine):

“Who was it said Kutuzov’s blind in one eye?”
“Well, he is. Blind as they come.”
Nay, boys, he’s got better eyes than you. Soon spotted our boots and leg-bands, didn’t he?”
“Listen, mate, when he looked at my legs … I says to myself …”
And what about that Austrian bloke with him—looked like they’d chalked him all over. White as flour. I bet they strips him down and cleans him like we does the guns.”


“Wasn’t it great when them Germans gave us a lift in their carts! Got a move on then, didn’t we?”
“But listen, boys, the folks round here be a weird lot. Up to now it’s been all Poles and suchlike, all under the Russian crown, from now on it’s all Germans, me boy.”

You get the drift. Here are the same lines in the Maudes’ translation:

“And they said Kutuzov was blind of one eye?”
“And so he is! Quite blind!”
“No, friend, he is sharper-eyed than you are. Boots and leg bands … he noticed everything …”
“When he looked at my feet, friend … well, thinks I …”
“And that other one with him, the Austrian, looked as if he were smeared with chalk—as white as flour! I suppose they polish him up as they do the guns.”


“Wasn’t it fine when those Germans gave us lifts? You just sit still and are drawn along.”
“And here, friend, the people are quite beggarly. There they all seemed to be Poles—all under the Russian crown—but here they’re all regular Germans.”

It’s certainly true that the Russian troops were unlikely to sound as they do in the Maudes’ dialogue (“Wasn’t it fine …”). And yet, Briggs’s version risks sounding like a child’s pirate movie made by Australians. His penchant for spoken language, I trust, encouraged him to transliterate a German colonel so that the officer’s speech reads like parody (“‘Ze reason vy, my goot sir,’ he said, in his German accent, ‘eez just zat ze Emperor knows zis too’”), reminiscent of “So they call me Concentration Camp Erhardt,” in Ernst Lubitsch’s great To Be or Not to Be.

For what it’s worth, Rosemary Edmonds and the Maudes also transliterated the colonel’s speech, and Edmonds made attempts at bawdiness among the soldiers, albeit tamer ones. Constance Garnett was satisfied to mention that the colonel was speaking with a German accent. I prefer the graceful, more smoothed-out “written” English, but some readers might enjoy the rowdier attempts at dialect. Nonetheless, I find it charmingly hilarious that a translator will work through a 1,358-page book with the hope that the insertion of slang will bring the novel he’s long loved to new mass audiences. It seems a case of the academic who wishes to be writing screenplays.

Novelists usually refine a book through many drafts, often devoting a whole pass to one element; I’ve spent weeks charting the money made and sent home by a single character, and devoted months to tangled chronology. (Tolstoy’s chronology in War and Peace could use a few months of straightening out.) Translations may work this way too; each good one gives us another element of the original, a strand, however fine, that wasn’t visible to us in English before. The strand that Briggs is particularly sensitive to in Tolstoy’s work is the great variety of spoken language within the book.

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Mona Simpson is the author of four novels, including Anywhere But Here and Off Keck Road.

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