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.
When War and Peace was first published, much of it was in French. Tolstoy virtually “translated” those passages into Russian for his 1873 edition. (That edition represented the book’s fourth life in print; it came out initially in installments, and in book form it was originally a thirty-eight-chapter work titled 1805.) In fact, French was used so widely in the first edition that a renowned Soviet linguist called it a bilingual work.
And yet, if it is a bilingual novel (it certainly is a novel about a bilingual culture), the previous translations don’t convey that as definitely and easily as this one does. Briggs has developed a swingy, natural way of describing how characters go from French to Russian, depending on the circumstances, and he comments on the tone of their French, using the quality of their language as another way of suggesting qualities of character.
That being said, I still prefer the Maudes’ translation. But either way, Tolstoy is one of the most translation-proof writers, because his originality lies not in language (at least not for the reader in English; in all the available translations it’s fairly standard), nor in theme (he sticks to the big-ticket eternals: Life, Death, Love), but in character and in the intricacy and contrapuntal symmetry of his plots.
Characters in fiction are said to be “real” and “life-like” when they contain many contradictory qualities but still cohere. Of course, most writers understand that the variety of contradictory detail in even a particularly boring human being, transposed to the page, would fail to be believable as that of one person. Like Austen (and unlike George Eliot or Proust), Tolstoy writes fairy tales, but his have jagged, realistic endings. His irony is fonder; he likes people more than Austen does. Girls whom Austen and Eliot would render as twits emerge in Tolstoy’s work as full, complex characters, even with the abundant evidence of their spoiled immaturity.