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

There is a new translation of War and Peace. Why? Even Anthony Briggs, its latest translator, tells us that this novel “has been well served by its several [his word: there have been at least nine] translators into English.” Briggs doesn’t mention Huntington Smith, who in 1899 abridged the novel, divided it into two sections (one for stories, one for essays), and renamed it The Physiology of War. But he does a pretty thorough accounting, singling out Louise and Aylmer Maude as “the masters,” and he quotes Tolstoy’s own assessment of their work: “Better translators … could not be invented.”

So, why do we need another translation?

Briggs’s own answer seems evasive and bizarre. He mentions the obvious clearing up of little anachronisms that we’d expect in the first new translation in nearly forty years (the changing of “gay” when it’s used to mean “merry,” for instance), but then goes on to criticize previous translations for a certain prissiness, which he attributes to the fact that most of the translators were women of a “particular social and cultural background.” He proposes to make the dialogue more naturalistic, especially that among “soldiers, peasants, and all the lower orders.” (Giving the benefit of the doubt, I suppose we can presume Briggs to have had some experience with soldiers. But as for peasants and all the lower orders, one wonders whether he intends his gender or his social class to be the ticket.)

In reading this book, however, one is struck by how far one must go (more than 100 pages) before running into any patch of dialogue involving soldiers or the lower orders. Indeed, not only have the novel’s English-language translators been women of a certain class; the book itself is a novel of a certain class. It is unabashedly concerned with the very oldest Russian families. Perhaps that is one of the secrets of its popularity: phenomenally rich, aristocratic people are always easier to take in translation, in a far-off country, and when long dead. The characters in War and Peace lived 200 years ago— Tolstoy was writing about his grandparents’ generation. He himself came from a family older than the czar’s.

It is a novel replete with the machinations of people trying to divert fortunes to their children, but all the money troubles are those of ancient families struggling to keep the life they’ve always lived, with its balls and name-day sit-down dinners for eighty. (The young characters ride in sleighs between dachas over the legendary Russian snow while their parents stay home worrying about money, as if prosperity, with all its glamour, were a show, presented generation after generation, for the benefit of the children.) There’s not one central character in the book who belongs to the lower orders. (Even the German tutor, a longtime favorite of mine, who so ardently wishes to memorize every course in order to write home to his people recording every dish and every wine served at the Rostovs’ great dinner, can hardly be called a peasant.) The novel has its share of widowed noblewomen in need of money, but their speech can’t be expected to differ from that of their luckier friends, whose husbands are still alive.

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.

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.

Consider the Countess Rostov, whose husband has, by no evil greater than living the big life they were each brought up to expect, run through his family fortune. Austen would have made the woman—who schemes for her son to marry an heiress—a doddering fool. Eliot would have done worse. But Tolstoy first shows us the countess (who has had twelve children) slipping money to her impoverished, widowed childhood friend.

Anna Mikhaylovna’s arms were round her. She was weeping, and the countess wept too. They wept for their friendship, their kindheartedness and the unfortunate need for lifelong friends to soil their hands with anything as sordid as money, and they wept also for their lost youth … But the tears of both women were sweet …

This is our introduction to the woman who later calls her niece, the girl her son loves, a “scheming hussy.” It is a lovely passage, not for any play of language but for its capacious empathy, the narrator’s description of the women’s sorrow skipping, like a well-thrown stone on the surface of a lake, from the emotional burden of charity between old friends to their tearful nostalgia for days gone by. Nabokov (who remembered his father stopping to shake hands with a man and then saying, That was Tolstoy”) ranked him as the greatest Russian writer of prose fiction, though he admitted that he could not really account for the hows and whys of the writer’s genius. “When you read Turgenev, you know you are reading Turgenev,” Nabokov wrote. “When you read Tolstoy, you read just because you cannot stop.”

By Leo Tolstoy, translated by Anthony Briggs

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