logo

War and Peace (again) and the Goal of Translation

I know that E.J. already wrote about James Wood’s review of War and Peace, but in reading the article last night, I had a couple of thoughts that I hope are worth sharing.

In evaluating the new translation, Wood lays out the two basic translation camps:

Literary translators tend to divide into what one could call originalists and activists. The former honor the original text’s quiddities, and strive to reproduce them as accurately as possible in the translated language; the latter are less concerned with literal accuracy than with the transposed musical appeal of the new work. Any decent translator must be a bit of both.

This division can be put a number of ways—those concerned with accuracy vs. readability in English, keeping the text strange vs. smoothing it out, etc. All these dichotomies are a bit lacking and incomplete, but tend to fuel many a discussion about the role of the translator and editor.

Toward the end of the review, Wood draws attention to a particular choice Pevear and Volokhonsky made that I think expands this discussion a bit.

In the novel’s epilogue, Marya enters the nursery: “The children were riding to Moscow on chairs and invited her to come with them.” That is exactly what Tolstoy writes, because he wants us to experience a little shock of readjustment as the adult meets the otherworldliness of childish fantasy. But Garnett, the Maudes, and Briggs all insert an explanatory “playing at,” to make things easier for the adults.

Wood goes on to talk about this “little shock of readjustment” as a key to Tolstoy’s art:

The adjustment of vision forced on us by the condemned man, or even the children riding to Moscow, is related to a technique for which Tolstoy was praised by the Russian formalist critics of the nineteen-twenties and later—estrangement, or the art of making the familiar unfamiliar.

What struck me about this is the fact that in all the accuracy vs. readability discussions, the art of the novel is the thing that always seems to get lost. A great translation is great because the end result is a great work of art—not only because it’s more accurate than previous editions.

Based on this single example, it seems that the P&V translation isn’t just more accurate, but possibly a better representation of the art and craft of Tolstoy’s writing. And phrased this way, I’m much more inclined to want to read their translation than the “smoother” ones . . .

This sounds a bit like a truism—and I’m sure someone will accuse me of being an elitist for praising art for art’s sake—but I think this should be the driving goal of translators and editors: produce the best work of art possible. That goal opens up a few interesting possibilities, such as working with the author and translator to create a work in translation that’s artistically superior to the original. Or making certain choices to smooth in some parts, not in others, in order to improve the entire work as a whole.

Producing great works of art is the point of publishing, right?



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.