This is the fourteenth Reading the World 2008 title we’re covering. Write-ups of the other titles can be found here. And information about the Reading the World program—a special collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote literature in translation throughout the month of June—is available at the official RTW website. There’s also a podcast discussing RTW available from World Books.
I’m really not sure how to write a mini-review of War and Peace. . . I know I’m going out a limb here, but I’m pretty sure most of our readers have heard of this Leo Tolstoy. But in a way, that’s what’s cool about RTW—the mix of contemporary voices and true classics.
What’s amazing to me is how much attention such an enormous, dense retranslation received when it came out last year. Part of the reason was the controversy over the quality of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation, part of it was the New York Times Reading Room discussion. (I remember Karl Pohrt of Shaman Drum Bookshop telling me that it was impossible to keep this edition on the shelf during this book club.)
It didn’t hurt that a second edition of War and Peace “original version” according to the publisher—came out at the same time.
But generally speaking, I think this is a testament to the fact that there is a large group of readers out there who are interested in the classics. They’re interested in reading the “Great Books” regardless of how much they weigh . . .
Richard Pevear puts it best in the opening to his introduction:
War and Peace is the most famous and at the same time the most daunting of Russian novels, as vast as Russia itself and as long to cross from one end to the other. Yet if one makes the journey, the sights seen and the people met on the way mark one’s life forever.
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?
Over the past few weeks, there’s been an ongoing discussion of the new Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace in the NY Times Reading Room.
According to Karl Pohrt at Shaman Drum, this has greatly helped increase the interest in the new edition of W&P, which is great, and demonstrates the power of these type of online reading groups.
In a recent overview post called The Art of Translation, Sam Tanenhaus praised the P&V translation for being both musical and spare, and then asked what others thought—especially in comparison to previous translations.
Well, the comments section is much too long to recount here, but it’s definitely worth checking out. There have always been detractors of P&V, especially since Pevear isn’t fluent in Russia and instead rewrites Volokhonsky’s more literal translations.
When this came up in the comments section, Pevear jumped in with a somewhat testy—and very, very long—response.
About some specifics and our supposed literalism. Bill Keller finds that the expressions “Why so?” and “What’s with you?” are not colloquial English (they “feel like Russian” to him). That surprises me. I’m a tenth generation Yankee and have been using them all my life. Francine Prose finds that our use of “rare people” in the passage on page 1, “grippe was a new word then, used only by rare people,” is infelicitous. Tolstoy, with strong irony, deliberately says “redkimi,” i.e. “rare people,” and not “the elite,” as Ms. Prose would prefer. She may be one of the rare people who has never heard the expression. “Deceive the expectations” sounds more affected than “disappoint,” but consider the tone of the scene and the social position of the participant! To say “it’s simply not English” implies a rather narrow set of standards. And who sets these standards anyway?
These discussions are always interesting, and it seems to me that P&V translations are occasionally brilliant, sometimes pedestrian, but always get people reading and talking about the “Big Russian Books,” which can’t be all bad . . .
Anyway, following this heated, fascinating discussion, Tanenhaus wrote a defense of P&V, which is also quite interesting, and very polemical, although opening a bit brashly:
O.K, gang. No more Mr. Nice Guy Moderator. Today, the gloves come off, which is to say: In re this translation, many of you are — how to put this? — off your rockers.
But ends with Tanenhaus praising the translation’s difficulty:
The upshot is that the P&V translation forces us now and again to wonder about a turn of phrase or even stop in mid-gallop and cast our eyes down the page for help. Frustrating? Maybe. But don’t those delays have the virtue of approximating the interpretive dislocations of life itself, which seldom unfolds as a smooth narrative but instead taunts us with intervals — often prolonged — of utter incomprehension, through which we must think and rethink and puzzle? It seems to me a translation that seeks to capture Tolstoy’s “voice of truth” (in Figes’s words) shouldn’t be grasped too quickly; in fact, we read most profitably if we’re continually adjusting and adapting as we go so as to immerse ourselves more completely in the experience.
What I most like about this exchange is how passionate people are when it comes to the quality of this translation. These comments—especially from the detractors—open up a lot of interesting topics for discussion. It’s just unfortunate that the Tanehaus and Pevear defenses seem like just that—defenses based in a judgment that P&V are absolutely right, infallible, and beyond debate.
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