A review of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

In the introduction to his translation of Don Quixote, John Rutherford writes that translators are either cavaliers or puritans. Cavaliers translate freely; puritans stress fidelity to the text. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the newest translators of War and Peace, are puritans. They seek to capture "the balance, rhythm, and above all the repetitiveness" of Tolstoy's style. The result is as close to Tolstoy's original as one can get without reading Russian. Anthony Briggs, who translated War and Peace in 2005, is an unabashed cavalier who believes that every generation or two needs to retranslate the classics into contemporary prose. Like Rutherford, Briggs wanted to avoid a "mistaken attitude of reverence for the original artist…[by translators] who can only ever aspire to produce a pale shadow of the original." Briggs aimed for English that occurs naturally in its context and now sounds appropriate, and he produced a fluid, enjoyable, colloquial—and definitely modern—British version. There are now more than 5,500 pages of War and Peace in print in English and at least four translations from which to choose. The appearance of a new translation gives us a chance to revisit and contrast the several versions available.

Pevear and Volokhonsky, an American and Russian married couple, work so closely together that they consider themselves "one translator who has the luck to be a native speaker of two languages." Beginning in 1990 with Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov (awarded a PEN prize for translation), they have translated many works of classic Russian fiction, including all of Dostoyevsky's major novels, Gogol, Chekhov, Bulgakov, and Tolstoy—15 volumes to date, with Tolstoy's short fiction in the works. Their translation of Anna Karenina has sold nearly a million copies.

Pevear and Volokhonsky are prolific, fast, and accurate. They deliberately "undertranslate," considering their work "a dialogue between two languages." They seek "the enrichment of the translator's own language, rather than the imposition of his language on the original." Like Tolstoy himself, they are obsessive wordsmiths, constantly revising, seeking precision. Tolstoy's wife copied out seven drafts of War and Peace. When they were apart, Tolstoy would send her telegrams with word changes. Pevear and Volokhonsky's work habits sound similar. "We work separately at first. Larissa produces a complete draft, following the original almost word by word, with many marginal comments and observations. From that, plus the original Russian, I make my own complete draft. Then we work closely together to arrive at a third draft, on which we make our ‘final' revisions."

* * *

In addition to Pevear-Volokhonsky and Briggs, the Constance Garnett translation from 1904 is available to today's readers, published by Modern Library Classics. Garnett gave English readers their first taste of the Russians, and her fans recount with relish their encounters with her translations, usually several novels devoured in great gulps. This intrepid Englishwoman translated over seventy volumes of Russian prose at the turn of the 20th century, ruining her eyesight but opening the world of the Russians to writers like Hemingway and Faulkner. While most translators agree Garnett was devoted to the text, they criticize her for homogenizing Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, producing what Volokhonsky calls "Tolstoyevsky." "Dostoyevsky is hilarious," says Volokhonsky, "yet heartbreaking at the same time. Garnett left out the hilarity."

Louise and Aylmer Maude translated War and Peace in 1923. An Englishman, Aylmer went to study in Russia in 1874 and lived among the British community in Moscow, becoming director of the Anglo-Russian Carpet Company. The Maudes were disciples of Tolstoy, visiting his estate, Yasnaya Polyana, several times before he died in 1910. Tolstoy authorized Aylmer to write his biography and to translate his works into English. Louise translated much of the fiction, including War and Peace and Resurrection, while Aylmer concentrated on the philosophical treatises, but like Pevear and Volokhonsky, they worked as a team. According to Tolstoy's biographer, Henri Troyat, Tolstoy spoke of Aylmer on his deathbed. Louise and Aylmer lived briefly in the Purleigh Community in Essex, an English utopian commune set up along Tolstoyan principles of universal brotherhood. Their faithful translation, which the Maudes revised in 1933, remains available in a Norton Critical Edition, loved by graduate students for its scholarly essays and bibliography.

Along with these several translations—Pevear-Volokhonsky, Maude, and Briggs—many are still devoted to a Penguin translation by Rosemary Edmonds, since superseded by Briggs. Another edition, translated by Andrew Bromfield, published in 2007 by Ecco, claims to be the original version of War and Peace, never before published. (It appears to be an early draft that Tolstoy discarded.)

* * *

"Language changes," writes Briggs, "and, without worshiping modernity for its own sake, publishers recognize the need to accommodate new readers by using phrasing more closely attuned to their way of speaking." "Tolstoy's literary style has its faults," he adds, "such as undue repetition, grammatical inaccuracy and some sentences of excessive length." The cavalier Briggs provides synonyms to cure the repetitions, breaks up Tolstoy's run-on sentences, and adds modern colloquialisms. In contrast, Pevear and Volokhonsky take the exacting approach. A brief comparison illustrates their differences. War and Peace opens in 1805 with a soirée in Anna Pavlovna Scherer's St. Petersburg drawing room, where courtiers, society matrons, and diplomats discuss Napoleon's latest efforts to dominate Europe. Anna Pavlovna confers with Prince Vassily Kuragin, a man of "high rank and influence," proposing that he marry off his "prodigal son" to an heiress whose father is likely to die soon and leave her very rich. The idea appeals to the prince immensely, but he is far too wily to show his interest.

Briggs renders the scene as follows:

Prince Vasily made no reply, but being quick on the uptake and good at remembering things—qualities that came naturally to the denizens of high society—he gave a slight nod to show that he had noted her comment and was considering it.

Contrast the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation:

Prince Vassily did not reply, though, with the quickness of grasp and memory characteristic of society people, he showed by a nod of the head that he had taken this information into account.

Briggs eases the reader into the world of 19th-century Russian society by making it seem contemporary, but the Pevear-Volokhonsky version will appeal to the reader who wonders what Tolstoy actually wrote and wishes he could go back to the original Russian. No one in 1805 would have said "quick on the uptake." Puritans might agree with Henry James that "easy writing makes hard reading." Pevear and Volokhonsky think that updating Tolstoy's language in this way binds him to a specific time and place, while they set him clearly in the 19th century.

War and Peace has the luxury of leisure. It unfolds slowly over eight years with an epilogue seven years later. The family saga of births, proposals, marriages, and deaths takes place during the Napoleonic Wars, with scenes of descriptive power. Interspersed with meditations on history and historical happenings, Tolstoy describes a wolf hunt, a sleigh ride, a Masonic initiation, three major battles and numerous skirmishes, a peasant meal, a nobleman's feast, a comet's appearance, an audience with Napoleon, a duel, life at court, life in the country, life in the regiment, each scene a "small stylistic moment of fresh perception."

* * *

Narrative and rhetorical techniques hold the novel together. According to Pevear, "Tolstoy once boasted that in writingWar and Peace he had used every rhetorical device of the old Latin grammarians, which means they are not there by chance." Accordingly, Pevear and Volokhonsky keep Tolstoy's piled-up clauses, endless sentences, and interplay of Russian and French. They reject the search for synonyms that sends other translators to the thesaurus, instead capturing the cadence of Tolstoy's prose by repeating his phrases over and over.

Compare their translation with those of Maude, Garnett, and Briggs. First, Pevear-Volokhonsky:

At the beginning of winter, Prince Nikolai Andreich Bolkonsky came to Moscow with his daughter. Because of his past,because of his intelligence and originality, and especially because of the weakening just then of the raptures over the reign of Alexander I, and because of the anti-French and patriotic tendencies which reigned at that time in Moscow, Prince Nikolai Andreich at once became an object of special deference among the Muscovites and the center of Moscow opposition to the government. [Emphasis added.]


At the beginning of winter Prince Nicholas Bolkonsky and his daughter moved to Moscow. At that time enthusiasm for the Emperor Alexander's regime had weakened, and a patriotic and anti-French tendency prevailed there, and this together with his past and his intellect and his originality, at once made Prince Nicholas Bolkonsky an object of particular respect to the Muscovites, and the center of the Moscow opposition to the government.


At the beginning of the winter Prince Nikolay Andreitch Bolkonsky and his daughter moved to Moscow. His past, his intellect and originality, and still more the falling off at about that time of the popular enthusiasm for the rule of the Tsar Alexander and the anti-French and patriotic sentiments then prevailing at Moscow, all contributed to make Prince Nikolay Andreitch at once an object of peculiar veneration and the centre of the Moscow opposition to the government.


At the beginning of the winter old Prince Bolkonsky and his daughter moved to Moscow. He had become an object of special veneration in Moscow because of his past achievements, his powerful intellect and unusual character, and this, together with the current decline in the popularity of Tsar Alexander's regime, which coincided with a surge in anti-French sentiment and Russian patriotism, now made him the natural centre of opposition to the government.

All four translations get the point across, and each has its strengths. Pevear-Volokhonsky, by keeping Tolstoy's clauses intact, are the most accurate. They give equal weight to the four reasons why Prince Bolkonsky has become suddenly popular in Moscow: his past military exploits; his eccentricities, now considered originality; disenchantment with Tsar Alexander; and the new mood of Russian patriotism in the capital. Garnett achieves close to the same effect by the phrase "all contributed to make Prince Nikolay Andreitch…an object of peculiar veneration." Pevear and Volokhonsky call him "an object of special deference"; Maude, "an object of particular respect"; and Briggs, "an object of special veneration." Briggs adds words to make the paragraph clearer, calling Prince Nikolai Andreich Bolkonsky the "old Prince Bolkonsky," to distinguish him from his son Andrey and to avoid using the prince's name and patronymic, a problem that flummoxes so many first-time readers in English.

What should a translator do with the French that makes up 2% of War and Peace? Tolstoy himself was ambivalent, putting it in, taking it out in a later edition, and finally restoring it. Most Russian readers in Tolstoy's day would have understood French and caught the irony of a Russian aristocracy speaking and writing French among themselves, even as they were fighting a war with France. Tolstoy offers some amusing moments when a Russian heiress, as a patriotic gesture, institutes a game of forfeits for every French word spoken in conversation. But English readers have never had the same widespread fluency in French, and most translators remove it. Garnett, the Maudes, and Briggs translate it into English, sometimes losing a nuance. For example, after a long stay in the country, Natasha Rostov goes to the Moscow opera. Tolstoy's heroine is emblematic of everything beautiful in the Russian nature, as Orlando Figes has shown in Natasha's Dance (2003). When Natasha loses her bearings at the opera, she starts speaking French, signifying not just a linguistic but a moral change, as the influence of aristocratic society starts to corrupt her. Translating the French makes unquestionably for a smoother, uninterrupted, narrative flow, but at a cost of subtlety. Pevear and Volokhonsky, the most faithful to Tolstoy's original intent, retain all of the French with footnoted translations.

* * *

Because War and Peace is so grounded in fact, following "the vast movement of men first from west to east and then from east to west," any edition that does not include maps does the reader a disservice. Tolstoy researched the battles in War and Peace extensively, poring over French and Russian maps and plans, reading memoirs, and, almost finished with the novel in summer 1867, spending two days at Borodino studying the terrain. He drew his own detailed map of the battlefield, versions of which are included in Maude and Briggs. They also contain maps of the major battles, Napoleon's campaign in and out of Russia, and of the City of Moscow in 1812. The reader simply cannot get the full benefit of the three battles—Schongraben, Austerlitz, and Borodino—without the sense of place that Tolstoy wanted to supply his readers. A central part of the novel takes place at Bald Hills, the Bolkonsky estate located outside Smolensk, on the very road that Napoleon's troops took to Moscow. The Pevear-Volokhonsky translation has no maps, a shortcoming that should be remedied in a future printing. But Pevear and Volokhonsky have created an extensive historical index of nearly 200 names—from the well-known Alexander I, emperor of Russia during the Napoleonic Wars, to the obscure Prince Zubov, the last of Catherine the Great's lovers.

Tolstoy's fictional and real characters fight in the three main battles. Nikolai Rostov enlists in 1805 and is tested at Schongraben; Andrei Bolkonsky is wounded the same year at Austerlitz; and seven years later, Pierre Bezukhov, Tolstoy's questing hero, wanders straight into the battle of Borodino. When Pierre stumbles around the battlefield, getting in everyone's way, it is clear that Tolstoy is describing a real location. The barrow that Pierre went up on was that famous place (later known to the Russians as the battery of the barrow, or the Raevsky battery, and to the French as la grande redoutela fatale redoutela redoute du centre) around which tens of thousands of men were brought down, and which the French considered the most important point of the position.

My copy of the Maude translation was published in 1942 by Simon & Schuster for a reprint series called Inner Sanctum Books for Victory. Appearing at the height of the Second World War, it contains a map of Europe showing Napoleon's invasion and retreat from Russia—overlaid with a nearly identical map of Hitler's assault in 1941-42, a dramatic reminder of the importance of geography.

* * *

Tolstoy's views of "men, war, and history and their interrelationships" are often criticized. His theory of history—that there is no theory of history, no grand strategy, and no great men, only events "fortuitous and unforeseen by either side"—will be debated as long as people read War and Peace. In his introduction to it, Aylmer Maude, who loved Tolstoy, quotes E.M. Forster's soaring vision of the novel's achievement:

Why is War and Peace not depressing? Probably because it has expanded over space as well as time, and the sense of space, until it terrifies us, is exhilarating and leaves behind it an effect like music. After one has read War and Peace for a bit, great chords begin to sound…they come from the immense area of Russia over which episodes and characters have been scattered, from the sum total of bridges, frozen rivers, forests, roads, gardens, fields, which accumulate grandeur and sonority after we have passed them.

Each of these translations allows the reader to experience the grandeur of War and Peace. One is tempted to agree with a young woman, Mary Landon Baker, who told the Maudes, "I should like to live my life over again, in order to have once again the pleasure of reading War and Peace for the first time!"