Finally I finished War and Peace.
I thought Tolstoy’s epic might take me a few weeks to read. Maybe a month at worst. In the end my struggle endured for many moons.
Though I read the book regularly, I found it difficult to gain momentum. I would sneak in 5 pages here or push through 10 pages there. At no point was I compelled to stay up all night and discover what happens next. I even found myself diving into other novels because Tolstoy couldn’t command my interest.
With many other books I wouldn’t find this unusual, but Tolstoy’s epic is in a class of its own. It’s heralded as one of the greatest novels ever. It should hold its weight even after all these years.
Needless to say I was disappointed.
Lost in Translation
War and Peace is a Russian novel with snippets of French. Because I don’t speak the language of Putin (nyet!), I read one of the many English translations. And therein lies a complication.
Was Tolstoy’s writing the source of my disappointment, or was I merely reading a flat translation?
Without reading another translation (or brushing up on my Russian), I can’t answer this question.
Literary translation is tricky. Not only must the translator communicate the story, he or she must also capture the author’s style and render it into another language. This task only becomes more difficult as the gap between the original and target languages widens. A simple verb in one language may not have a direct parallel in another. An everyday object in one culture will be foreign to readers on another continent.
Translators have to navigate all these issues. And they have to do so while ensuring that the prose still flows.
The Many Voices of War
There are at least 10 different English translations of War and Peace. I researched these various editions and chose the most widespread one, translated by Aylmer and Louise Maude in 1923. It’s generally regarded as the best of the pre-World War II translations.
Having now finished the book, I wonder if I selected the right one.
Should I have read a more vivid modern translation, such as Anthony Briggs’ 2005 edition? There is also the Ann Dunnigan translation, which critics claim best maintains the nuances of Tolstoy’s language. Pevear & Volokhonsky’s recent translation also looks appealing.
Would I have found one of these editions more enjoyable? Without rereading the 1200+ pages of Tolstoy’s classic in a different translator’s voice I have no way of finding out. I can only peruse forum threads on the subject and imagine what might have been.