Monday, 6 January 2014

On War & Peace: My Problems With The Pevear & Volokhonsky Translation (Part I)

 Pevear & Volokhonsky translation
What are your thoughts on the Pevear and
Volokhonsky translation of Tolstoy's
War and Peace?
I decided about a year ago that I'd like to re-read Tolstoy's War and Peace every summer (this post may help to explain such madness). The first two times I read the almighty tome, I picked up the Anthony Briggs translation that my grandmother gave me for Christmas when I was fifteen years old. And I absolutely loved it.

In the summer of 2012, I read it in twelve days; I couldn't put it down, despite having read it before. 

Fast forward to last summer, when I initially started with the Briggs translation once again. I was thoroughly enjoying it, but I couldn't carry it on my travels (for fears of breaking my back, naturally). 

To remedy a total lack of War and Peace, I downloaded the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation onto my Kindle, settled down to read it at the start of a long train journey across the UK, and turned my Kindle off less than fifteen minutes later. Most uncharacteristically, I spent the rest of the journey mostly staring out the window.

Was it me? Had I grown out of War and Peace, my favourite novel, all of a sudden? Surely not.

I tried continuing with the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation over and over again last summer, after relocating to Spain, but didn't get anywhere. You, my poor readers, may well recall my frequent lamentations about my lack of progress with it.

After starting in August 2013, I had barely made a dent into Part III of Volume I by October, and shortly afterwards I gave it up altogether.

Needless to say, this translation clearly isn't for me. But why? I decided to do some investigating.

Perhaps I didn't enjoy the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation because...

  1. I found the writing awkward. It didn't run smoothly and there were very few passages I felt like underlining, bookmarking or annotating.
  2. Anthony Briggs made it fun to read. I wasn't finding this fun at all. 
  3. It didn't have the same magic or beauty that Briggs conveys.
  4. The 'peace' parts were nowhere near as engaging as Briggs makes them. Where was the exploration of ordinary life that I looked forward to?
  5. The French dialogue is kept, meaning you need to flick back and forth to find out what's going on if you don't speak the language (particularly tricky on a Kindle).
  6. Who on earth addresses a man as "my gentle"?!

I'll clarify here that it's still War and Peace. And many people love the P&V translation. The plot means that it's absorbing and vivid in all translations if you're a fan of Tolstoy. However, the reasons above made it very difficult for me to gain the therapeutic reading experience from the text that I normally do.

Have you read Tolstoy's War and Peace? Do you remember the translator of your edition, or have you tried several? Finally, what memories do you have of your reading experience? 

Hold tight for Part II of this post and I'll look at some side-by-side comparisons of the two translations. I'll also have a think about whether Briggs is actually the translator to blame, as well as if I would have enjoyed it more in paperback.


Mabel said...

This is very interesting! I read about half of the P&V translation and definitely found it choppy. I liked the story, but the writing felt distant. I remember starting the Constance Garnett version of Anna Karenina and immediately feeling more comfortable with the writing. But is the P&V translation closer to the original? (No need to answer! I know you have a second post on this coming. I'm just wondering if pulling to another translation is about Tolstoy or the translator?)

Brian Joseph said...

Very, very interesting commentary on translations.

When I decided to read the The Brothers Karamazov I choose the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation after some research as well reading excerpts from several translations including theirs. One of many factors that swayed me was the fact that Harold Bloom recommended their translation. I actually would not place all that much weight upon his recommendation except for the fact that P and V have been accused of being popular for being really trendy and the “in” thing and much of their popularity has been attributed to that fact. Bloom, who is infamous for criticizing mass popularity and the flavor of
the month as well as being really conservative about this sort of stuff, seemed to negate some of that that criticism.

I loved the book but had nothing to compare it too as I had never read it before.

Rivorniel Tinubelin said...

Oh no! I just ordered P&V translation of War and Peace. I didn't make thorough search regarding translations, I think I found a forum conversation of people saying what they prefer and from it I concluded this must be an okay translation... It will be interesting to see how this goes for me.

But I love your post and looking forward to the second part.

Anna B. said...

That's so interesting. In 2013 I read Anna Karenina in the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation and felt none of the awkwardness or lack of beauty. In fact, there were many passages that I underlined and loved. I have not compared the novel with another translation, but I have seen Tolsoy's work in the hands of other translators. For example, Perennial Classics published a "Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy" by another translator (I can't remember who exactly, it was a difficult name to remember). That was absolutely terrible. Reading the Cossacks in that translation absolutely ruined Tolstoy for me. It was so awkward and confusing. Especially being a Russian speaker, I do not understand how it was possible to translate some of the phrases the way they did!

To me it seems the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation is not the worst out there. I enjoyed it a lot actually. Another note about them is that they do not break up the original paragraph structure or narrative as some other translators do (I can't imagine why anyone thought doing so would be a good idea), and Larissa Volokhonsky being a Russian speaker adds some authenticity to the narrative. Having said that, I guess it just goes to show you that translators often transform a book incredibly and it could come down to personal preference as to which edition you chose, based on the style of writing you prefer to read in English novels.

tolstoytherapy said...

I'm glad you found it interesting, Mabel! The choppiness and distant nature of the writing were leading reasons why I found it difficult to read too. I really should try out the Constance Garnett translation as well - maybe the Briggs is just what I'm used to, rather than the translation I'd like best.

And you're right, in the second post I'm going investigate whether the P&V is closer to the original, making Briggs in fact at fault ;)

tolstoytherapy said...

Give it a go and you may well love it, Riv! Judging by reviews and posts in the book blog world, I seem to be a bit of an anomaly. Saying that, I ended up with the Briggs because I received it as a gift; if I were buying it for the first time I'd probably have chosen the P&V too! It will certainly be interesting to see what you think of it.

tolstoytherapy said...

Hi Claudia,

Thank you so much for the link! I'm pretty sure that I read through the article once before, finding it interesting that their Dostoevsky translations had received criticism too. I absolutely love that scathing comment with the Paradise Lost reference!

Word choice for translations is simply such a complex subject, and I do doubt my ability to write on the subject without knowing Russian. Regardless, I don't quite trust the method of Volokhonsky translating literally and Pevear polishing it up... it doesn't seem like a great way to approach a text as layered as W&P, and I know that if I used a similar method for Spanish translations the results would be awful.

I read the Judson Rosengrant translation of Childhood and rather enjoyed it (and the translator kindly got in touch with me about my post, which was very welcome!) It's annoying that only the Hogarth is in the public domain. Let me know if you do end up reading it though!

tolstoytherapy said...

Thanks Brian! That's interesting that Bloom recommended the P&V translation of Brothers Karamazov; I need to think back to which translation I chose to read, particularly as I remember enjoying it. It's interesting how translation affects our translation experience!

tolstoytherapy said...

Anna, I've just noticed your comment slipped past my attention - apologies!

I'm so glad that you enjoyed the P&V translation - it's always so interesting to hear how different translations appeal to different readers. Also, I must say I envy you being a Russian speaker! It must add so much to your reading experience of Russian literature.

I do agree that it comes down to how you enjoy reading English novels. I feel a bit guilty not responding particularly well to the V&P translation, as it's perhaps closest to the original, but I think my appreciation of the book started with the Briggs translation. In a way I think I've created my own interpretation of W&P in my mind that's very much rooted in the Briggs. I imagine things would be very different if I started with another translation!

Once again, thank you for your comment and bringing up so many interesting points to consider!

James Henderson said...

While I have not read the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation I have read others including those by Constance Garnett and Ann Dunnigan both of which I found adequate. However the best I have read is that by Louise and Aylmer Maude (Norton Classics Edition) which I found the richest and most felicitous for my reading taste. I appreciate your comments about P and V which I will keep in my mind before my next reading of this wonderful novel.

tolstoytherapy said...

The Maude translation often comes up as one of the best, for good reason I think! I feel we're so lucky to have so many translations available of great texts like War and Peace. I do hope I manage to make my way through most of wouldn't surprise me if my views on different translations changes as I get older!