Friday, 17 January 2014

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

Anthony Briggs translation of Tolstoy's War and Peace
My well-worn copy of War and Peace. Apologies to those of you who hate seeing writing in books. 

I really enjoyed sharing the reasons why I enjoyed the Anthony Briggs translation of War and Peace  more than the popular Pevear and Volokhonsky.

However there are a few points I decided to leave for another post, including: side-by-side comparisons of the two translations, an investigation into whether Briggs is actually the translator to blame, and a discussion of the compatibility of War and Peace and e-readers. The last point I'll dedicate a separate post to, but here's a quick look into the first two issues.

A Comparison of the Briggs and Pevear/Volokhonsky Translations

I wish I could speak Russian and read War and Peace in all its original glory, but alas that won't be happening any time soon. However, non-Russian speakers like myself can easily compare translations side-by-side in order to think a little more about the original content and the various ways of interpreting it in English. I know I could bring other translations into the equation, but for this post I'll stick to Briggs and P&V.

Here's one of my favourite parts of War and Peace, found in Part III Chapter III, in which Prince Andrei comes across an oak tree that brings back memories:

What's the best translation of War and Peace?
I'll introduce you to my copy of War and Peace,
translated by the wonderful Anthony Briggs.

Pevear & Volokhonsky

"Yes, here, in this woods, was that oak that I agreed with," thought Price Andrei. "But where is it?" he thought again, looking at the left side of the road, and, not knowing it himself, not recognizing it, he admired the very oak he was looking for. The old oak, quite transformed, spreading out a canopy of juicy, dark greenery, basked, barely swaying, in the rays of the evening sun. Of the gnarled fingers, the scars, the old grief and mistrust-nothing could be seen. Juicy green leaves without branches broke through the stiff, hundred-year-old bark, and it was impossible to believe that this old fellow had produced them. 

Anthony Briggs

'That oak-tree, it was somewhere here in the forest. There was such an affinity between us,' he thought. 'But where was it?' As he wondered, he glanced across left and, unconsciously, without recognising it, began to admire the very tree he was looking for. The old oak was completely transformed, now spreading out a canopy of lush dark foliage and stirring gently as it wallowed in the evening sunshine. No trace now of the gnarled fingers, the scars, the old sadness and misgivings. Succulent young leaves with no twigs had burst straight through the hard bark of a hundred years; it was almost impossible that this old fellow should have grown them.'

I didn't realise that the V&P passage started with a typo when I chose it, I promise. 'In this woods' appears in both my paperback and ebook, but we can hardly blame V&P for a typo. The "oak that I agreed with" is something I have more of an issue with, and it sounds clunky to me in English, particularly compared to Briggs's eloquent use of 'affinity'.

I also find the sentence that starts with 'Of the gnarled fingers' to be confusing and quite odd, especially as the phrase isn't clarified until the end of a very complex sentence. To jump to another point, it's interesting to me that both V&P and Briggs use 'old fellow' here.

Let's look at what follows:

Pevear & Volokhonsky

"Yes, it's the same oak," thought Prince Andrei, and suddenly a causeless springtime feeling of joy and renewal came over him. All the best moments of his life suddenly recalled themselves to him at the same time. Austerlitz with the lofty sky, and the dead, reproachful face of his wife, and Pierre on the ferry, and a girl excited by the beauty of the night, and that night itself, and the moon-all of it suddenly recalled itself to him. "No, life isn't over at the age of thirty-one," Prince Andrei suddenly decided definitively, immutably. 

Anthony Briggs 

'Oh yes, that's the one,' thought the price, spontaneously overwhelmed by one of those surges of delight and renewal that belong to springtime. All the best times in his life came together sharply in his memory. The lofty sky at Austerlitz, the look of reproach on his dead wife's face, Pierre on the ferry and that young girl who had been so enthralled by the night's beauty, the night itself and the moon... suddenly he remembered it all. 'No, life isn't over at thirty-one,' was his instant, final and irrevocable conclusion.

The main part of the V&P translation that bothers me here is "the dead [...] face of his wife" (dead face?), and there's not much about the writing that makes me want to savour it. Alternatively, I really like what Briggs did with the final phrase: "his instant, final and irrevocable conclusion". This seems to me so much more powerful than the rather limp "Andrei decided definitely, immutably".

In fact, I love most of Briggs's writing here: it's so well-written and absorbing to read. There's just one issue: is the readability of the text a good or bad thing?

Is Briggs to blame?

Vladimir Nabokov, in his Lectures on Russian Literature, maintains that “the third, and worst, degree of turpitude” in literary translation, after “obvious errors” and skipping over awkward passages,

is reached when a masterpiece is planished and patted into such a shape, vilely beautified in such a fashion as to conform to the notions and prejudices of a given public. This is a crime, to be punished by the stocks as plagiarists were in the shoebuckle days.

Orlando Figes uses this quote to start off his "Tolstoy's Real Hero" essay, before explaining how Tolstoy is deliberately unconventional in his syntax, repetitive and even clumsy in War and Peace. He then goes on to praise V&P alongside,

all the characteristic idioms, the bumpy syntax, the angularities, and the repetitions that had largely been removed in the interests of “good writing” by Garnett and her followers [...]

V&P is bumpy, I'll give you that, but I'd rather read an absorbing 1300 page book than a jolty one just to say I've read something closer to the original. Well, at least for the first reading. Feel free to disagree.

Let's be grateful for multiple translations

I realise that the Anthony Briggs translation isn't for everyone, and I know many people enjoy the Pevear & Volokhonsky translation very much (some of you even commented on Part I of this post). I'm so glad that there are multiple translations of War and Peace for readers to choose from, as this makes it much more likely that readers will find one they like and wish to reread.

Anthony Briggs's translation is the one for me. Maybe this is because it was the translation I read first; a reading experience I have such fond memories of. The 'Britishisms' and the flowing writing are also reasons why I liked it (you can hate me for this), even if these weren't part of the original and aren't necessarily accurate.

The plot and characters behind War and Peace are what I love most about Tolstoy's masterpiece, and for me Anthony Briggs simply brings them out best.

Do you need to agree with me on this? Not at all. I just think that anyone put off the P&V translation should think about other translations before giving up on War and Peace completely.

To finish up, I still can't get over how V&P think one man may address another as "my gentle".

Pick the right translation and you'll love War and Peace


Brian Joseph said...

This is such an interesting subject Lucy. Lately I have been thinking a lot about translations and even struggling a with choosing translations for various books.

As I mentioned earlier my experience here is the P & V is their translation of The Brother Karamazov. I do remember that in his introductory essay, Richard Pevear noted that Dostoyevsky intentionally wrote that work in a style meant to imitate a fairly inexperienced writer. I have no idea if that is an accurate assessment or not. However, if it is accurate one can see, as you allude to, a translator taking criticism for actually doing a great job of translating somewhat odd prose. On the other had, if such an assumption is false on the part of a translator, it could lead to a very poor translation.

I think all this supports your point. We are very lucky to have all these translations!

Trish said...

Interesting! I have several translations of War and Peace including the P&V one you mention here. In spite of all the positive publicity, I did not find it to be the most enjoyable to read, preferring instead the ebook translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude and an old paperback translated by Ann Dunnigan. Part of the reason I bought a copy of P&V's War and Peace was because I read and LOVED their translation of Anna Karenina and figured it would be the same experience. But the further I got into War and Peace the more I tended toward the other two versions I had at hand. I'm glad to hear of your positive experience with the Briggs translation, for I will now be searching for a copy to add to my collection.

tolstoytherapy said...

Hi Trish, I'm so glad you came across my blog! That's really interesting that you had problems with the P&V too. Funnily enough, I think I enjoyed their translation of Anna Karenina like you. The translation of a book definitely affects the reading experience! If you do get a copy of the Briggs, it would be great to know what you think of it. Happy reading! Lucy.

tolstoytherapy said...

Great comment, thanks Brian! That's definitely food for thought - if only we could all read Russian and compare the original text to the translations! I hope you're well and making lots of time for reading. Lucy.

Marina Sofia said...

Very interesting discussion - thank you for the detailed comparison. I have to admit it's been a while since I read these, so I cannot remember which translation I read - possibly Constance Garnett, which I've always found a bit too English, tame and polite, or Maude. I have to admit that for Dostoevsky I've loved Julius Katzer's translation (published in Russia, so not sure how easily available it has been in the West), but sadly, he never translated War and Peace.

tolstoytherapy said...

Thank you so much, Marina! Translation is such a personal thing, and I find it so interesting how they impact our reading experiences. I definitely know what you mean about Garnett!

I must look into Julius Katzer a little more - thank you for the recommendation! It's a shame he never got round to War and Peace, but I'd love to read his Dostoevsky. I'm so glad you came across my website! said...

I am so glad I came across this post! I have only ever attempted one translation of War and Peace and as it happens it was the V&P. I wanted to quit several times but at that point I was still under the impression that not finishing a book was a character flaw, and I had to know how it turned out, so I soldiered on and finished it. Today when I looked at your side by side passages I was dumbfounded. The Briggs is such a relief. Like pavement after gravel. Springtime after winter. Cashmere after burlap. The P&V felt clunky and awkward and couldn't hold my attention. I had to force my wandering mind back time after time. I told myself I was done with Tolstoy but now I just might re-read War and Peace. I can't even believe I'm saying that, but I'm excited now. Thank-you!

Kristina said...

Thank you so much. I had started out with a print copy of the Dunnigan translation some years ago, and was enjoying it very much, then a few days ago decided to finish it, but on Kindle, where I got the Maude translation, and the Anglicanizing of the names was making me want to poke my eye out with a stick. But of course, Dunnigan isn't available on Kindle. Your side by side comparison has pretty much convinced me to get the V&P version, as it has all of the little idiosyncrasies of prose that I remember from before and from whatever translation of Anna Karinena I cut my Tolstoy teeth on (Maybe V&P, I don't really know). I know you wanted to point out how much you liked Briggs, and I was agreeing with you until I realized you hadn't put Briggs first like I thought, and it was actually the V&P I was relishing. Oops. But very helpful!

Shailendra Mathur said...

I had been obsessing over which translation of W&P to buy. Thanks to your review I decided not to go with P&V. I ordered the Oxford Classic edition of the Maude translation. I had read the Maude translation of Anna Karenina and loved it. I had read the Andrew MacAndrew translation of The Brothers Karamazov and adored it. However, the only P&V translation of a Russian classic that I read - The Master and Margarita seemed to me to be clunky and utterly unreadable. I had to struggle to finish this great novel.

I am glad I found someone else who is not enamoured of P&V