It’s no secret that I love War and Peace. I’ve shared the reasons why before, but as a recap: it’s taught me more about life than any other book, it’s beautifully written, and has helped me through anxiety and trauma. A lot of that comes down to the translation I’ve read.
So, what’s the best translation of War and Peace?
The short answer: It depends whether you want a War and Peace that’s easier to read or a translation that’s more faithful to the original. My favourite is the Anthony Briggs: it’s the first translation I read and the one I fell in love with.
Read on for the long answer, comparing four of the best translations of War and Peace…
“If life could write, it would write like Tolstoy.”Isaac Babel
Constance Garnett translation
Garnett’s translation of War and Peace is in the public domain, so it’s the version you’ll probably get if you download a free copy. I don’t think it’s necessarily the one you should read – it’s neither easy-to-read nor precise – but it does have an interesting backstory.
Garnett was largely a self-taught translator and lacked a lot of the dictionaries and resources that would have made translation easier. But she also had the hurdle of losing her eyesight while working on War and Peace. She hired a secretary who would read the Russian text to her aloud, and she would dictate back the English translation.
Garnett published her translation in 1904, working on it while Tolstoy was still alive, and she once travelled to Russia to meet Tolstoy at home.
The translation received a good welcome, including by a young Hemingway, who recalls telling a friend that he could never get through War and Peace—not “until I got the Constance Garnett translation.” However, that was before new translations of War and Peace entered the scene…
Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation
The Pevear and Volokhonsky translation is probably the most marketed translation of War and Peace, especially in the United States (where the husband-and-wife translator duo benefitted from the Oprah effect). The most popular edition of their translation has this beautiful cover:
The Pevear and Volokhonsky translation is a common choice to pick up in bookshops and it is serviceable. But I struggle reading it, and I feel it loses the magic of other translations, like Anthony Briggs’s. Try a sample and see how you get on, but don’t be afraid of switching to other translations if you struggle.
Aylmer and Louise Maude translation
Critics generally say this is the most faithful translation of War and Peace. The Maudes knew Tolstoy well, spent a long time living in Moscow, and spoke impeccable Russian. Tolstoy even gave the Maudes his approval for their translation.
The Maude translation used to be more clunky, and it was criticised for including anglicised character names. However, Oxford World Classics revised their translation in 2010, freshening up the text, re-inserting the Russian names, and restoring the French passages that had been translated.
Here’s the splendid new Oxford World’s Classics edition of the Maude translation, edited by Amy Mandelker:
Anthony Briggs translation
For me, the best translation of War and Peace will always be the Anthony Briggs translation. This is Penguin’s chosen translation, which they switched to from Rosemary Edmonds’s translation.
I’ve compared the Briggs translation to the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation before. The TL;DR…
- The Briggs translation is far less clumsy than the P&V translation
- The Briggs translation is the most beautiful to read
- Whether less faithful to the original or not, I simply enjoy reading the Briggs more
- The Briggs version is a great translation for a first-time reader of War and Peace
If you choose to get a copy of the Anthony Briggs translation of War and Peace, Penguin has a beautiful hardback and clothbound edition.
My older and battered edition of War and Peace is Penguin’s earlier paperback, with a portrait of a Russian princess on the front cover. It’s served me well and I’ll always hang on to it for sentimental reasons, but I’ll need to buy a hardback copy before too long for readability.
With any of the translations on this list, read the first chapter to see how you get on with the writing style before purchasing. If you don’t get on well with it, don’t be discouraged. There might still be a time for you to love Tolstoy yet – you just need to find the right translation.
“The picture of everything that people consider to be their happiness and greatness, their sorrow and their humiliation, is complete. That is what War and Peace is.”From NN Strakhov’s review of War and Peace, Zarya, January 1870.
Read more about War and Peace:
- Tips for Reading War and Peace & Getting Started with Leo Tolstoy
- If You Don’t Know Where to Go in Life, Try Reading War and Peace
- “Works which made an impression”: Leo Tolstoy’s favourite books from each stage of his life
- What Leo Tolstoy Can Teach Us About Overcoming Anxiety