Top critical review
A guide to War & Peace translations
17 September 2017
This is rather a comparison of various translations of War & Peace than a review. Tolstoy doesn't need reviews or stars. Besides, I have nothing more to say than what has already been said. I first read War & Peace as a child, and loved it so much that I never missed any chance to read a different translation. After reading P&V translation recently, I felt the need to share my experience of reading various translations with those who are lost in choosing them.
1] Translation by CONSTANCE GARNETT
Always the best choice for Victorian classics lovers, Constance Garnett has now become a punch-bag for critics, because she moved smoothly around phrases difficult to translate. But, having read 5 translations of W&P, I can say with authority that everyone missed what Garnett missed and no one missed what Garnett didn’t, and, Garnett being more romantic than pedantic is definitely the most delicately beautiful of all translations. The superiority of Garnett in masterfully handling Tolstoy’s majestic vision is distinct and tangible in the innumerable interludes where she pours pure magic like no others do, leaving everyone else far behind in faithfully representing the emotional and spiritual quintessence -the heart and soul- of War & Peace. Its old English might pose some initial difficulty for a few. But it will not be a concern after the initial chapters. Miss Garnett for the doubt of ‘missing’ something, you might really miss something.
This translation is available with BARNES & NOBLE [Paperback], MODERN LIBRARY [Paperback, Hardcover, perhaps the most revised & updated version], DOVER THRIFT [Paperback], and MASTER'S COLLECTIONS [Paperback].
2] Translation by LOUISE MAUDE & AYLMER MAUDE
Tolstoy himself regarded Louis-Aylmer as the best translators of his works. They knew Tolstoy personally and are the only translators to seek his guidance in translating W&P. Need to say more? It is universally recognised as the most academically accurate and equally readable translation. The language is more modern than Garnett's, not as modern as Briggs or P&V, and flows uninterrupted. Unlike Garnett, it retains the French parts [almost 5% of dialogues in original War & Peace] as they are, providing translation in footnotes. So be sure to get a properly annotated edition. Some readers prefer the Inner Sanctum edition, but I found Oxford’s edition more legible as it is more revised and updated compared to other editions of Maude.
This translation is available with EVERYMAN'S LIBRARY [Hardcover], WORDSWORTH CLASSICS [paperback], OXFORD [Paperback, eBook, Hardcover] and NORTON CRITICAL EDITIONS [Paperback].
3] Translation by ANTHONY BRIGGS
Published in 2005, it is the most modern, yet, the most ancient of all contemporary translations. Scoring next to Garnett, Briggs’s translation in contemporary British English is very much absorbing and definitely the most satisfying for those who are not very familiar with old English. Forget the critics who attack Anthony for making Russian soldiers speak working-class slang. That is the only flaw of this translation if you could call it ‘flaw’ and you won’t find that in every page. In fact, it goes unnoticed once you are inside the magnetic field of Anthony’s words. Pick it; you will not be dissatisfied in second or third round, even in a fourth one.
This translation is available with PENGUIN CLASSICS [Paperback, Clothbound Hardcover, eBook] and PENGUIN DELUXE EDITIONS. [Paperback]
4] Translation by ANN DUNNIGAN
This 1968 translation is the best choice for those who prefer American English. Dunnigan along with Louise-Aylmer have been the favourites of avid W&P readers for decades. The language is lucid and flowing. Though most of the French from the original has been translated, it lacks footnotes for the parts left. It is not an issue if you don't mind reading casual remarks, exclamations and characters greeting each other in French. I don’t think it is satisfying beyond casual, one time reading.
This translation is available with SIGNET CLASSICS. [one horrible paperback]
5] Translation by RICHARD PEVEAR & LARISSA VOLOKHONSKY
Though published only in 2007, this is perhaps the most famous translation today. And it is that hype which made me read it and write this. Besides marketing, P&V is known for their dedication in providing word-to-word translations. Larissa, who is Russian but not fluent in English, translates Russian to English; then Richard who is not fluent in Russian corrects her English. If neither of them is fluent in both languages, how theirs is a trustworthy translation is beyond my understanding.
As for their War & Peace translation, it reads from beginning to end more like Maude translation disfigured by pedantry, producing a clunky and distant feeling compared to the four above. By concentrating more in reproducing word-by-word accuracy of the original, it ends up compromising the aesthetic quality and readability, making it suitable only for academic purposes. Tolstoy is said to be deliberately unconventional and repetitive. That is the beauty of Russian, but strictly following it need not produce the same effect in English. It makes sentences to not run smoothly and the prose not engaging. This distinction is very clear [like kabab mein haddi] in the ‘peace’ section. Besides, character descriptions in P&V can be misleading. For example, when Sonya writes Nikolai to release him from their engagement, P&V say about her "an unusual feeling of tenderness", whereas Anthony Briggs says "a rare feeling of agitation" – quite opposite descriptions. Sonya comes across as a solemn character, not a heartless one like P&V shows! And when it comes to Prince Andrei, P&V is a nightmare in episodes. That doesn't mean P&V is a bad translation. It is not as articulate or expressive as Garnett or Maude or Briggs in telling the Russian story in English.
This translation is available with VINTAGE CLASSICS and VINTAGE CLASSIC RUSSIANS SERIES. [Both paperbacks]
These are the five translations I have read. There are seven more in English if my knowledge is true. I do not know Russian. Still, I’ve read enough to observe that no translation is 100% faithful to the original. Every translation has its flaws. Every translation serves a definite purpose and it is better than others in fulfilling that purpose. You must choose according to your taste. I value the essence and vision of a book more and I am ready to overlook minor errors for the positive impact it could deliver to my thinking. Hence I like Constance Garnett the most, though I am of the opinion that Louise-Aylmer Maude is more authentic, while Anthony Briggs is a shade more readable than Maude.
If you like reading Austen/Brontes/Dickens/Eliot and value aesthetic quality more, pick Constance Garnett.
For academic purposes, go for Louise-Aylmer Maude.
If you are a first time reader who prefers a clean modern rendering, choose Anthony Briggs.
If you are confused between Anthony Briggs and P&V for all the P&V hype, always get Anthony. Readability and understandability never hurt anyone. And both come under same price-range.
Finally, if you are dedicated in learning Russian through W&P, get P&V along with an English-to-Russian dictionary.
If you are planning to re-read, be sure to read what you’ve not read.
And always depend upon your own conscience more than my words. My experience is never yours.