For all of my adult years, I have been searching out new-to-me translations of Leo Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace. It’s like a hobby with me, or some odd type of life mission. (Odd, at least, to judge by the faces of people when you tell them such a thing. “Oh,” they most often say. “Really.”)
Reading multiple translations of War and Peace becomes a study in linguistics and a crash course in the power of words. It was deeply interesting to me to discover that each new translation I threw myself at was like reading a whole different book. The choices the translator makes are dreadfully important and you discover how certain word choices can alter a sentence, a paragraph or even whole pages of text.
Here’s another thing that reading War and Peace — a lot — has shown me: any time we trust translators, we are at their mercy. And so, for instance, from reading War and Peace I have deduced that highly religious people who place great confidence in their English language Bible are taking a lot as given. I’m not saying their translations are wrong, mind you. But it does stand to reason. With so much of translation apparently a subjective art, how could anyone ever trust completely in the words they’re served up? Some would call it “faith” I guess. But if they do, they haven’t read a lot of translations of War and Peace. You get over that faith — that trust — real early. It doesn’t take away from the enjoyment of the work, but it lets you dance with the nuance of language and understand just how terrifcally subjective translation is.
So why War and Peace? Why not some other weighty tome? Well for one thing, it’s a very, very long book. I save my new translations for high stress times in my life. Times when a really, really, really long novel can become a sub-plot of my own existence. Times, I guess I should say, when I invite the opportunity of being wrenched out of my own reality for weeks at a time. Fortunately, my life is such that it doesn’t happen often. But when it does? I’m ready with a new-to-me translation of War and Peace.
Here’s another reason: if there’s another more translated non-religious work, I don’t know what it is. You can find many translations of War and Peace because they exist. Not only that, for the most part they’re credible translations: done by a long line of scholars and linguists and other noteworthy wordshifters.
And another still: War and Peace neatly slices off a tasty piece of the human condition. All sorts of things happen in this weighty work. OK, it’s true: with that many trees giving up their lives, something better happen. But, as the title promises, there are healthy chunks of war and peace in Tolstoy’s epic. And the book was written prior to the Revolution, but not eons before. Tolstoy finished the first draft of War and Peace in the early 1860s and poked away at it for many years after that. However, War and Peace was a historic novel: it takes place 60 years before the book was written. And thus you have a semi-romantic look at the Napoleonic war-era — written by an aristocrat, no less. As a forward-thinking resident of the 21st century, you get to see, really, why the Russian Revolution ultimately happened. Tolstoy’s main characters are, for the most part, not nasty people, but they are aristocrats and they act in a way that is in keeping with both their time and Tolstoy’s own: they treat their underlings like so much furniture. Those without status don’t matter at all. Viewed from this inside track, revolution, of one form another, seems inevitable.
And so, at its very best, War and Peace becomes a magic prism with which to view a place in time that has since been altered completely beyond recognition. (Thankfully, really, because — from all accounts — pre-Revolution Russia was not a lot of fun for most people.) The spirit of tsarist Russia is here though, in all its oblivious, beautiful ugliness. Kept intact by an ever-growing phalanx of talented translators.
The latest batch are talented, indeed. Husband and wife team Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have translated some of the most important works of Russian literature over the last couple of decades. For War and Peace, I’m recommending the Vintage paperback edition of their efforts. At over 1200 pages, this is a heavy book, even in paper. If you read in bed sometimes, it is inevitable that you will, at some point, fall asleep while reading this one. It seems just a little safer to do that with the paperback. The hardcover edition, published late in 2007, is quite capable of knocking you out on your way to slumberland.