If you’re a mountain climber, it’s still Everest. If you’re a baseball player, it’s the career home-run record. If you translate from the Russian, sooner or later you’ll visit the Colossus: Leo Tolstoy’s enormous masterpiece, whose composition absorbed a decade and whose godlike scope embraces “the intertwining of historical events with the private lives of two very different families of the Russian nobility.”
The words are those of Richard Pevear, who, with his wife Larissa Volokhonsky, has joined the intrepid army of translators including Victorian phenomenon Constance Garrett (who introduced War and Peace to the English-speaking world in 1904) and extending to her countryman Anthony Brigs, whose own new translation appeared to considerable acclaim in 2006.
The credentials Pevear and Volokhonsky bring to their task (lucid English-language versions of classic works of Dostoevsky, Gogol, and Chekhov; a vibrant Anna Karenina in 2001) might well have discouraged rival translators. But not Andrew Bromfield, an accomplished scholar-critic perhaps the best known for translating the fiction of contemporary Russian malcontent author Victor Pelevin.
What’s new about Bromfield’s War and Peace? It reproduces the 1866 text: a leaner version of the novel, written before Tolstoy had conceived the discursive chapters of historical argument that would swell the later full text to nearly 1,500 pages. Interestingly this “first” version was made available to Russian readers only as recently as 2000.
Pevear and Volokhonsky give us the whole animal, and claim for translation the distinction of reproducing fully Tolstoy’s use of foreign languages (particularly French – considered more “elegant” by the aristocracy, even, one infers, after Napoleon was threatening to incinerate their homeland). Inevitably, their version seems ampler, more scrupulously descriptive and analytical. But there are other, subtler differences: for example, in the following account of a wolf hunt, which is a metaphor for the approaching death throes of the old landed aristocracy:
“The wolf was already at the edge of the wood, he paused in his run, turned his grey head awkwardly towards the dogs, in the way someone sick with angina turns his head and, with the same gentle rolling movement, leapt once, then again, and the last thing they saw was his tail disappearing into the wood.” (Bromfield)
“The wolf slowed his flight, turned his big-browed head towards the dogs awkwardly, as if suffering from angina, and, swaying just as softly, leaped once, twice, and, with a wag of his tail, disappeared into the bushes.” (Pevear and Volokhonsky)
One can heartily recommend Bromfield’s translation to readers new to War and Peace, but for a fuller sense of Tolstoy’s comprehensive and commanding artistic mastery, Pevear and Volokhonsky remain unchallenged as the A-team of Russian translators.