Time with Tolstoy

By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  November 28, 2007

There’s no holy grail of War and Peace translation. Pevear and Volokhonsky do get us closer to Tolstoy’s Russian than any other version has. But the real merit of any new translation is often the rethinking it prompts about the original — here, for starters, James Wood’s “Movable Types: How War and Peace Works” essay in the November 26 New Yorker. And in the end, what you get out of War and Peace depends not on which translation you choose but on how thoughtfully you read it.

Side by side
Here is the “comet” sentence, from the last paragraph of volume two of War and Peace, in six different translations — but how different are they?

tolstoy_1904CONSTANCE GARNETT (1904)
Almost in the centre of it above the Prechistensky Boulevard, surrounded on all sides by stars, but distinguished from all by its nearness to the earth, its white light and long, upturned tail, shone the huge, brilliant comet of 1812; the comet which betokened, it was said, all manner of horrors and the end of the world.
tolstoy_22LOUISE AND AYLMER MAUDE (1922-’23)
Almost in the center of it, above the Prechistenka Boulevard, surrounded and sprinkled on all sides by stars but distinguished from them all by its nearness to the earth, its white light, and its long uplifted tail, shone the enormous and brilliant comet of 1812 — the comet which was said to portend all kinds of woes and the end of the world.
tolstoy_edmondsROSEMARY EDMONDS (1957-’78)
Almost in the center of this sky, over Prichistensky boulevard, surrounded and convoyed on every side by stars, but distinguished from them all by its nearness to the earth, its white light and its long uplifted tail, shone the huge, brilliant comet of the year 1812 — the comet which was said to portend all kinds of horrors and the end of the world.
war+peace_dunniganANN DUNNIGAN (1968)
Almost in the center of it, above the Prechistensky Boulevard, surrounded and spangled by stars, but distinct from them by its nearness to the earth, with its white light and its long upturned tail, shone the huge, brilliant comet of the year 1812 — the comet that was said to portend all kinds of horrors and the end of the world.
war_peace_briggsANTHONY BRIGGS (2005)
And there in the middle, high above Prechistensky Boulevard, amidst a scattering of stars on every side but catching the eye through its closeness to the earth, its pure white light and the long uplift of its tail, shone the comet, the huge, brilliant comet of 1812, that popular harbinger of untold horrors and the end of the world.
tolstoy_2007PEVEAR/VOLOKHONSKY (2007)
Almost in the middle of that sky, over Prechistensky Boulevard, stood the huge, bright comet of the year 1812 — surrounded, strewn with stars on all sides, but different from them in its closeness to the earth, its white light and long, raised tail — that same comet which presaged, they said, all sorts of horrors and the end of the world.
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  Topics: Books , Lev Tolstoy, Richard Pevear, Larissa Volokhonsky,  More more >
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