An essay on translating WAR AND PEACE by Richard Pevear
To many prospective readers Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the most intimidating of literary monuments. It is there, like a vast, unexplored continent, and all sorts of daunting rumors circulate about life in the interior. But once you cross the border, you discover that the world of War and Peace is more familiar and at the same time more surprising than the rumors suggested. That is as true for the translator as it is for the first-time reader.
We spent three years working full-time on the translation, revising it, copy-editing it, proofreading it twice, meaning that each of us read the novel some five times in Russian and in English. Yet even in my final checking of the proofs, I still found myself delighting, laughing, or holding back my tears as I read. An example of this last is the moment near the end when Pierre and Natasha, after all the harrowing experiences they’ve lived through, finally meet again in Princess Marya’s drawing room. Pierre sees that Princess Marya has someone with her, but doesn’t realize who it is. Princess Marya is perplexed.
She again shifted her gaze from Pierre’s face to the face of the lady in the black dress and said:
"Don’t you recognize her?"
Pierre glanced once more at the pale, fine face of the companion, with its dark eyes and strange mouth. Something dear, long forgotten, and more than sweet looked at him from those attentive eyes.
"But no, it can’t be," he thought. "This stern, thin, pale, aged face? It can’t be her. It’s only a reminiscence of that one." But just then Princess Marya said: "Natasha." And the face, with its attentive eyes, with difficulty, with effort, like a rusty door opening – smiled, and from that open door there suddenly breathed and poured out upon Pierre that long-forgotten happiness of which, especially now, he was not even thinking. It breathed out, enveloped, and swallowed him whole. When she smiled, there could no longer be any doubt: it was Natasha, and he loved her.
What makes this passage so moving is not only the drama of the moment itself, but the way Tolstoy has sensed it and captured it in words. It can’t be paraphrased; the translator has to follow as closely as possible the exact sequence and pacing of the words in order to catch the "musical" meaning of the original, which is less apparent than the "literal" meaning, but alone creates the impression Tolstoy intended.
I’ve said "translator," and in a sense our collaboration is so close that the two of us make up one translator who has the luck to be a native speaker of two languages. That situation has its advantages. Translators are always in danger of drifting into the sort of language that is commonly referred to as "smooth," "natural," or, as they now say, "reader friendly," and is really only a tissue of ready-made phrases. When that happens to me, as it sometimes does, Larissa is there to stop me. Where I have my say is in judging the quality of our English text, that is, in drawing the line between a literal and a faithful rendering, which are not at all the same. If the translation does not finally "work" in English, it doesn’t work at all.
I’ll take an example of what that collaboration can produce from Tolstoy’s description of the Russian army crossing the river Enns. After a good deal of confusion, the hussar captain Denisov finally manages to clear the infantry from the bridge and send his cavalry over. As the first riders move onto the bridge, Tolstoy writes: "On the planks of the bridge the transparent sounds of hoofs rang out . . ." The Russian is unmistakable—prozrachnye zvuki "transparent sounds"—and I find its precision breathtaking. It is pure Tolstoy. To my knowledge, it has never been translated into English. What we find in other versions is the "thud" or "clang" of hoofs, and it is likely that I would have done something similar if Larissa had not brought me back to what Tolstoy actually wrote. His prose is full of such moments. Coming upon them and finding words for them in English has been one of the most rewarding aspects of our work.
Here is a very different and rather amusing example of the search for fidelity. Count Ilya Andreich Rostov, Natasha’s father, is giving a banquet in honor of General Bagration. Ordering the menu, he insists that "grebeshki" be put in the "tortue." I assumed that tortue was French turtle soup, but what about grebeshki? The Russian word can mean either "cock’s-combs" or "scallops." Which would you put in a turtle soup? I did research into the uses of cock’s-combs, but with rather unappealing results. I looked at previous translations: one has "scallops" and thinks the soup is a "pie crust"; another has "cock’s-combs" but in a "pasty"; in a third the "cock’s-combs" are in a "soup"; the fourth agrees about the soup, but puts "croutons" in it.
Going by my own taste, I decided to put scallops in the turtle soup. This reading got as far as the first set of page proofs. Just then we met by chance (at a dinner in Paris) a woman who used to run a cooking school. We asked her which it should be. She, too, was puzzled. A few days later we received a long email from her. She had become so intrigued by our question that she went to the French National Library the next day and looked up the history of the culinary use of cock’s-combs. She was happy to inform us that they came into fashion precisely around the time of the Napoleonic wars and were a key ingredient in turtle sauce. Suddenly the whole passage made sense, because the chef replies to the old count’s order: "Three cold sauces, then?" The other translations have "three cold dishes" or "entrees," with no relation to sauces at all. Thanks to Mme. Meunier, we were able to make the correction in the second set of proofs.
But does such a small thing really matter? Well, it certaintly did to Tolstoy. What this seemingly trivial detail reveals is the extraordinary accuracy of his memory, even in the smallest things. Cock’s-combs had gone out of fashion by his time, but he knew where to place them and in what.
Tolstoy’s prose is a rich, fluid, multivoiced artistic medium. There is, for instance, a war between the French and Russian languages in War and Peace that mirrors the war between the French and Russian armies. His play with French and with gallicized Russian is a major element of social satire in the novel’s composition, allowing him the sort of linguistic infiltrations later found in Joyce and Nabokov. This adds a verbal dimension to War and Peace that English readers don’t suspect is there, because previous English translations have eliminated it. But this precocious modernism is never word play for its own sake. It is always moved by passion.
The world of War and Peace envelops you. It is full of uncertainties, surprises, constantly shifting perspectives, but once you enter it you feel that you’re in sure hands. Over it all is that "infinite sky" that Prince Andrei discovers as he lies wounded on the field of Austerlitz. This vast unity that embraces the greatest diversity is the secret, the mystery, of Tolstoy’s art. It presents a great challenge to its translators, as I’ve tried to suggest in a small way.
From the Hardcover edition.
Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is a panorama of Russian life in that active period of history known as the Napoleonic era. The structure of the novel indicates that Tolstoy was not concerned with plot, setting, or even individual people, as such; rather, his purpose was to show that the continuity of life in history is eternal. Each human life has its influence on history, and the developments of youth and age, and war and peace, are so interrelated that in the simplest patterns of social behavior vast implications are recognizable. Tolstoy wanted to present history as it is influenced by every conceivable human force. To do this, he needed to create not a series of simple, well-linked incidents but an evolution of events and personalities. Each character changes and affects others; these others influence yet others, and gradually, imperceptibly, the historical framework of the nation changes.
War and Peace is a moving record of historical progress, and the dual themes of this vast novel—age and youth, war and peace—are shown as simultaneous developments of history. Tolstoy wrote both this novel and Anna Karenina (1875-1877; English translation, 1886), two of the greatest works of fiction in Russian literature, when he was at the height of his powers as a writer. He enjoyed a happy marriage, and he was busy managing his country estate as well as writing. His life had a healthy, even exuberant, balance between physical and intellectual activities. War and Peace, in particular, reflects the passionate and wide-ranging tastes and energies of this period of his life—before domestic strife and profound spiritual conversion led him to turn away from the world as well as from art. The novel is huge in size and scope; it presents a long list of characters and covers a splendid variety of scenes and settings. At the same time, however, it is carefully organized and controlled.
The basic controlling device involves movement between clusters of characters surrounding the major characters Natasha, Kutuzov, Andrey, and Pierre. The second ordering device is thematic and involves Tolstoy’s lifelong investigation of the question, What is natural? This theme is offered in the first chapter at Anna Scherer’s party, where readers encounter the artificiality of St. Petersburg society and meet the two chief seekers of the natural, Andrey and Pierre. Both Andrey and Pierre love Natasha, who is an instinctive embodiment of the natural in particularly Russian terms. Kutuzov is also an embodiment of Russian naturalness; only he can lead the Russian soldiers in a successful war against the French. The Russian character of Tolstoy’s investigation of the natural, or the essential, is the main reason War and Peace is referred to as a national epic. Tolstoy’s characters, however, also represent all people.
Natasha’s group of characters centers on the Rostov family, and the novel is, among many things, a searching study of family life. Count Ilya Rostov, a landowning nobleman, is a sympathetic portrait of a carefree, warmhearted, wealthy man. His wife is somewhat anxious and less generous in spirit, but they are happily married, and the family as a whole is harmonious. Natasha’s brothers and sisters are rendered with great vividness: the passionate, energetic Nikolay; the cold, formal Vera; the youthful Petya; the sweet, compliant Sonya, cousin to Natasha and used by Tolstoy as a foil to her. Natasha herself is bursting with life. She is willful, passionate, proud, humorous, and capable of great growth and change. Like all the major characters, she seeks the natural. She...
(The entire section is 1485 words.)