How do the different translations (into English, French, etc.) of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy either supplement or detract from the meaning of the original text in the Russian language?

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Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel of the Russian experience of the Napoleonic wars is arguably the most well known literary work every produced in Russia. Despite its tremendous size, War and Peace was soon translated into many other languages, such as French. Depending on whether one considers abridged versions as translations, there are ten or more English versions. Three English translations have appeared in the twenty-first century alone.

Abridged translated versions have appeared in English since the 1880s. The first English edition was published in 1886; however, translator Clara Bell based it on the 1879 French translation rather than the Russian original. The 1899 version, titled The Physiology of War, was an adaptation, as translator Huntington Smith severely abridged as well as reorganized it.

For many years, the two standard English-language editions were the translations by Constance Garnett, 1904, and by Louise and Aylmer Maude, 1922. Despite its pivotal role in bringing Tolstoy to English-language readers and its enduring popularity among them, Russian writers—notably Vladimir Nabokov—often derided the Garrett version as both unreliable and badly written. The Maudes actually worked with Tolstoy, and he endorsed their work; they translated into English all the French parts that Tolstoy himself included.

The year 2007 brought a “duel” between two editions. One English edition, translated by Andrew Bromfield, challenged the traditional approach by using one of Tolstoy’s earlier versions, which was considerably shorter but was derided by some critics as being a mere draft or the "lite" version. The publishers promoted it as having a “different feel” and being more readable, while critics have called it more of a “literary curiosity” for Russian literature specialists. The same year, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, two experienced translators of numerous other Russian works, were responsible for another edition of the longer, more typically read text. This edition retains much of Tolstoy’s French text and offers the remainder in footnotes.

The 2014 translation by Anthony Briggs has received considerable attention for his approach to updating the language and his success in remaining faithful to Tolstoy’s use of language. The use of vernacular, including possibly anachronistic idioms, by soldiers and other non-elite characters is one feature that has drawn comment.

In sum, the diverse translations of War and Peace are as much products of their historical era as Tolstoy was of his, and one’s preference for a specific version may be affected by numerous tastes and preconceptions (as well as knowledge of Russian).

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