Lost in Translations

War and Peace" still looms large over the literary landscape, intimidating readers and writers much as it has for the last century and a half. Hemingway, as competitive as he was insecure, playfully talked about getting in the ring with Mr. Tolstoy. Henry James derided "War and Peace" as a "loose, baggy monster." Even Stalin—who never met an author he wasn't afraid to ban, jail or murder—knew better than to forbid Russians from reading "War and Peace." Over its lifetime, the book has become a yardstick for quality—and sometimes just a yardstick. "As long as 'War and Peace' ..." is a comparison understood even by people who have never cracked its covers. Reading it—or finishing it—has become a metaphor for accomplishment, and a funny metaphor at that, best expressed in Philip Roth's sly joke in "Goodbye, Columbus," when the narrator says he could always tell when it was summer because his cousin Doris was reading "War and Peace."

The thing about cultural fixtures is they're supposed to stay fixed. But "War and Peace" never stops surprising us. Currently two publishers are feuding over rival editions of a book that was published—well, the publication date is one of the things they're feuding about. Last month Ecco Press brought out a much shorter version of Tolstoy's masterpiece about Russia during the Napoleonic Wars, translated by Andrew Bromfield. This edition constitutes Tolstoy's first attempt at the novel, which he published in 1866 in a Russian literary magazine. Tolstoy would spend another three years revising and enlarging his initial vision, ultimately producing the much longer novel familiar to modern readers. That is the version being published this month by Knopf and newly translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the couple whose earlier translation of "Anna Karenina" became a best seller when Oprah Winfrey picked it as one of her book-club titles in 2004.

In the months leading up to publication, the two publishers took a few potshots at each other, with Knopf editor LuAnn Walther accusing Ecco of making "a serious mistake." Walther even asked Pevear to draft a response to the Ecco version. Lately both houses have scaled back the rhetoric. Daniel Halpern, Ecco's publisher, settled for saying in a recent interview that "anything that gets Tolstoy into the headlines has to be viewed as good news." Walther refuses to comment further on the fracas. "It's time to let the critics decide," she says. But she does address what is perhaps a more pertinent question for the general reader: why does the world need yet another translation of "War and Peace," and why now? "Because," she says after a long pause, "it's the greatest book ever written, and it's never been done like this before. Because all the previous translations left things out and got things wrong. Because it is a great moment to be reading Tolstoy, because we're at war. And because Richard and Larissa were willing to do it."

OK, an editor has to sell her book, but Walther isn't just blowing smoke. The Ecco edition is fascinating, but it would have been a true boon to scholars and fans of the novel had anyone thought to equip it with a longer introduction and some annotation. Instead, readers are left groping to understand what they are reading: the first draft of what would become "War and Peace." The Knopf edition, in contrast, comes laden with a long introduction by Pevear, heavy annotation, a historical glossary of people and places and a summary of the action. You don't need to read Russian to recognize that of the editions available in English, the Knopf edition is by far the one that most closely resembles literature.

To understand this fight—to grasp why anyone would get this passionate about a book—you're going to have to read it, because describing "War and Peace" to anyone who has never read it is like trying to describe an elephant to an Eskimo. We trot out the usual adjectives: sprawling, epic, historical romance and so on. Those descriptions aren't inaccurate, but neither do they capture the book's mesmerizing essence. What's forbidding about "War and Peace"—its length, its eccentricities (essays in the middle of a novel?), its Russianness—is also what makes it attractive. This enormous novel is like Mount Everest: it creates its own weather. Tolstoy's powers of invention beggar easy description, much less summary. Try imagining a Shakespeare play where, say, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Henry IV are all on the same stage at the same time.

But forget the stage. There is no proscenium arch with Tolstoy. He—and we—are everywhere at once. Birdlike, we peer at the Battle of Borodino, straining to see through the artillery smoke to the field of battle. Moments later we are striding up and down behind the Russian lines with Andrei Bolkonsky, and then a split second later we, like Bolkonsky, are frozen while we watch a spinning cannonball hiss and sputter at his feet. Rank has no privilege in Tolstoy's world. His portrait of Napoleon shows us a strutting fool puffed up with self-importance. But even when he doesn't like a character, the author takes pains to make him human. When we encounter Napoleon on the eve of battle, he is not plotting strategy but inspecting a newly painted portrait of his young son. He cannot sleep, not because he is excited about the coming battle but because he has a head cold.

In the reader's mind, Tolstoy's characters very quickly cease to be "characters." Pierre, Natasha and Andrei are people we know as well as or better than we know our neighbors. The idea that they have no existence outside the pages of the novel is unthinkable. Volokhonsky remembers first reading it when she was about 13. "For me, Natasha Rostova and Andrei Bolkonsky were childhood friends," she said in a recent telephone interview from Paris, where she and Pevear live. To her, the world that Tolstoy created was as real as the Russia outside her doorstep. "And I noticed that my parents and my friends' parents used [the novel] as established truth. They would talk about it as if this is how it is. But when you read Tolstoy, you see that it is not their experience, it is their literary experience."

The miracle is that somehow "War and Peace" has survived all cultural climate changes and continues to find readers—there are at least four different translations currently in print. The irony is that it does this almost in spite of its translators. The best-known was done by Constance Garnett in 1904. Garnett was a woman in a hurry—she translated some 70 Russian books into English—but what she gained in speed, she lost in subtlety. Her version of "War and Peace" isn't bad, but it's not exactly Tolstoy either. It has a sort of one–size-fits-all quality. (Joseph Brodsky, the Nobel Prize-winning Russian poet, said that English-speaking readers couldn't tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky because they'd hadn't been reading their prose, they'd been reading Garnett's.) Only two years ago, a new translation appeared by an Englishman, Anthony Briggs. This version is brisk and efficient—two words no one ever applied to Tolstoy—but the characters, particularly the servants and soldiers from the ranks, talk as if they'd just wandered in from a Dickens novel.

Good translation is something like what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about obscenity: he couldn't define it, but he knew it when he saw it. When you read T. E. Lawrence's translation of the Odyssey or even the fragment of the Aeneid that Seamus Heaney has produced, you see, as if for the first time, the potency of these works. But if agreeing on the criteria for a great translation has proved impossible, that has never stopped people from debating what constitutes a good one, or about whether it is an art or a craft, or about the possibility—or impossibility—of ever truly rendering one language's reality into another tongue. In any case, it is hard not to feel sympathy for Tolstoy's translators, even the bad ones. They have their work cut out for them.

Pevear and Volokhonsky labored for three years on "War and Peace." Besides "Anna Karenina," the couple has translated 14 books by most of the major 19th-century Russian writers, including Dostoevsky, Chekhov and the notoriously difficult Gogol. "They're all hard," Pevear says, but "War and Peace" presented a unique set of challenges. "Other translators have said they find Tolstoy comparatively easy to translate," Pevear says. "If you assume that Tolstoy is not really a stylist and that his work can be paraphrased into smooth English, the task may become comparatively easy. But once you pay close attention to his words, they become as difficult to translate as any."

Pevear points out that Tolstoy constantly uses words and phrases in odd combinations, such as when he describes the "transparent" sound of horses' hooves on a wooden bridge or when he writes that "drops dripped" from the leaves of trees. The temptation is always, when translating, to make things make sense, to smooth things out. But then it isn't Tolstoy. There were as well all the "hunting terms, terms for the specific colors of horses' coats, for the shapes of dogs' paws, for the gait of a wolf being pursued. Russian has its own rich and inventive vocabulary for these things, for which there are often no equivalents in English," Pevear says. Then there was the question of how to handle the slang of soldiers and peasants. "Replacing them with standard Cockney or redneck jargon, as has been done, is a great mistake," he says, "because those 'languages' bring their own worlds with them."

If Pevear and Volokhonsky have an edge as translators, it is that they don't just respect the original but trust it completely. "I said to Richard," Volokhonsky says, " 'Let's translate "War and Peace." We'll be in good hands'." As a result, all the modernity of the book—and it does seem the most modern of almost any classic novel from the 19th century—comes from Tolstoy's outlook on life, not from the language of this translation, which remains blessedly free of any contemporary lingo. "Our reasons for making a new translation have nothing to do with keeping up with the supposed changes in modern English," Pevear says. "Quite the opposite. We go back into Tolstoy's prose as a specific artistic medium; we try to pay the closest attention to his way of using Russian; we want our English version to be more Tolstoyan, not more contemporary. Tolstoy is modern enough as it is. We want, as far as possible, to do in English what he does in Russian."

Fair enough, but Tolstoy has been moving English readers for more than a century, and the translations haven't seemed to matter. Pierre is still Pierre, his belly spilling out of his waistcoat. Andrei is still lying wounded on the battlefield at Austerlitz, staring at the sky as if for the first time. Isn't the story what's most important, and not the particulars of its translation? Pevear will have none of that: "You could tell people what is portrayed in Rembrandt's 'Return of the Prodigal Son' and move them deeply. But the telling would have little to do with the experience of looking at the unique disposition of color, light, space, scale, line, texture, brushwork in Rembrandt's painting, which also happens to depict the return of the prodigal son. It is the same with a work in words. Words have color, shade, tone, texture, rhythm, pacing, disposition, structure; they can quote, echo, parody other words; they can be unexpected, infinitely suggestive, mercurial; they can also beat and repeat like a drum. That is the nature of Tolstoy's artistic medium; his 'story' comes clothed in all these elements of style as he alone used them, and which alone create the impression he wanted to make. Of course he used them 'instinctively,' and not for the sake of effect (though he was a far more conscious and even experimental stylist than is sometimes thought). The translator, on the other hand, has to do consciously what the author did instinctively. And yet it must seem instinctive—that's the final test." To anyone who attempts this latest translation, it will be clear quite quickly that Pevear and Volokhonsky aced that exam.