In Preparation

We had a welcome, yet completely unexpected, house-guest spend the past few days with us, so my proposed timeline is already a bit skewed. I have, however, collected some materials in order to ensure that I complete this little project to my own satisfaction.

One thing that bothers me about reading War and Peace is that I must do so in translation. Because I don’t know Russian, it is impossible for me to read the original. I lived in Germany for two years, and from this experience I learned that there are certain ideas and concepts that the English language just cannot or does not encompass. I know this is not an earth-shaking revelation, but for example, a word like Feierabend, or even better, Feierabendgetraenk (alternately, “closing time,” or “the beverage you enjoy to celebrate the end of a workday”) has no English correlate. It may seem mundane, but something as simple as this idea can bring a sense of closure to the day, and when shared with friends, this event, as enunciated with a single word, creates a different mood and mindset for the rest of the evening. Is it possible for an English translation of a foreign concept to provide that same je ne sais quoi? 

As T.S. Eliot said, “It is easier to think in a foreign language than to feel in it….A thought expressed in a different language may be practically the same thought, but a feeling or emotion expressed in a different language is not the same feeling or emotion” (On Poetry and Poets, 1947). If this is true, and I am reading Tolstoy in English translation, then am I doomed to miss out on the “real” feelings and emotions that the text is trying to express? Will the translator’s mediation, in the form of word choice and sentence structure, bias my own reading? How far am I away from the Russian language of 1869? Am I even reading the same story that was originally written?

All of these questions force me to acknowledge the presence of Rumsfeldian “known unknowns.” I know for a fact that there will be ideas from Tolstoy’s novel that are completely lost in translation to me. I also know there will be verbal nuances that I will not grasp, inarticulable chiaroscuro that I will never be able to appreciate. Should these obstacles render me impotent in my attempt to read and enjoy Tolstoy? Should I take the relativistic stance that the Now is the only pertinent point in time, and that the I is the only relevant reader? I can’t answer these questions yet, I suppose I just have to get started and see what happens.

When I first began considering this blog, I owned a copy of War and Peace in one of those Barnes and Noble Library of Essential Writers editions that also has a copy of The Cossacks and Anna Karenina crammed between the covers. It is a nice book to have on the shelf, but for reasons of size, it is not something that I could carry around. Most importantly, it does not indicate who translated the text. Given this deficiency, I began my search for something else.

At the used bookstore, I found an abridged copy of W&P also published by Barnes and Noble, which named the translator as Alexandra Kropotkin–daughter of the famed anarchist Peter Kropotkin. I can assume then that my edition is also edited by Ms. Kropotkin; already owning that version, I elected to keep looking.

I found the the copy for which I was particularly searching, the one translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky, also on the shelf. This version has met with critical acclaim, and the translators seem to have made it their goal to update much of the Russian Literary Canon using their own words. Because of its newness (published in 2007, I believe), this book will provide me with something contemporary to compare with Constance Garnett’s classic Random House Modern Library translation (1904), which I also purchased for a song.

In the end, I now have three versions of W&P, and I can use each translation to get a feel not only for the text and the story, but each translator’s tendency and interpretation. My intention is not do a full-blown comparative analysis of the different translations, but if I find interesting trends within particular translations, it should certainly give me something juicy to share with You.

Now that I have tools at hand, I should be able to begin in earnest.


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