For many, Anna Karenina, first published in 1878, is the world’s greatest novel, and maybe the most loved. William Faulkner described it as “the best ever written,” and the same judgment was made in a 2007 Time poll of 125 contemporary authors. Yet most of us read it not in Tolstoy’s language, but our own.

The first English version appeared in 1886, the work of the American editor Nathan Haskell Dole, who translated all twenty volumes of Tolstoy’s works: those books have rarely been republished. The next, by the heralded English bluestocking Constance Garnett, arrived in 1901. Nabokov claimed that all Garnett’s attempts were “dry and flat, and always unbearably demure,” and that her many translations made their authors sound the same. At least Garnett actually got to meet Tolstoy (who died in 1910), by which time another translation had appeared, by Leo Wiener, a Boston professor. Then came one by Louise and Aylmer Maude, in 1918. Maude and his wife had met Tolstoy and became his friends during the years they lived in Russia; Louise went over the text line by line with the author. Tolstoy knew English and took great interest in how his work would appear, although he waived his rights over translation, encouraging an open season for new versions of his work.

So they have continued—Rosemary Edmonds in 1954, David Magarshack in 1961, a much-improved edition of Garnett refined by Leonard J. Kent and Nina Berberova in 1965, Margaret Wettlin in 1978 (“steady but uninspired, [it] sounds like English prose written by a Russian who knows the language but is not completely at home in it,” wrote one critic), the American historian Joel Carmichael in 1984, the married couple Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky in 2001, and Kyril Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes in 2008.

None of these versions is without merit, although mysteriously they can vary by nearly a hundred pages in length. Each (although you will believe me when I say that I have not read all thirteen) has been criticized—for being too literal or for taking liberties with the original; for being flat, dated, or tin-eared; for missing irony or nuance; or, sometimes, for being plain wrong.

It is not easy rendering Tolstoy into English. His sentences can be long (over a hundred words) and cumbersome, with those words in an odd order—something the Russian language makes easier to read by its use of inflexion points. Verbs can be left to the end of sentences (thus not surprisingly Russian translates into German with relative ease), while Tolstoy rejoiced in what the critic Dmitry Mirsky has described as “the creation of a new literary language free from the bookish traditions of contemporary literature and based entirely on the language actually spoken.” He not only used constant repetition, with words and phrases repeated in an almost musical way; he changed his mind about characters (this included changing Anna’s name—she was originally Tatyanna Sergeyevna), their physical appearance, even his main themes over the four years of composition. At the same time, his friend Nikolay Strakhov, who helped prepare the serialized text for publication as a book, recalls Tolstoy staunchly defending the smallest revisions. “In spite of all the apparent carelessness and unevenness of his style,” Tolstoy had “thought over every word, every turn of speech no less than the most fastidious poet.” What is the poor translator to do?

One pair of translators at least is no longer poor. Soon after Pevear and Volokhonsky published their version, Oprah Winfrey recommended it for her book club on TV, and sales exploded: Viking-Penguin ordered reprints totaling eight hundred thousand in a single month. In a eulogy in the New Yorker, the magazine’s editor David Remnick dubbed Pevear and Volokhonsky “the best-selling and perhaps the most authoritative translators of Russian prose since Constance Garnett.’”

So why more versions? One answer is that the Pevear/Volokhonsky is far from definitive. It is not even the best available. As I read it, I constantly found myself frowning at word choices, and checking them against other versions. I discovered that the husband-wife team had chosen English words that were less evocative, less appropriate, than rival translations. They don’t use the best Russian text, and their notes to the novel are sometimes flawed. Their technique—she giving a literal version, then her husband, who has never visited Russia and says he has no wish to, supplies the polish—simply isn’t sophisticated enough. (For a detailed critique of their work, Gary Saul Morson’s article, “The Pevearsion of Russian Literature,” [Commentary, July 2010] is well worth searching out. It’s fair, but devastating.) I was reminded of the Mark Twain epigram: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between a lightning bug and the lightning.”


IN COMPARISON, these two new translations of Anna Karenina are both excellent. Rosamund Bartlett is a British academic who has written biographies of Tolstoy and Chekhov as well as works on Wagner and Shostakovich. Marian Schwartz is the American translator of more than sixty Russian books, winning several prizes. I would recommend both. Bartlett’s is the more readable, possibly because her dialogue has a more natural feel. Schwartz’s translation has been judged closer to the original Russian, but often weighed down with detail as a result.

Generally, the differences are small. Take, for instance, the moment of Anna’s suicide. (I am presuming that no spoiler alert is needed, but a 1927 movie adaptation called Love, starring Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, had two different endings—the one for American audiences having Karenin die, and Anna survive, to be happily reunited with Vronsky.) Here is Bartlett’s translation, just after Anna has thrown herself onto the railway track:

She wanted to get to her feet, hurl herself out of the way, but something huge and inexorable hit her on the head and pulled her along by her back. “Lord, forgive me for everything,” she murmured, feeling the impossibility of struggling. The little peasant was working over the iron, muttering something. And the candle by which she had been reading that book full of anxiety, deceptions, grief, and evil flared up more brightly than at any other time, illuminated for her everything that had previously been in darkness, spluttered, grew dim, and went out for ever.

And here is Marian Schwartz’s version:

She wanted to get up and throw herself back; but something huge and implacable struck her in the head and dragged her down on her back. ‘Lord, forgive me for everything!’ she said, feeling the impossibility of struggle. A little peasant, muttering something, was working on the iron. And the candle by which she had read that book full of alarm, deceit, grief, and evil flared up with a light brighter than ever before, lighted up for her everything covered in darkness, flickered, faded, and was snuffed out for ever.

It is a crucial passage, and both translations are effective, although neither is perfect. Bartlett’s “pulled her along by her back” is unclear (Pevear/Volokhonsky has simply ‘…and dragged over her’), Schwartz’s “lighted” is awkward (why do writers eschew the aorist? “Lit” is so easy), and neither version improves on Garnett’s. She has “merciless” for “inexorable” and “implacable,” which is arguable, but her list of “troubles, falsehoods, sorrow, and evil” is stronger, as possibly is her “quenched” in the final line. Pevear/Volokhonsky use “muzhik” instead of “peasant,” a small piece of translator grandstanding; and their final sentence has “brighter than ever…went out for ever,” an avoidable awkwardness.

Maybe it is a matter of taste. Recently I wanted to quote a passage from the novel for my book How to Write Like Tolstoy, the scene where the thirty-two-year-old Levin tries a second time to propose to Kitty, writing his proposal on a blackboard, but using only the first letters of the sentence in which he asks whether she is now free to marry him. I first read this scene when I was twenty, have re-read it many times since, and still wonder at its effect on me. How could a combination of words on a page—translated words—so take over my inner world? Later, I discovered that the chalk game was a retelling of Tolstoy’s real-life proposal to Sonia Behrs. In the Bartlett version, the passage ends:

She glanced at him with a steady smile.

“I have understood,” she said in a whisper.

Schwartz renders it:

She looked at him with an unswerving smile.

“I understand,” she whispered.

Tolstoy’s actual sentence for how Kitty responds is “Я поняла, - шепотом сказала она.” Some translators have Kitty murmuring, or even—like the peasant in the earlier passage—muttering. Neither seems fitting. I opted for “‘I understand,’ she said in a low voice,” which I thought was more romantic and brought to mind Lear’s words about Cordelia, “Her voice was ever soft / Gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman.” Was that going too far? And what is too far? To mutter is bormotat, which seems definitely wrong. Strictly speaking, “she whispered” is not accurate either, because of the adverbial ending om on shyopot, which means “to whisper,” but the difference is negligible. Throughout I prefer Bartlett, although it is a close call, and overall the laurels still go to the amended Garnett, Victorian attitudes and all.


IN HIS DELIGHTFUL book about translation, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, David Bellos makes the point that “the variability of translations is incontrovertible evidence of the limitless flexibility of human minds.” He also remarks how, while in English we pretty well have one word for this process, the Japanese have shoyaku, a first translation; kaiyaku, a retranslation; shin’yaku, a new translation that replaces an older one; mei-yaku, a “celebrated translation”; a setsuyaku, a clumsy translation; and on and on through words that define a supervised translation, a co-translation, a direct translation, one that is a word-for-word translation, or even choyaku, a version that is even better than the original.

For nine years I edited the novels of Jeffrey Archer, and was pleased and surprised to learn that in Japan, so good are his translators, that he is considered a literary writer. Isaac Bashevis Singer offered one of his works to Saul Bellow to translate, then stopped giving him any more, as he thought the plaudits would go to Bellow and not to him. Perhaps it is enough to acknowledge, as Rosamund Bartlett does in an independent essay, that “translators will keep ascending the towering peaks of world literature, just as there will continue to be assaults on Everest,” and that there will be further versions of Anna Karenina yet.

Or almost enough. Just as many of the great novels of the world come to us in translation, it is good to remember that so does our most revered work of all—the Bible. The King James Version may be the ultimate choyaku, and it is in that book’s Preface that we read:

Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtaine, that we may looke into the most Holy place; that remooveth the cover of the well, that wee may come by the water, even as Jacob rolled away the stone from the mouth of the well.... Reade this, I pray thee.

Richard Cohen is the author of By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and Olympic Champions (Modern Library) and Chasing the Sun: The Epic Story of the Star That Gives Us Life. His new book, How To Write like Tolstoy, is due out next May from Random House.

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Published in the March 11, 2016 issue: View Contents
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