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Pevear & Volokhonsky's War and Peace Translation Question

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message 1: by Debu (new) - added it

Debu Arr I'm planning to read War and Peace soon, and having shopped around a bit I've seen there are not only lots of different covers to choose from (and I do love book covers), but also several different translations. I've read a few different opinions, and the one I'm most drawn to is the latest one, by Pevear & Volokhonsky.

It seems the best translation for me for several reasons: it's very recent, so will more likely be written in more contemporary English; parts of the book written originally in French remain in French, with English translations in footnotes; and apparently the translators tried to keep the feel of the Russian version.

So I'm sold on this one, but for one possible objection. Can anyone who's read this translation tell me if it's written in American English, or British English? Not meaning to offend anyone, but I detest American English, and reading a book like this with 'gotten' and 'sidewalk' all over will undoubtedly spoil it for me. Oh, and any other comments anyone has on the book, or this translation specifically, would be very welcome too!

Thanks for any help!


message 2: by Debu (new) - added it

Debu Arr Anyone..?

Angus Hi, I've read the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation. It's written in Standard English; I didn't come across words like gotten.

I've also read the first few parts of the translation by Constance Garnett. It's pretty straightforward. The French dialogues were stripped off. The Pevear-Volokhonsky is better; it's more loyal to the original text.

message 4: by Muckle (last edited Jan 26, 2012 09:43AM) (new)

Muckle John I've read the Ann Dunnigan translation, and it's very good; contemporay English, neither distinctly British nor American. Unfortunately, the French is not translated in footnotes, so that was a struggle for me with my rusty high school French.

I read the first couple of chapters of the Garnett translation and it was dreadful. The French is gone -- a big mistake since it's key to the articrats' character -- and the English is stodgy Edwardian British.

I'm looking forward to checking out the Pevear-Volokhonsky version.

message 5: by Greg (last edited Jan 26, 2012 09:59AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Greg I've read both translations - the Garnett and the Pevear-Volokhonsky - and found the latter to be far better. I've read most of their translations and have never been disappointed. They're the Robert Fagles of Russian literature.

message 6: by Mary (new)

Mary It depends on whether you want a more literal translation or a more easily rendered one. I like Constance Garnett (outdated though she may be) because her style of writing seems closer to the time period. Having said that, I've heard that her War and Peace translation is poor and that the Maudes translation is the superior one, and better even than Pevear-Volokhonsky.

As a British-American dual national who did my M.A. in English at a British university, I just have to add that I thoroughly disagree with your bias against American English. I feel quite the opposite. Stylistically I prefer modern American writing. British academic and literary writing can be very circuitous and excessively florid. I find there is an unreasonable bias in favor of British English over American on the European continent. British English is deemed superior, but quite frankly, the standard of spoken British English has broken down considerably in Britain, and the average American speaks a cleaner, more grammatical correct English than their British counterparts. I say this having lived in both places. I find this to be true in writing too. Just an observation.

message 7: by Ron (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ron Irwin I should add that my copy is from the Easton Press...leather bound and a joy to hold. I truly enjotyed reading it and felt like the version I had did justice to the legendary text, When they created this deluxe edition, they used the Maude translation, andi I found it easy to follow.

message 8: by Ron (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ron Irwin here is the link to the Easton Press edition in all its glory


Patrice Pevear is a more accurate translation they tell me. They leave in tons of French, just as Tolstoy wrote it. I found it very annoying, but that may have been Tolstoy's intent.

I gave up and read the Garnett and enjoyed it immensely.
She knew Tolstoy personally.

message 10: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian I really love the Tolstoy translation wars. My understanding is that Garnett brought Russian literature to the English speaking world, but did so with inaccurate translations.

In the group with which I read W&P last year, most people who were exposed to both seemed to prefer the Maude translation over PV. PV ought to be better, with their being a team of Russian and English speakers and greater sensitivity to the speech patterns of the less upper class characters, but the Maudes had a bit more sparkle. Plus PV rendered Denisov's mild speech impediment in a manner that to English speakers was largely incomprehensible.

I think there are some editions of the Maude translation that keep the French. And for what it's worth, the Maudes knew Tolstoy and had some access to him while making their translation.

Caroline Wetherby My (school prize) edition is the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation. I can recommend it as being very readable, although I can't make any informed comment on the accuracy of the translation.

I must agree with Mary's post above. Standards of written and spoken English in England (I can't speak for the rest of the UK) have entered a period of massive change, co-incident with the effective abandoning of grammar being taught in schools. Of course, language does and will change over time, but I worry that many people now learning English as a second or third language speak and write better than many native English speakers. What is change and what is decay?

(PS - I have no problem with UK and US English being different - as long as people realise that they are different!)

T4bsF (Call me Flo) Mary wrote: "It depends on whether you want a more literal translation or a more easily rendered one. I like Constance Garnett (outdated though she may be) because her style of writing seems closer to the time ..."

I partly agree with Mary but although British English may be, in places, "florid and circuitous", I think I would have more faith in the Translation itself. American English may or may not (I haven't formed any opinion on this as yet) be cleaner, and more grammatical-LY correct but phrases like "yeah, he done good" and "what time you got?" really don't do it for me. I also agree that spoken and written British English standards have declined but with so much txt spk and C U l8r around - it was bound to happen. We are now reaping the outcome of the era when spelling didn't matter. When it was just the odd person here and there spelling things wrongly - the rest of us could correct it and know what was meant, but when we're just left with nobody knowing the correct version - that's when communication will break down altogether.

Caroline Wetherby Not sure this is the correct place for saying this, perhaps there is another thread somewhere? I'm not worried about spelling as such. It does change over time, and no-one bothered about consistent spelling in the 16th Century. 'Colour' was spelt 'Color' in ships logs until the late 19th Century. I do worry though when people cannot distinguish between singular and plural usages!

(Mind you - my spelling as always been terrible - so technology has helped me a lot. But I and several of my friends insist on putting apostrophes in text messages!)

message 14: by Bill (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bill I'm an American. Phrases like "Yeah, he done good" and "what time you got?" are not proper American English. It's slangy, uneducated speech, and I know no one who speaks that way.

The notion that is how Tolstoy would be translated ( I read RP translations of both W&P and AK) is bizarre in itself.

Is there no uneducated, slangy speech in Britain?

message 15: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian No mate, there ain't none of that.

message 16: by Bill (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bill Ah.

T4bsF (Call me Flo) Yes it is slangy, not necessarily uneducated, American English and I've heard plenty of it when your ordinary American has been interviewed on television...... and yes, there is an abundance of it here with British English. I don't think it's so much uneducated though - I would call it lazy or colloquial. I didn't think for a minute that Tolstoy would be translated in this way - I was just making an observation on how language in general has deteriorated. I'm on the same bus as Caroline with text messages - commas, full stops, capital letters and of course apostrophe's, all go into my texts. Even the occasional typos annoy me and I try to alter them before sending. Thanks for the giggle in your riposte Ian.

message 18: by Lily (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lily I started with the Garnett, was halfway through when I discovered that she skipped over entire paragraphs if translating them was too difficult (!!!!) and read the second half by Maude. Much better. Someday, I will reread it in P&V. I admit I was a little put off by their... I don't know if arrogance is the right word, and pretension implies they're inauthentic, which is wrong, but they seemed so unflinchingly in love with themselves in interviews that I felt like I would be distracted from the story itself.

I don't think Tolstoi included so much French to be annoying. It was reasonable for him to expect most of his audience to be fluent, and of course, using the language the characters would have used lends a certain je ne se quoi.

message 19: by Patrice (last edited Jun 06, 2013 09:02PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Patrice You made me laugh.

When we were reading it in my class a classmate of mine said she was so annoyed with all of the French. She'd forgotten her college French so she was struggling and frustrated and thought "why don't they just translate it!' That's when it occurred to me that Tolstoy did not think much of the people who spoke French and pretended to be superior, sooo European and sooo not Russian! They were phonies.

You could well be right but the "je ne sait quoi" for me, at least, is that those people are annoying and pretentious and should be speaking their own language!

message 20: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian I think there is a lot to be said for including the French in French, albeit with a footnote/endnote translating it, as it does make the point that a lot of the characters are very alienated from their Russianness. And also lots of rich people back then spoke French all the time.

I seem to remember at least once in the edition I was reading it mentioned in a footnote that one of the French things said by someone was untranslatable gibberish.

message 21: by P. (new)

P. Greg wrote: "I've read both translations - the Garnett and the Pevear-Volokhonsky - and found the latter to be far better. I've read most of their translations and have never been disappointed. They're the Robe..."

Quite the lovely compliment!

Aaron So interesting this discussion, if plumbless.

To translate Russian into English (whether British or American English) is not a thing lightly done.

I have favored the Pevear-Volokhonsky translations simply because of what I see as an emphasis on pure music in the phrase. That, and I figure two heads make for richer translations than do one.

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