The new translation

Well, this is different.

First of all, of course, it’s significantly heavier than my old paperback. It’s really too heavy to hold comfortably. It has to sit in your lap or on a table. This makes it not very likely that I’ll get a lot of reading done at bedtime. I know, we’ll actually clean off that nice chair in the corner of the bedroom that was meant to be a sitting area rather than a storage zone.

It’s funny, too, that I was expecting, I don’t know, some kind of special binding. This is War & Peace we’re talking about. But it’s just a plain red buckram binding, and I’m not impressed with the cover design or the dust jacket design. That’s just quibbling, however.


The first thing you will notice is that the first page is half in French. Every translation I’ve seen has Anna Pavlovna greeting Prince Vasiliy in French, but then continuing in English. It is a surprise to discover, then, that when Tolstoy says (in my other translation) “she said in French,” he actually wrote it in French. Our translators, like Tolstoy, have translated it for us at the bottom of the page, but I find that makes for bumpy reading. (Cf., The Infinite Jest or House of Leaves)

A little more disturbingly, there are endnotes. I am a compulsive end-note reader, especially if they are explanatory and not just bibliographic citations, and so every time one of those tiny little numbers is perched above a period, I have to struggle not to turn to the back of the book to see what it says. Often it’s stuff I already knew, so that’s doubly frustrating. One ends up reading with two bookmarks in place.

So how is it as a translation? How does it read?

Already I can tell it is less decorous than Ann Dunnigan’s, a little rawer in its descriptions of people and their motivations. The French sets a more complete picture of the rarefied circles of Petersburg and its society’s disjuncture from the Russian language and culture. Pierre is described not as “stout” but quite frankly as a “massive, fat young man,” and continuing descriptions make him sound almost Hagridesque, not quite our romantic hero that other versions try to conjure up. It’s much easier to see/understand Anna Pavlovna’s panic when this uncouth young person begins to argue with one of her star guests.

In the introduction, one of the translators discusses how other translations smooth out Tolstoy’s distinctive repetitiveness, i.e., he’ll use the same word over and over in one paragraph. This trait has already popped up, and the effect is rather startling, because it deliberately draws attention to the scene.

All in all, I think it’s going to be a good read. I’m starting over at the beginning, so you’ll be spared any summaries for a while.

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