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Bellos on “War and Peace” as Russian (and French) in English

October 26, 2011

Theophrastus would like to know what David Bellos feels about what Orlando Figes says about War and Peace as translated by Rosemary Edmonds and by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  Bellos cherishes Edmonds’ translation more than any other; but Figes trashes it while calling Pevear’s and Volkhonsky’s translation far better and even “excellent.”  (See Theophrastus’ question for Bellos and his full comment with helpful hyperlinks here.)

We hope Bellos can find the time to respond.  Until then, I’d like to suss out what may have motivated Figes to make disparaging comments about the Edmonds translation in the first place.  And we can review several things that Bellos has written about War and Peace as a Russian – and French – book in English — as both Rosemary Edmonds and the team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have rather differently translated the work by Leo Tolstoy.  We’ll turn again to Is That A Fish In Your Ear?, the wonderful new book on Translation and the Meaning of Everything, by Bellos.

As Theophrastus notes (and quotes from), Orlando Figes reviewed the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace in November 2007.  Figes’ review came out in the New York Review of Books the year after another translation of the novel was published:  the translation by Anthony Briggs, touted by Viking Press as “faithfully reveal[ing] Tolstoy’s art in stirring prose, clearing up ambiguities that have plagued many modern translations.”  Of course, Figes wrote the afterward for Viking publication of the Briggs translation.  And very strangely and curiously the New York Review of Books online review, by Figes, provides an hyperlink not to the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation that Figes is reviewing but to the Briggs translation for which Figes wrote the Afterward.

Understanding these coincidences makes one want to pay attention a little more to what Figes writes about the Briggs when praising the Pevear-Volokhonsky while trashing the Edmonds.  Whew!

Before we get to that, we might also note what Briggs himself had written in the introduction to his translation.  The Briggs translation is the one that Figes wrote the Afterword for, the Briggs-Figes book that the Figes’ review links to despite the review being a review of a different translation altogether.  Hmm!  Michael Katz observes what Briggs wrote:

Most intriguing, Briggs argues that previous versions [of War and Peace] had been done by women of a “particular social and cultural background” (this is not entirely true, of course: consider Nathan Haskell Dole and Leo Wiener), and not only in the rendering of the battle scenes, but even in the dialogue “among soldiers, peasants and all the lower orders,” these “feminine” translations, in Briggs’s view, suffer from an “excess of niceness and exactitude.” Having scrutinized the translations and written about the book for the last forty years, I [Katz] confess that this is not something that I had ever observed, nor am I convinced that the claim is accurate.

One of the “’feminine’ translations” that “women of ‘a particular social and cultural background’” had produced, of course, is one that Briggs wanted his translation to supplant:  namely the one by Rosemary Edmonds. This is important because — when you read what Briggs says in his own introduction of his own Briggs translation — you find some of the things that Figes (who wrote the Afterward for the Briggs) says about the Briggs. Figes — in his review that trashes the Edmonds and praises the Pevear-Volokhonsky — uses the Briggs as the standard, as the translation by which to measure the other two.  And did I already say that curiously and strangely, the Figes review of the Pevear-Volokhonsky hyperlinks to the page of the Briggs (and not to the Pevear-Volokhonsky, and of course not to the Edmonds)?

Before we continue on to look at the perhaps legitimate concerns with the Edmonds translation that Figes expresses, I’d like to fast forward a bit from his review in the New York Review of Books of November 2007 to look at something else.  That something else is the pretend reviews — the trashing reviews — that Orlando Figes wrote in 2008 on amazon to disparage others’ works.  One of the others was Rachel Polonsky, who had written Molotov’s Magic Lantern: A Journey in Russian History, about which Figes wrote: “the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever written.”  The only problem was that Figes had written this as a pseudonymous amazon review, and he had written it in order to help his own book do better.  “It is better to go to Figes’s The Whisperers,” he wrote; then he lied about ever writing it to the point of blaming it on his wife.  Finally he confessed, blaming the whole incident on his depression caused by spending too much time reading and researching about Stalin.  Several news outlets reported the Figes review scandal.  Polonsky had her say.  And, eventually, Figes agreed to pay libel damages to those whose books he’d trashed.  This all happened, of course, after Figes trashed Rosemary Edmonds’ translation of War and Peace while praising (and getting a link to amazon for) the translation he’d written the Afterward for. At the time of Figes’ statements about the Edmonds, I’m not sure anyone was suspecting him of disparaging her work to promote his own. I suspect that now.

So, what was Figes’ perhaps legitimate concern about Rosemary Edmonds?  Well, she “follows Garnett closely.”  And Constance Garnett follows “close to the English sensibility, [which] ensured that her translations would remain for many years the authoritative standard.”  She has “ironed out” all “of Tolstoy’s literary style, in War and Peace in particular, awkward bumps and angularities.”  That’s what he, Figes, says about these two women.  These two, Edmonds and Garnett, are two of those “women of ‘a particular social and cultural background’” that colleague Anthony Briggs had complained about for their “’feminine’ translations” with their “excess of niceness and exactitude.”

Like Theophrastus, I myself have not yet read the Edmonds translation to see all that Briggs and then Figes were complaining about.  Like Michael Katz, I’m not convinced that the Briggs and Figes concern is a legitimate one.

What, then, might David Bellos say?  Well, he’s said he charishes Rosemary Edmonds’ translation of War and Peace and places it among his select favorite translations.

In Is That A Fish In Your Ear?, Bellos suggests that he likes how, in Edmonds’ translation, “Platon Karataev speaks a generic folk dialect of English vaguely indebted to Yorkshire” (page 348).  Bellos is noting Edmond as an “exception” to what most literary translators tend to do in consciously or not producing a rendering that “eradicates regional variation in the source” pushing “written representations of dialectal speech toward the center” (page 194).  For us English readers, Bellos shows this as a potential problem; he gives the following example:

An obvious case of movement toward the center occurs in Charles Baudelaire’s translation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold Bug.” The African American slave in the story, Jupiter, is represented as speaking in this manner: “Dar! dat’s it!—him never plain of notin—but him berry sick for all dat.” Baudelaire doesn’t try to find a dialect of French to fit, he just says what Jupiter means to say in standard French: Ah! Voilà la question!—il ne se plaint jamais de rien, mais il est tout de même malade.

Edmond resists the movement toward the center.  She matches the folk dialect of Russian that Tolstoy gives his Karataev with a different folk dialect of English.  This, then, hardly irons out Tolstoy’s style but rather accentuates it to some degree.

So what of the French in Tolstoy’s Russian novel?  What does Edmonds do with that?  I’m not really sure.  Figes complained this way (but seems to have failed to mention Edmonds explicitly on the point about needing to translate the French somehow):

Most translators have followed Garnett in cutting all but a few words of the French, retaining just enough to give a sense of the bilingual nature of the Russian aristocracy. Briggs cuts the French altogether. Pevear and Volokhonsky are the first and only ones to retain all the French (with translations in footnotes). They are absolutely right. Cutting out the French makes the text much easier to read but it misses an important element of Tolstoy’s irony and meaning in the portrayal of his characters, which relates to a broader discourse—between Tolstoy and his readers—about the relationship between Russia and Europe that runs through the pages of War and Peace. That the diplomat Bilibin, for example, speaks by preference in French and says in Russian “only those words he wanted to underscore contemptuously” marks him out as a well-known cultural stereotype that readers would have easily recognized: the Russian who would rather be French.

Bellos discusses at great length the general issue of translating texts that have two different languages to be translated. With reference to War and Peace specifically, he doesn’t say what Edmonds does, but Bellos does offer this:

Translation is usually thought of as a process involving only L1 and L2, or source and target tongues. But, as we’ve seen, sources typically include smaller or larger amounts of L3, a language that is not either of translation’s traditional twins. When L3 is L2 (as in the case of War and Peace translated into French), it is inevitably rubbed out, but when it is not (in a Swedish translation of Chabon’s novel, for example), it’s not at all obvious how it should be handled. Mind-boggling though they may seem, these problems are not marginal to the way language is commonly used and therefore not irrelevant to translation, either. However convinced we may be that different languages are different things and not to be confused with one another, in practice we never stop muddling them up. The borderline between, say, English and French is more ragged and foggy than grammars and dictionaries would have us believe. “Sayonara, amigo!” may not be an officially English way of saying farewell, but few English speakers have any trouble knowing what it means. [page 201]

And this:

The borderline between translating and rewriting is in fact no more wiggly than the one between source and target language in the case of many extended texts. Tolstoy’s War and Peace is an oft-quoted example of this. In the Russian original, parts of the novel are in French. This reflects the language practice of its characters—Russian aristocrats of the early nineteenth century used French for much of their social and intellectual lives. Indeed, when challenged by a Freemason to speak of his hopes and desires, Pierre Bezukhov found himself unsure of how to answer, “being unaccustomed to speak of abstract matters in Russian.”

Translating War and Peace into French is both impossible and easy. Reproduced without alteration in French, the French speech of Russian aristocrats loses all its meaning as a marker of class, and there is no way of indicating by linguistic means alone that a sentence spoken in French is different from the other sentences that are (by force of translation) in French as well. The title page of the French translation may well say Traduit du russe, but that is only partly true. It is “translated” from French as well. [page 199, my emphases]

What does Bellos say about how Pevear and Volokhonsky handle the Russian differently from the French in their English translation? Bellos does not say directly, but from the following statement, we might infer that he finds their efforts not to be taken with complete seriousness. He writes the following, beginning with a quotation of Pevear himself:

“One subliminal idea I started out with as a translator was to help energize English itself,” Richard Pevear stated in an interview in The New Yorker [David Remnick, “The Translation Wars,” November 7, 2005]. That creative, writerly project rests on a wish to share with readers some of the feelings that Pevear has when reading a Russian novel. He has also often said that he is not a fluent speaker of the language and relies on his partner [Volokhonsky] to provide a basic crib that he then works into a literary version. Something similar may be true of other proponents of awkward and foreign-sounding translation styles. The project of writing translations that do the least “ethnocentric violence” to the original thus runs the risk of dissolving into something different—a representation of the funny ways foreigners speak.

The natural way to represent the foreignness of foreign utterances is to leave them in the original, in whole or in part. This resource is available in all languages and has always been used to some degree in every one of them.

It is not easy to represent the foreignness of foreign languages in complete seriousness. It takes the wit of Chaplin or Celentano to do so for comic effect without causing offense. [pages 58-59]

Bellos has not come right out to say that Pevear’s translation causes readers offense; and yet when mentioning how Pevear translates — by rworking his native speaker partner’s basic crib “into a literary version” — Bellos cites in an endnote his source for learning about Pevear’s method: Gary Saul Morton, who writes an article entitled, rather pejoratively, “The Pevearsion of Russian Literature.” And Bellos notes that Morton “takes a much harsher line” than he does.

Let me make one more observation before bringing this post to a close.  Since Figes mentions Nabokov’s criticisms as the bases for his own claims about the inadequacies of Edmonds’ translation, we may want to pay attention to what Bellos says about Nabokov’s criticisms. What Nabokov says of Russian, of the impossibility of literary translation of Pushkin, Bellos deconstructs brilliantly. (See Chapter TWELVE of Is That A Fish In Your Ear?). Maybe that could be the subject of another post here, eventually. My point is that Figes’ use of Nabokov does not take into account the contradictions of Nabokov on translation.

One gets the sense that the translators are indeed at war over just how War and Peace (Russian and French and Tolstoy’s style and his character’s dialects) might best be translated. It’s a war of words over literary translation theory and literary translation practice.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 26, 2011 4:48 pm

    Interesting stuff. I have a number of initial reactions (both favorable and critical) to this post, but I think I will hold my peace until I have a chance to at least sample (or better yet, read completely) Edmonds’ translation and until I have a chance to read Bellos’ work.

  2. October 26, 2011 6:19 pm

    Thanks for your great questions for David Bellos to prompt the post. Looking forward to hearing your responses when you get to them.

    An reviewer, one Barney Dunn, has made a quick comparison of the first lines of the first and second paragraphs of various English translations of War and Peace. [For the PEVEAR AND VOLOKHONSKY, I’ve supplied the second paragraph line of the because it was missing from the compilation. I’ve also put in bold font the excerpts from the four translations mentioned in the post; you can easily see how the English translators deal with the French that begins the mostly-Russian novel.] Here is reader-reviewer Dunn’s compilation:

    BROMFIELD (2007)

    first paragraph:
    “Eh bien, mon prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now merely estates, the private estates of the Buonaparte family.”

    second paragraph
    “These were the words with which, in July 1805, the renowned Anna…”

    easy to tell because the entire first paragraph is all in french:

    “Eh bien, mon prince, Genes et Lucques ne sont plus que des apanges, de”

    [So spoke, in July 1805, the renowned Anna Pavlovna Scherer, maid of honor and intimate of the empress Maria Feodorovna, greeting the important and high-ranking Prince Vassily, the first to arrive at her soirée.]

    the rest can easily be distinguished by just the first line of the book, but I also compare the first line of the second paragraph to make it even more readily apparent:

    BRIGGS (2005) :

    first paragraph:

    “Well, Prince, Genoa and Lucca are now nothing more than estates taken over by the Buonaparte family. (1)”

    second paragraph:
    “These words were spoken (in French) on evening in July 1805…”


    EDMONDS (1957, revised in 1978):

    “Eh bien, mon prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now no more than private estates of the Bonaparte family.”

    “It was on a July evening in 1805 and the speaker was the well known Anna Pavlovna Scherer, …”

    DUNNIGAN (1968):
    “Eh bien, mon prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now no more than family estates of the Bonapartes,”

    “With these words the renowned Anna Pavlovna Scherer, lady in waiting and confidante to the Empress…”

    MAUDE (1922):

    “Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes.”

    “It was in July, 1805, and the speaker was the well-known Anna Pavlovna Scherer, maid of honor…”

    GARNETT (1904):

    first paragraph:
    “Well, Prince, Genoa and Lucca are now no more than private estates of the Bonaparte family. (1)”

    “These words were uttered in July 1805 by Anna Pavlovna Scherer, a distinguished lady of the court,…”

    WIENER (1904)
    I can offer some words for your comparison that come from Part IX for the volume (it is either III or VII) titled 1864-1869. Opening sentence:

    “Toward the end of the year 1811 the Powers of Western Europe began a more active armament and concentration of their forces, and in 1812 these forces, consisting of millions of people (including those who transported and fed the army), moved from the West to the East, toward the boundaries of Russia, where, since the same year 1811, the Russian forces had been concentrating.”

    DOLE (1898)
    first paragraph:
    “Well, prince, Genoa and Lucca are now nothing more than the apanages, than the private property of the Bonaparte family.”

    “It was on a July evening, 1805, that the famous Anna…”

    CLARA BELL (1885-86)
    first paragraph is totally different:

    “When Russia, already half-conquered, saw the inhabitants of Moscow flying to …”

  3. October 29, 2011 7:25 am

    David Bellos did take time both to read this post and to respond. Here is a link to some of what he says:

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