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War and Peace caught in muddle

Two newly published translations of War and Peace prompt renewed debate over the famed work by Leo Tolstoy.
Reuters | By HT Correspondent, New York
UPDATED ON OCT 22, 2007 07:22 PM IST

One is long, the other is longer. Two newly published translations of

War and Peace

have prompted renewed debate over the famed work by Leo Tolstoy. Translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, whose version of the Leo Tolstoy classic

Anna Karenina

became a critically acclaimed No1 best seller in 2004, are attempting the same magic with the Russian genius's 140-year-old

War and Peace


Their version of the famously long novel, published by Alfred A. Knopf, clocks in at 1,296 pages. But as they seek to repeat the feat they pulled off with

Anna Karenina

, they face a feisty lightweight - a competing translation which weighs it at a clipped 885 pages.

Harper Collins' Ecco imprint calls its new shorter book the

Original Version

, which it says is not abridged, but "real, authentic and new." The Ecco version is by respected British translator Andrew Bromfield and based upon a newly discovered early draft of the masterpiece about Russian society during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s.

"It's not the same book," Pevear said in an interview during the nationwide publicity tour for his translation. "It's a draft, it has no ending, only a synopsis of the ending. It was never intended for publication. It is only of scholarly interest."

Still, if less is more, the Bromfield version could squeeze some space of its own on bookstore shelves. Its publisher, Daniel Halpern, noted that reviewers have called it "more accessible" and "user friendly."

Pevear believes that the artistic merit of

War and Peace

rests upon its lengthy treatment of weighty topics. "Tolstoy needed the length to do what he was doing - to interweave the common and mundane with history and big historical figures," Pevear said.

Pevear derided attempts to create "idiomatic" versions of classics that rely too heavily on modern language and abridgment. Instead, he and his Russian-speaking wife Volokhonsky, who live together in Paris, use "very precise" translations of the original Russian, more akin to the way a painting might be restored, he said.

"People are not used to thinking of language as an artistic medium - but it is the same as a painting," he said.


The Pevear and Volokhonsky collaboration has won critics over with translations of

Crime and Punishment

and other Russian classics. The

New Yorker

magazine called them "perhaps the premier Russian-to-English translators of the era." Kirkus Reviews called them the "unchallenged A-team of Russian translators."

Still, the arrival of dueling

War and Peace

versions at a time when publishers are desperately seeking shelf space has created a ruckus in the once-staid publishing world. Halpern, publisher of the shorter Ecco version, fired off a public letter accusing Knopf of conducting a media campaign to discredit their translation, and saw a low blow over questioning of whether Tolstoy wanted the version published.

Halpern decried the Knopf effort as "unfortunate, even laughable, posturing swipes." But Halpern himself took a shot at Pevear, saying he may not have understood the nuances in the debate "due to the fact that Mr. Pevear doesn't actually read the Russian," referring to the fact that Pevear is not a Russian speaker.

The debate might not even be taking place were it not for popular daytime show host Oprah Winfrey. Pevear and Volokhonsky's Anna Karenina shot to No 1 on US best-seller lists after landing on Oprah's list.

More than 900,000 copies were printed, compared with the 20,000 or so that a literary translation of a classic might expect. Their new status as academic darlings and wealthy literati has meant a national tour for their new Tolstoy book.

But the final word on whether

War and Peace

becomes a big fat best-seller could come down to whether it makes the "Oprah's Books" list like Anna did.

The most recent addition was octogenarian Gabriel Garcia Marquez's

Love in the Time of Cholera

, which hit best-seller lists this fall more than 20 years after its initial publication.

The next Oprah selection is announced November 14.

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