Expanding on my passing comment last week, because I have thought a lot about it.

Okay – this one is gonna be weird. I warn you I’m going to go on a little too long, and not about The Elect or Amanda Gorman or whether math is racist, but about Tolstoy! Just this time.

When the lockdown happened, many decided to take the opportunity to master skills, complete tasks, and accomplish milestones long left on the back burner. For me, the lockdown was the occasion to finally read War and Peace, which I had been tacitly pretending to have read for decades. Like many, I had the massive paperback of the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky on my shelf, and looked forward to making my way through it, given what masters this couple have been celebrated as.

And after a while I started to realize that something was wrong.

I was not having the Tolstoy experience I had had with other work of his, such as when I first read Constance Garnett’s Anna Karenina translation and was so engrossed that when someone next to me on a park bench saw what I was reading and said to me “Oh, look, Anna and Vronsky are over there!” I looked up actually expecting to see them because the story was so damned alive.

In contrast, I do not “smell” Natasha and Pierre and Andrei and Marya the way I can still smell even Karenin’s breath. And the reason is that after getting about a quarter of the way into the Pevear and Volokhonsky (henceforth P&V) translation I realized, with great regret, that the problem was them. Such choppy phrasings, such unidiomatic renditions of normal speech -- and often plain hopeless with less educated characters.

I got through the book anyway, but last week I tossed off a comment here about feeling that P&V have been rather arbitrarily overrated as translators. That comment, much to my surprise, has elicited almost as much feedback as the topic I was actually addressing, and I decided to take the occasion to do something I usually will not.

This post will be about their translation of War and Peace, and why I think people seeking to experience this masterwork should not choose it. My being a linguist in no way qualifies my counsel here as authoritative. Linguistics and translation intersect only very slightly, and I have no training in the latter.

Rather, I offer my impressions here as someone who loves the Russian language to pieces, and also as someone with a longstanding concern with issues of making texts accessible across boundaries. We might take this post as of a piece with my sometimes controversial positions on “translating” Shakespeare into modern English and performing opera to Anglophone audiences in English.

It bears mentioning, then, that for whatever it’s worth, I read (although do not speak) Russian well, and more to the point, have run my observations here past a native Russian speaker whose English is excellent-plus and has worked in the past as an interpreter and done translation. That person added insights of their own that I had not caught – and agrees with me that there is a major problem with the lionization of P&V.

* * *

I will use as an example just one page, taken (virtually) at random. It is from the 21st and final chapter of the second part of the first volume of the book, and it is typical of how this translation “feels” throughout, especially when people talk, but quite often just in descriptions. It’s a sequence from one of the “war” parts, with military men on a break wallowing in the privations of life outdoors with low provisions.

P&V seem to pride themselves on sticking close to the original. But the reason so many celebrated translators do not do so as diligently as they do is that languages differ in what means they use to convey concepts. This language conveys something with an adjective while that language needs a phrase for it. This language conveys something with a quiet resonance from a word while that language nails that something with an explicit suffix. This language expresses something which, rendered in that other language, sounds hopelessly affected or insincere and you have to work around it.

P&V just aren’t very good at wangling art from such things. And then surprisingly often, given that Volokhonsky is a native Russian speaker and Pevear is at least along for the ride, P&V miss basic nuances of how Russian even works.

I know I am dealing with well-trodden ground, most memorably, for my money, here. But I have been so struck by this 1200 pages of diligent and relentless awkwardness that I feel moved to devote just one post to my two cents on the matter. There are eight points on one page that throw an Anglophone reader waiting for prose rather than transcription. I shall proceed.

* * *

1. A soldier wanders in and says “I’ve strayed from my company, Your Honor; I don’t know where myself. Worse luck!”

This is supposed to be a very ordinary man in rather desperate circumstances, and yet he sounds unnatural. We can’t grasp him as a real person. It starts with the “I don’t know where myself.”

Myself as opposed to who? If he has wandered away from the company, why would he suppose anyone other than himself would know just where it happened? If he is for some reason imagining that some other infantrymen in his company happened to see him peel off (but for some reason didn’t say anything), then still, why would he be thinking of them here, talking with other men many miles away who have no mental picture of his wandering?

This is, quite simply, a translation mistake. P&V are translating from the word sam, which indeed can mean self in Russian. However, here it is used in a more abstract – but very commonly used – meaning, as “even.” What Tolstoy meant here was the perfectly natural “I don’t even know where.” This clicks with Tolstoy’s general point of how random and aimless actual warfare is -- the guy doesn’t even quite recall at what point he was officially lost from his company.

2. Then P&V have him exclaim “Worse luck!” Um – worse than what? Please know: we just met this man – it’s not as if we have seen him experience some previous bad luck, compared to which this is “worse.” The Russian is simply “Bad luck!” or “Misfortune.” The translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude, often thought of as the most “accurate” one until P&V hit the scene, appropriately have “Such bad luck.” “Worse luck!” is queerly unnatural, almost as if P&V are worried that it would be somehow vulgar – unartistic? – to have this man sound like a normal person.

3. P&V then depict a pair of soldiers fighting over a boot. They have them “pulling some boot from each other.” This follows the grammatical rules of English, but note that it is not only graceless, but we can’t quite parse what it means. Is it that one is trying to pull the boot off of the other one’s foot? Well, no, because that wouldn’t be a matter of “each other.” So we can work out, if we must, that they are engaged in a tug of war over a boot. As in how the Maudes put it: “each trying to snatch from the other a boot they were both holding on to.”

Why do P&V have it as “pulling some boot from each other”? Because it’s as close as you can get to a word-for-word match to how Tolstoy put it in Russian. However, in Russian, “pulling from one another some boot” instantly conveys what is happening, despite that in English, those same words are unidiomatic and even hazy. They are also just plain inaccurate. In Russian, the “from”-ness is indicated not with a preposition but with a prefix on the pull verb, such that the phrase is “from-pulling one another some boot.” However, in Russian the verb for pull alone, if used by itself, implies an ongoing process such as hauling a car out of mud it’s stuck in. The “from” prefix does two things: it indicates the “from”-ness, which P&V understand, but then it also renders the pulling abrupt, indicating not hauling but a smattering of yanks. Here is why the Maudes had it as snatching, the perfect rendition of what these men are doing.

The media machine genuflecting to P&V call this kind of thing a more “accurate” translation. Someone who knows both Russian and English may savor that “pulling some boot from each other” has a Russian “feel.” But that pleasure is unavailable to those who don’t know Russian – i.e. the presumed audience for, well, a translation from Russian! For them, this studied and rather precious accuracy impedes real connection, and in cases like this one even sacrifices accuracy. Yes, translation can never convey every nuance – but the “from-pulling” example is one where the loss of nuance is unnecessary. There is nothing herculean or uniquely elusive about conveying snatch rather than pull.

4. Then there is what one of these snatching guys says. P&V have: “Sure you picked it up! What a quick-fingers!”

But just what is this “Sure” conveying? The Maudes’ “You picked it up? I dare say!” gives away that they worked a hundred years ago, and is unsatisfactory now – but only because language changes over time. They capture the meaning, which today would be more like “So how come you picked it up?” with the implication of “What makes you so special?” P&V’s “Sure” shoots somewhere past this.

Then, the Russian that P&V have as “What a quick-fingers!” is roughly “Ha, snatchy!” Here, a translator needs to be creative, because an English version of how Tolstoy put it is impossible. There is no single adjective in English that doesn’t sound either childish, archaic, or fey. The Maudes give it a college try and come up with “You’re very smart,” which at least preserves the idea of nimbleness in Tolstoy’s word lovok.

But even this was better than “What a quick-fingers!” I’m not sure whether “quick-fingers” has ever been a set term in any dialect of English. But even if it has been, it sounds hopelessly dainty for snarling, semiliterate soldiers mired in suffering. No actor, regardless of chops, could convey it convincingly in a theatrical presentation. Yet P&V give us this character – as in, they are scripting him – sounding too weird and precious to make any sense in the scenario.

Languages can convey the same concept with different parts of speech; or, what one language does with one word another language does with a phrase. A language in India called Boro has a word that means “fat like a baby.” English expresses the same thing, complete with the feeling it evokes, but with a noun, baby fat. That same language has a verb for how you feel when you’ve moved somewhere new and are getting used to it. We have an adjective: we become acclimated. On “quick-fingers,” nobody asked me (and should not have!), but for my money we have to get away from adjectives and nouns. By my reading, what this guy would say in modern English to express what he was feeling would be “Just snatch it, huh?” I do know that “What a quick-fingers!” is not what that man was saying in English as we know it in anything but a strained sense.

5. A soldier soon asks for “Some hot little fire for the infantry!” The Maudes had this as “a nice little hot torch.” True, Tolstoy did not specify an object and stuck to “fire,” used with a suffix that makes it warm and cozy, and hence “hot little fire” in English. But in English, this is awkward.

Here’s why. Do P&V mean fire as a substance? If so, “some hot little fire” sounds weird for the same reason that “some cold little water” would. The “little” sits weirdly in both cases -- idiomatic English would have it as “a little (i.e. bit of) hot fire” or “a little cold water.” Then never mind that we don’t usually need to stress that fire is hot.

And in any case, in English we don’t ask for “fire” – it sounds German, as in the textbook chestnut “Haben Sie Feuer?” for asking someone for a match or a lighter for your cigarette. In a War and Peace where the characters are speaking the English language, they can’t ask for “fire,” but for some burning object -- a torch, or match, or a light.

Say that P&V have made this man speak Russian in English, and I again stress that to the uninitiated – i.e. most readers -- this can only sound like a party trick. A translation where someone ambles over and grins asking for “Some hot little fire” is less accurate than awkward, no more artistic than translating a Thomas Mann character asking someone “Have you fire?” to bum a light.

6. A little later some soldiers are carrying a dead, or dead-ish, man and P&V describe them as disappearing with their “burden.” Yes, noša’s dictionary meaning is burden, but in English, what Tolstoy described with the word for burden translates as load, which noša can also mean depending on context. Burden, given the brute physical experience these men are described as having in hauling this man’s body, is too abstract. Though we know intellectually that burden refers to something weighing one down, note how seldom we actually use it that way, as opposed to in more abstract connotations relating to dependence and emotion. In the physical sense, we tend in this language towards load, which is surely what these worn-out soldiers are experiencing in toting a body.

7. Pretty soon P&V have a soldier calling another one “dear heart.” Of course in English this sounds utterly unthinkable from a man to another man. Tolstoy’s Russian here has golubčik, which technically means “little dove.” P&V wisely avoid just using that, but why something as utterly peculiar and impossible as “dear heart,” which sounds neither “Russian” nor quaint but, if anything, almost homoerotic? (I will assume that P&V did not choose this because a word that sounds like golubčik, goluboj, happens to mean “gay” as in homosexual in Russian.) The Maudes use friend. A little closer would be buddy. But “dear heart”?

P&V might answer that even in Russian, it’s odd to our modern senses that men called each other “little dove,” and that the weirdness of “dear heart” therefore preserves the antique Russianness. But: “little dove” was not weird when those characters would have been alive and/or when Tolstoy created them. To pickle the weirdness for us even when creating a translation here in the twenty-first century is a party trick. What Tolstoy meant was “buddy.”

8. Finally, P&V have Captain Tushin “buttoning his greatcoat and smoothing himself out.”

“Smoothing himself out”? Okay, but it’s yet more language that feels like English rendered through cheesecloth. We can get what that meant, but I ran Tolstoy’s wording by the native Russian speaker I referred to and asked for a spontaneous English version. That version was “He buttoned his coat and pulled it straight.” And that’s just how the Maudes put it.

Given that “pulled it straight” has a crisp snap that complements that Tushin then walks away, what motivates “smoothing himself out”? Tolstoy doesn’t say anything about smoothness per se – he uses a verb that means “to make right, to fix up.” One senses that P&V came up with the smoothing action because of a little something about that “fix up” verb.

Russian, like many European languages, often uses self in ways that don’t make literal sense. English only does this a bit: in behave yourself, you might ask just who else you would exert this behaving upon if not yourself. Perjure yourself and repeat yourself are similar. Russian fairly drips with verbs like these, though – you don’t get angry, you anger yourself; you don’t smile – you smile yourself, and so on.

You also “tidy up yourself,” and it seems that P&V decided that this suggested Tushin exerting some actual action upon himself. Thus he has to daintily “smooth out” his coat, patting himself down, caressing his own person, as opposed to what Tolstoy meant, which was that he gave the coat a crisp yank and strode off, with the fact that this was done to himself needing no more explicit indication than the fact that perjuring operates upon one’s self.

* * *

So there – I said it.

Which I imagine P&V would render as, if I were a Russian soldier saying it in 1812, “Sure, I’ve spoken.”

I know – who’s this amerikanets who grew up in Philadelphia sounding off about Tolstoy? I get it – but I simply submit this: try this P&V version of War and Peace and past about page 50, see what I mean. A great many people have burrowed into it and found it oddly unengageable. I want to be a voice for them in saying that this is not about Tolstoy, but about translators who have an idea that giving Anglophones a great Russian novel means giving it to them in a kind of Russian-in-English. But that’s only cute if you know Russian!

That’s not how real translation has ever worked. I beseech you to, if you will spend 1200 pages with this marvelous but challenging (and at times tedious) book, engage it in a translation rather than a transliteration.

In the next pandemic, I’m going for the Maudes.