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VINE VOICEon January 4, 2008
"War and Peace," by Leo Tolstoy, © 2007,
translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Alfred A. Knopf, publisher

This review is broken down into two segments, a Descriptive Summary and an Evaluative Summary. If you're already very familiar with the story of "War and Peace," you may wish to skip directly to the latter facet of my review which is essentially the critique of this particular volume.

DESCRIPTIVE SUMMARY:

In 1805, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Austria to expand his European empire. Russia, being an ally of Austria, stood with their brethren against the infamous Emperor. Napoleon prevailed and a treaty was ultimately signed at Tilsit. In 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia, again in an effort to expand his empire. The end result of this tragic war was that Napoleon's army of about 600,000 soldiers was reduced to roughly 60,000 men as the defamed Emperor raced from Moscow (which he had taken), back across the frozen Russian tundra in his carriage (leaving his troops behind to fend for themselves) for Paris. That encapsulizes the military aspect of this work.

But the more intricate story involves both the activities and the peccadillos of, primarily, three Russian families of nobility: The Rostovs, the Bolkonskys, and the Bezukovs. The continual thorn of "The Antichrist," Napoleon, really just provides the wallpaper for this story of romance, riches, desolation, love, jealousy, hatred, retribution, joy, naiivety, stupidity and so much more. Tolstoy has woven an incredibly intricate web that interconnects these noble families, the wars, and the common Russian people to a degree that would seem incomprehensible to achieve - but Tolstoy perseveres with superb clarity and great insight to the human psyche. His characters are timeless and the reader who has any social experience whatever will immediately connect with them all.

"War and Peace" is a fictional, lengthy novel, based upon historical fact.

In his Epilogue, Tolstoy yields us a shrewd dissertation on the behavior of large organizations, much of it by way of analogy. It's actually an oblique, often sarcastic, commentary on the lunacy of government activities and the madness of their wars.

EVALUATIVE SUMMARY:

I feel compelled at the outset to offer a brief paragraph in response to certain reviews which I've seen listed here on Amazon. In regard to "ungrammatical" and "poor syntax" instances, it is prominently and clearly stated in Pevear's/Volokhonsky's introduction that a primary objective of this translation (paraphrasing) is to empower the reader with a real sense of Tolstoy's writing style - and that goal they achieved quite nicely; however, this caveat hardly rendered the work ungrammatical in any sense whatever. To the contrary, I found this rendering to read notably more fluidly than the renowned Maude edition, (which I have read twice), and much easier to initially digest (syntax) than the works, of say, William Faulkner or John O'Hara, both of whom also employed a unique, but brilliant writing style. As I didn't see any actual citations of poor grammar in the instant reviews I'll close my case regarding this topic on that particular note.

Here are some particularly positive points of this translation of "War and Peace":

1. Here we have a smooth and fluid read. Tolstoy's style yields some repetition but never redundancy - he does this in a clever manner and the translators have shrewdly served it up. We have not seen this before in prior translations.

2. This translation allows the reader to think for himself/herself. One of the best examples is actually discussed in the introduction: (P/V) "The school children in their chairs drove to Moscow." Another translation has it this way: "The School children played in their chairs as if they were driving to Moscow." See what I mean?

3. The names of the principals are conveyed more appropriately, "Andrei" instead of "Andrew," "Marya" instead of "Mary".

4. The language is more modern and the syntax less stilted than previous translations.

5. I felt, in a real sense, "the soul" of each of the principals, as well as that of Tolstoy himself, which I had not previously experienced. This is especially true in regard to characters Pierre Bezukov and Andrei Bolkonsky.

6. Two percent of the book's text was written in French and it is maintained that way, with a clear English translation in respective footnotes on the very pages in which the French passages appear. This makes for very convenient reading.

7. Brief endnotes exist where appropriate and the translators did not go overboard with lengthy passages which can be distracting in other versions of the work. They give you what you need to know to pursue these topics further, on your own, if you wish.

8. There is a fine map of The Battle of Borodino grounds (page 856) which is really about all one needs in order to understand the primary battle details (Borodino) within this work.

9. The character descriptions/identifications at the front of the book are spot-on and the Introduction adequately prepares the English reader to understand such Russian nuances as "patronymic" names.

10. Just past the endnotes, you'll find a very informative "Historical Index" which lists all the actual primary officers, European leaders, and nobility mentioned in "War and Peace".

11. This volume is nicely bound (sturdy red cardboard binding) with an equally high-quality, attractive dust cover. It will look nice on your bookshelf, either with or without the dustcover.

I have few criticisms of this tremendous work and of the appurtenant translation, but here they are:

1. I chuckled aloud when I read Pevear's and Volokhonsky's attempt to mimic the speech (dialogue) of the very likable character, Denisov - it wasn't very good. Denisov was clearly tongue-tied. The translators, for the most part, inserted a "gh" where I would have inserted a "w" (in regard to pronouncing "Rs and Ls"). I got the general feeling that neither of the translators had ever actually encountered a person plagued with this somewhat tragic speech impediment! To counter this gaff, as I read along where Denisov was engaged in dialogue, I simply mentally inserted my own "Ws" wherever I came across the egregious "GHs".

2. I encountered VERY FEW typographical errors, those occurring on pages 3, 355, and 484, respectively. I've already reported them directly to the publisher for correction in subsequent editions.

3. There is one error that will befuddle many readers. It's in regard to Pierre's numerology on page 665. If you add up the numbers as stated in the book, it adds up to 661, and not 666 (The Biblical Mark of the Beast), as the manuscript states. This caveat is noted in the Maude translation of "War and Peace" but not in this one. To correct the problem, one has to account for the implied letter "e" in "l'(e)empereur Napoléon," which has a numerical value of 5, making the formula work correctly, totaling 666 as stated in the manuscript. It's complicated... you'll probably have to read a page or two and work it out for yourself to grasp the problem. In any case, the P/V translation needs either a footnote or an endnote.

4. I encountered one strange incongruity which was initially a little disturbing to me and which appears on page 687. In the second to the last paragraph, it says, "...instead of Mademoiselle Bourienne, the boy Petrushka read to him..." In the Maude translation of "War and Peace," it reads, "...instead of Mademoiselle Bourienne -- a serf-boy read to him."

Now THAT is a significant difference in that it sounds like either Pevear and Volokhonsky actually added a character to Tolstoy's masterpiece, or, Maude ignored one! I could think of only two legitimate reasons for how this might ethically occur:

a. the two translations were derived from different source documents, one mentioning Petrushka, the other not, or,

b. the publisher may have made an "intentional error" that would likely not be noticed by anyone in an effort to enable the documentation of an unauthorized publication of copyrighted text by unscrupulous publishers at a later date.

In any case, I'm really curious about this and would love to hear the reason for the difference in translations. In the end, of course, actually adding a character would go far beyond the ethical purview of a translator (as would ignoring/omitting one).

To finalize, the newly published (10-07) Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of "War and Peace" is nothing short of superb. It clearly transcends the previous translations of Garnett and Maude. If you plan to read Tolstoy's masterpiece for the first time, this is the translation that you want.

02-29-'08 REVISION/EDIT: "Some comments about the 2005 BRIGGS and other translations"

I just received (02-28-'08) my new BRIGGS translation (Viking/Penguin) yesterday and it has a lovely binding, "sewn". Of course, it was originally priced at $40 bucks, ($56 Canadian) (!!!), initially way more pricey than the P/V translation. But now it's a steal because you can get a brand new copy for under $15 or pick up a very good used one for $10 here on Amazon, (mine was supposed to be used, at $10, but it looked brand new to me).

I would speculate that the Briggs translation was somewhat financially doomed at the outset, (hence, the heavily discounted 2008 price), just BECAUSE folks anticipated the near arrival of the P/V translation which came out just a year following Briggs' "War and Peace," in addition to the negative impacts of the latter's initial $40 price tag.

I just got started on Briggs last night and, so far, I'm VERY pleased with the smooth, modern-language translation, (but absent of any anachronistic/modern "buzzwords"), and, I'm even more copasetic with the book's straightforward layout. The main text is nicely supplemented with 5 or 6 detailed maps, a list of principals (both fictional and non-fictional), and 2 commentaries, all at the rear of the text. There is NO introduction by the translator and it's a direct read -- rendered entirely in English with almost no footnotes to bother with. There are historically-oriented endnotes but, as they are at the finale of the work, I find them useful and yet not distracting. The book is almost exactly the same size and weight as the P/V translation, with a beautiful white cover and dust jacket.

The few early complaints I hear on Briggs is that he "British-izes" the dialogue, using words like "mate" as soldiers address one another... so it's not written in "American" English. This fact, too, probably doomed him a bit in pecuniary terms, at least in the USA. But that is a very small caveat and I don't personally mind it at all. As Briggs pointed out in his commentary (paraphrasing), he had to choose an English dialect to translate it TO and, since he himself was English, that is the vernacular which he chose to utilize. Makes sense to me.

Briggs' credentials are well up to par as a former Professor of Russian at the University of Birmingham, (Edgbaston, 26,000 students), coupled with the fact that he has previously translated many other literary works from their original Russian language.

In any case, I'll do a full review when I've finished this alternative "War and Peace" English translation.

In addition to the Pevear/Volokhonsky (2007) and Briggs (2005) translations, "War and Peace" has also been translated by the following people: Clara Ball, (1886, from a French translation source document by "Une Russe," an unknown woman); N.H. Dole, (1889); Leo Weiner, (1904); Constance Garnett, (1904); Louise and Aylmer Maude, (1923... the Maudes, who lived in Russia, had actually consulted with Tolstoy himself during their work on the project); Rosemary Edmonds, (1957, updated version, 1978), and; Ann Dunnigan, (1968, which is lauded as "...a sound American version").

pat
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on March 15, 2006
New translations of War and Peace appear from time to time, each with its own virtues. Sometimes what one reader calls virtues, another finds to be deficiencies. The now-venerable Maude translation, in the splendid Norton Critical Edition, is sometimes majestic, always readable, and, most important, conveys to most minds the story Tolstoy told. The breathtaking, awe-inspiring power of Tolstoy's storytelling and his burning insights into the quandaries of the human condition are what is important about War and Peace. The Maudes' translation brings all this to life. Norton's editorial supplements help the newcomer to things Russian fight his/her way through the thicket of Russian names and mid-nineteenth-century literary mindset to get comfortable with Pierre, the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys. Once you get to know these unforgettable people, you are hooked for good.

I have read this book many times in Russian and in the Maudes' translation. I always end by thanking Tolstoy for writing the best novel of them all, and the Maudes for their tireless work in translating it for those not fortunate enough to read it in the original.
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VINE VOICEon June 3, 2006
I bought the Maude translation in a Wordsworth Classic edition-- 1000 pages of Very Small Letters. It took me a while to get up the nerve to try and read it. Although I have loved everything else by Tolstoy that I had read, this seemed like a bigger challenge. Furthermore, I was concerned because I have not done very well in the past with books that contain a large number of battle scenes. Somehow I do not have a very visual imagination, and it can get very tricky if I have to really picture the relative location of troops and characters.

I have to say that I spent far too much energy worrying. War and Peace is extremely readable and once I got over the initial "how many pages?" response, it actually flew by too quickly.

I generally hate it when a review of a book says that it has "something for everybody". But I guess that when a book is this long, you can actually make that claim without being ridiculous. This book is so many things-- a love story, a story about war, a comment on Russian society at the time of writing, an observation of social/class change, a meditation on politics, and (last but not least) an attempt to define this notion and nature of history. It is hard to imagine that any reader could fail to find something that moved him or her. I found that I enjoyed all of it, even the battle scenes, in more or less equal measure.

In short, do not be put off by the daunting size! It is deservedly called a classic, and a book that should be on every readers must-read list.

I liked the Maude translation, I have to say. I found it clear and very readable. I chose it because it was the translation that had been approved by Tolstoy during his lifetime. That at least made it seem to be a safe place to begin.
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on November 15, 2007
I have tried to read different translations of War and Peace, including Garnett's and Edmonds'. One thing that has always annoyed me - especially with Garnett's translation - is the tendency to use Western or Roman Catholic terms whenever something related to Christianity is involved (Edmonds does not make this mistake). Instead of using the language of Orthodoxy, we often get "holy images," attended Mass," the Virgin Mary," etc, instead of "icon," "attended Liturgy," or "the Theotokos." While invisible to most readers, to Orthodox ears it is grating. The Pevears get this right by avoiding Western terminology in speaking about things religious. And, as other reviewers have noted, it is nice to see the French broken out. As far as the quality of the language, it doesn't seem any less awkward than other translations I have read. Garnett may have turned a phrase with a bit more flare but at the expense of making Tolstoy sound like Tolstoy and more like a Victorian. I agree, too, that this version would have been nice had it been published as a three volume set. You can't really tote it around to read at work or on the bus.
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on November 12, 2007
Having read all the reviews I see how disparate the reviews are and how passionate they are about War and Peace. Let me start by saying I tried to read W&P as a teen and could not get throught it so I have no basis for comparison but I find this edition extremely readable. I found the long French footnotes a distraction at times but I found myself being able to translate many of the shorter passages for myself as the book progressed. I have to say I'm in love with this book and with Tolstoy. His writting is subtle, amusing, horrifying, beautifully descriptive and places me firmily in anouther time and place. I tried not to read it too fast so as to not miss the many joys of the writting but at the same time wanting to read on to find out what happens next. Also I learned a lot about he Napoleonic Wars which I knew less about than I do now. To others who have not read W&P before as I, I heartily recommend reading this version.Do not let the 1200 pages discourage you, it will be done before you want it to be. There is a reason W&P has passed the test of time and people are still translating and reading it. It's a MASTERPIECE OF EPIC STORYTELLING!
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on April 23, 2009
One of the essential parts of the Pevear translations are the extensive explanatory notes, especially for such a historically intense novel. They are an essential part of reading this translation, they allow one to understand the plot thoroughly, rather than skimming over. The Kindle edition while linking the French translations that are normally at the bottom of the page in the book, does not link the extensive notes in the back of the book. It is normal to have a note for every page of this book.

So reading the Kindle edition retains some of the bulkiness of the actual book by forcing us to do something like this (this is on the iPhone): I see a note number, I have to save my place in the novel, go to the index, select the notes, read the note, put a placeholder in the notes, go back to the index, select the placeholder in the novel, then unselect it and keep reading, oh then there's another note on the next page, I save my place in the novel, again go to the index, select the placeholder in the notes, etc. I guess I'll get used to it, I guess the software only allows one set of footnotes not 2, but for this long novel (and my spouse suggested that he doesn't know how they'll deal with "Infinite Jest") to not link all the links there's really no excuse.
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on December 28, 2015
This is not a review of the translation by Pavear and Volokhonsky. This is to alert readers that the $1.99 Kindle edition link is to an old uncredited translation for the edition of War and Peace and not the edition by Pavear and Volokhonsky. That edition is listed separately for $12.99. It can be found here:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/B005JSZJVS?ie=UTF8&redirectFromSS=1&pc_redir=T1&noEncodingTag=1&fp=1

I clicked on the $1.99 kindle link, realized I got the wrong edition and requested a refund which Amazon issued instantly. Amazon is great that way but it would be so much better if they made sure correct editions are linked and credited properly.

Buyers need to make sure they get the right edition else return for refund.
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VINE VOICEon November 13, 2007
Most articles on Tolstoy's mammoth War & Peace ooze superlatives, whether in regards to its length, its genius, or the trouble people have getting through its 1200 plus pages. Yet for all of that, I found it above all to be a really great story, not just epic in scope, but full of exciting human characters and entertaining dialogue. While I cannot speak to the debates that now rage on the various translations of War & Peace, I can say that having twice picked up the book before, this third translation proved for me to be the charm. Not only do Peaver and Volokhonsky bring a poetic rhythm to much of the prose, they also capture what I can only imagine was Tolstoy's dry humor and powerful sense of irony.

While not a work to be taken likely, I found it thoroughly enjoyable.
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on January 11, 2008
Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Knopf, 2007.

There is a mass of conflicting opinion on Pevear and Volokhonsky's translation of War and Peace, which appears to center primarily on two issues: the English style, which is less than eminently literary, and the retention of Tolstoy's French in the text with footnoted translations. Before dealing with them, however, I'll briefly describe the edition.

It's a big book, at xviii + 1273 pp., and tastefully presented. It includes a useful introduction by Pevear (which should be read before criticizing the translation), an appendix containing Tolstoy's 1868 essay "A Few Words Apropos of the Book War and Peace," endnotes, an "Historical Index," and a plot summary. The endnotes are denoted by superscript numerals in the text, the footnotes by the usual sequence of asterisk, dagger, etc. I found the endnotes very useful: they elucidate the obscure details of the period, often mentioned by Tolstoy, which only a specialist would know. Unfortunately, I noticed several typos, probably ten or more; and suprisingly for Knopf, the "and" in "War and Peace" is capitalized in both places on the dust jacket, yet not on the spine. I hope the dust jacket has been corrected in future printings. Although these minor details didn't detract from my enjoyment of the story, they did detract from the pleasure I was expecting in owning a well-produced copy of a great book.

Now for the contentious issues. The first I am not qualified to judge because I know no Russian. I first read War and Peace in the Maudes' version - I have never read Garnett or Briggs - and fell in love with it. From what I remember, it seemed more literary and I believe it did read more smoothly than P and V, which often breaks the rules of good English style (and pains my ear). But if some reviewers are right that it echoes the Russian, then I'd rather read a sometimes awkward but faithful English version than a polished but misleading one. There is a fine line, however, between faithfulness and bad style - I'm reminded of the old dictum that, when translating from Latin to English, if one language must yield to the other, Latin should yield to English; and when translating from English to Latin, if one language must yield, English should yield to Latin. Of course, unless I learn Russian, I'll never know whether P and V transgressed this rule.

As for retaining Tolstoy's French - remember that Tolstoy interspersed Russian with bits of French for a reason, and that P and V are merely following the practice of all the Russian editions by printing the French as Tolstoy wrote it and footnoting translations. It's interesting that apparently Tolstoy faced the same criticism when the book was published that P and V face today: it's pedantic, it's clumsy, it's a pain to glance back and forth from the text to the footnote, etc.; and in a way it is. (He defends himself on p. 1218 of P and V's edition in "A Few Words Apropos of the Book War and Peace.") But to translate all Tolstoy's French along with the Russian into English, without alerting the reader in any way, is to ruin what Tolstoy was trying to accomplish by showing the Russian nobility's dependence on a foreign tongue. Princess Marya's friend Julie, for example, a Russian (but significantly called only by a French name), doesn't even know how to say "un peu amoureux" in her native language. I think the clumsiness of the footnotes is worth it, because it preserves Tolstoy's intentions - the English editions which translate War and Peace as if the whole book were in one language lose an essential dimension of the work - but I admit that for those who don't read French, the footnotes are a pain. Of course, for those who do read French, it's great fun: I especially enjoyed being exposed to new idiomatic usage.

All in all, I think the prospective reader of War and Peace who doesn't know French should probably read it first in the Maudes' version (not Garnett or Briggs), to avoid being excessively frustrated by the footnotes, and only then move on to P and V. I give it four stars because as an English speaker totally ignorant of Russian, I ultimately don't know whether to ascribe its awkwardness to bad translation or to faithfulness to the original.
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on February 26, 2008
I won't address the contents of the book in this review; it is excellent and has been discussed at length by others. I want to make a brief note about the binding.

Several reviewers have complained that the US edition is too large and that the pages are glued rather than sewn, which makes the book somewhat unstable. While "War and Peace" is never going to be a pocketbook, I would like to point out that the British edition (ISBN-10: 0099512238, ISBN-13: 978-0099512233) is about 1/2 an inch thinner than the US edition, and it has a sewn binding (which is much more durable). The cover is cloth, and I happen to think that it looks nicer than the US edition.

Note that you cannot order the UK edition from Amazon.com at the time of this writing, so those who are interested will either have to pay the extra shipping to order from Amazon.co.uk or else look elsewhere.
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