on December 13, 2012
Briggs's translation of "War and Peace" published in 2005 places it in direct competition with the Pevears' 2007 version. Compared with the Pevears, his translation came across as a bit modernized and at times even anachronistic (in the dialogue for instance). But compared with P & V's rendition his is many times the clearer version, and for all its modernity I should think his is the superior version. Take the beginning of Book I Chapter 2, where Briggs has "All the important people in St Petersburg society were there, varying enormously in age and character for all their shared social background." Pevear and Volokhonsky have: "The high nobility of Petersburg came, people quite diverse in age and character, but alike in the society they live in", clearly a literal translation, which sounds almost automaton in its direct literalness. The P & V version begs two questions: what is meant by "the high nobility", and what "alike in the society they live in" meant. Briggs's rendition is much clearer if not as precise. P & V tries to get away with literal mindedness, translating literally without understanding the context, whereas Briggs at least takes a stab at the meaning (and does get it right in this instance.)
Another example concerns Lise's "moustache" -- Briggs: "Her pretty little upper lip, slightly shadowed with down, barely covered her teeth, but that made it all the prettier when it rose up and lovelier still when it curled down to meet the lower lip." P & V have: "Her pretty upper lip with its barely visible black moustache was too short for her teeth, but the more sweetly did it open and still more sweetly did it sometimes stretch and close on the upper one." Dunnigan: "Her pretty little upper lip with a barely perceptible down, was too short for her teeth, and charming as it was when lifted, it was even more charming when drawn down to meet her upper lip." All three versions meant different things. For Briggs the down "barely" covered Lise's teeth, while in the latter two it was the presence of the down which is "barely visible/perceptible". Briggs also said it was lovelier when meeting the "lower lip" instead of the "upper one" (which Dunnigan and the Pevears maintain). The second half of Pevears' translation is awkward, in garbled grammar.
In this particular instance it is clear that Tolstoy did not write in a Russian that is easy to understand, as Briggs has claimed in his afterword: all three of the translations state different things, and surely at least one must have erred in its interpretation. The instance of "black" moustache must have struck many readers -- again there are differing interpretations. Briggs and Dunnigan took the stance it meant "shadowed", whereas Pevear and Volokhonsky are adamant that it meant "black" and is used to describe Lise's (hideously worded) "moustache". Another confusion in P & V's version is in wondering how an upper lip (or moustache) can "open" (usually only mouths do, and only with upper and lower lips moving in opposite directions...)
on August 3, 2012
As a mother who screens everything her 13-year-old daughter reads, I was hesitant at first to introduce her to one of my all-time favourite books, partly because if its length, and partly because *other people* say it's too difficult for anyone not in a college Literature class. I am SO GLAD I decided to ignore common wisdom! This book, and all its various dramatizations have made Leo Tolstoy our permanent favourite writer. The only thing missing from our "War and Peace" experience is visiting Russia in person. I'd settle for seeing a Fabergè exhibition if there was one in town :-) Nevertheless, I foresee a revival in all things Leo Tolstoy in the days to come: "War and Peace" is quoted in both "The Gallagher Girls" YA series as well as the (unexpectedly affecting) existential novel "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" (which actually quotes Anna Karenina more). "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" is also a movie available in DVD form now, I believe. I am convinced our enjoyment of these other books (and life in general) would be much enhanced with a (re)reading of one of the world's first l-o-n-g series. If a person can get through all seven of Harry Potter's adventures, (s)he can certainly manage "War and Peace." I'm only sorry *I* didn't read Tolstoy myself until I was 30!!! Said daughter's review follows. Her quotes are taken from a mix of the Kindle version of the book, and the Penguin Classics edition.
" 'War and Peace' by Leo Tolstoy is one of the longest books in the world, a story spanning the course of about twenty years and which is about, well, *life*. And, like life, the book is complicated when trying to explain it, yet it makes perfect sense to anyone who reads it. There are betrayals, death, marriage, love, religion, war, passion, historical facts, courageous and cowardly men - actually, I think the only genres it *doesn't* cover would be cowboy and alien. As a thirteen-year-old girl, who has always loved books, I'm not usually a fan of giant books - I prefer to be able to curl up with a book, not plonk it on my desk as if it's some tree-made brick. However, I think I will make an exception to this particular giant-of-a-book.
"In case you don't know the plot of the story, here's the shortest version I can possibly give you.
"Basically, the book revolves around five people - Prince Andrey, Princess Maria, Nikolai Rostov, Natasha Rostov, and Pierre Bezukhov, and their lives from 1805-1820.
"Prince Andrey is unhappily married, and is a bit of a jerk to everyone except Pierre, who's basically his BFF (Best Friend Forever), and, occasionally, his younger sister, Maria.
"Princess Maria is Andrey's little sister, and she is extremely religious and kind. However, her and Andrei's eccentric father often bullies her, and she is always being told that she is plain, so she is rather insecure.
"Nikolai is Natasha's older brother. He is "in love" with Natasha's best friend, Sonya. He, like most boys, dreams of being a war hero. Unlike most boys *now* though, he actually has a chance to be one.
"Natasha is about 12 years old at the start of the book, and is very naïve and lively. However, she is prone to bouts of depression and seriousness, which are sometimes good (like when she tries to understand the secrets of life), and sometimes bad ( when she thinks that no one will ever truly love or understand her).
"Pierre is the illegitimate son of the wealthy Count Bezukhov, which makes him very unpopular among the aristocratic families. Unfortunately, he is also extremely clumsy and absent-minded, and spends most of his time drinking and partying. He's kinda like that boy in high school, you know, the one who's best friends with the school bad boy, but is never noticed without someone thinking 'ugh!'
"As the book goes on, many things happen. Russia goes to war against Napoleon's armies, and Nikolai and Andrey both decide to go and fight. Meanwhile, Maria is very unhappy, but tries to cheer up for Andrei's pregnant wife's sake. Natasha is growing up, and becoming more and more beautiful every day, and Pierre suddenly inherits all of his father's fortune, making him suddenly popular with, well, everyone. However, then he gets a crisis of faith, and does all these things to try and find out if there is a God.
"My favorite part was the ending. I've always like epilogues, and with this, I'm no different. This is one of my favorite quotes from one of the endings. Tolstoy decided to have *two* endings - one so that readers can find out what happened to all the characters, and another to explain life and history. This quote (which is on page 1292 in my version of the book) is from the ending where we find out what happens to the characters:
" 'After seven years of marriage Pierre had the joyous and firm consciousness that he was not a bad man, and he felt this because he saw himself reflected in his wife. He felt the good and bad within himself inextricably mingled and overlapping. But only what was really good in him was reflected in his wife, all that was not quite good was rejected. And this was not the result of logical reasoning but was a direct and mysterious reflection.'
"However, you're going to have to read the book yourself to find out what happens to the rest of the characters!
"My favorite characters (because I can't choose just one), would have to be Natasha and Pierre. I like Natasha because she's a bit like me - we both are a bit ... umm... *lively*, and we both sometimes get gloomy/serious. Unlike Natasha though, I'm not a good singer or dancer! :-) I like Pierre, though, because, right now I'm kinda looking for the meaning of life like he did. While Pierre joined the Freemasons though, I became Buddhist for about a month, before deciding that, as much as I liked Buddhism, Christianity was more my style. Also, Pierre really does *try* to be kind. Sometimes he goes about it the wrong way, but sometimes he ends up becoming the person's favorite confidant! As the book says, (on page 1231 in my Kindle),
" 'In external ways Pierre had hardly changed at all. In appearance he was just what he used to be. As before he was absent-minded and seemed occupied not with what was before his eyes but with something special of his own. The difference between his former and present self was that formerly when he did not grasp what lay before him or was said to him, he had puckered his forehead painfully as if vainly seeking to distinguish something at a distance. At present he still forgot what was said to him and still did not see what was before his eyes, but he now looked with a scarcely perceptible and seemingly ironic smile at what was before him and listened to what was said, though evidently seeing and hearing something quite different. Formerly he had appeared to be a kindhearted but unhappy man, and so people had been inclined to avoid him. Now a smile at the joy of life always played round his lips and sympathy for others, shone in his eyes with a questioning look as to whether they were as contented as he was, and people felt pleased by his presence. Previously he had talked a great deal, grew more excited when he talked, and seldom listened; now he was seldom carried away in conversation and knew how to listen so that people readily told him their most intimate secrets.'
"However, there were things I didn't like about *either* of them. I guess that means though, that Tolstoy did his job - the book is suppose to show what life is *really* like. And, yeah, sometimes fighting a war for a good cause won't save you, sometimes your friends will annoy you to death, and sometimes the meanest person you know is the hero in someone else's life. But that's life - complicated and messy and chaotic and sad, funny and crazy and mysterious - but you know what?
"That's why I like it so much."
on May 18, 2014
It's a good, lively read throughout. The dialogs flow quite well throughout, and I trust the translation generally. But I take issue with Briggs's insertions of British colloquial slang and Cockney when a peasant or serf is speaking. As long as the aristocrats are speaking, we stay close to standard English, with standard grammar, completed words, few contractions, not much slang. When a lower class fellow talks, we get jarring distractions. Here is an example, Volume IV, Part 1, Chapter 12. Pierre has been taken prisoner by the French, and tossed into a big hut with a bunch of other Russians, where he meets a "little man", Platon Karatayev.
"How d'you come to stay on in Moscow, sir?" (Platon)
"I didn't think they'd get here quite so quickly. I stayed on by accident," said Pierre.
"Just come in your house an' got you, did they old darlin'?"
"No, I went out to see the fire, and they got me then. Tried me for arson."
"No justice in the courtroom," put in the little man.
"How long have you been here?" asked Pierre, munching his last potato.
"Me? Took me out of the 'orspital in Moscow last Sunday they did."
"Are you a soldier, then?"
"Yes, we're all from the Apsheron mob. Dying of fever I was. Never told us nothin'. Must've been twenty of us layin' there sick. Never 'ad a thought, we didn't no idea 'ow things was."
"Old darlin'"? "'orspital"? "Never 'ad a thought"?
Has Rumpole of the Bailey dropped in?
And here is the same passage, from the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation of 1922:
"How was it, sir, that you stayed in Moscow?""I didn't think they would come so soon. I stayed accidentally," replied Pierre.
"And how did they arrest you, dear lad? At your house?"
"No, I went to look at the fire, and they arrested me there, and tried me as an incendiary."
"Where there's law there's injustice," put in the little man.
"And have you been here long?" Pierre asked as he munched the last of the potato.
"I? It was last Sunday they took me, out of a hospital in Moscow."
"Why, are you a soldier then?"
"Yes, we are soldiers of the Apsheron regiment. I was dying of fever. We weren't told anything. There were some twenty of us lying there. We had no idea, never guessed at all."
Briggs's work fails to improve on the Maudes's translation here. And in fact, it might be less effective. I'm distracted by the British colloquialisms, and by subtle losses in complexity. Whether Platon says "old darlin"(Briggs) or "dear lad" (Maude) may seem a small point. They both contain a joking irony. But "dear lad" sings a louder note of warmth. And it emphasizes the greater age of Platon, to the younger Pierre.
It's the Britishisms that rankle, at least to my American reading ear. Perhaps, if some British readers ever see this, they might comment on whether they were put off as I was.