There are twelve English translations (or versions) of “War and Peace” to date, (if you count Bromfield's so-called "Disney Version" and Komroff's radical abridgement of the Garnett translation -- see my notes below.) As I have already alluded to, abridgements of the work are on the market and I cannot generally recommended them for a first read. To date I've read nine of the twelve available English-language versions and I'll be completing the remainder very soon.
What is “War and Peace” about?
In 1805, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Austria to expand his European empire. Russia, being an ally of Austria at the time, stood with their brethren against the infamous Emperor. Napoleon triumphed in this conflict and following a bit more military scuffling in Poland and elsewhere, a treaty was ultimately signed at Tilsit (1807) between Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I. Napoleon finally broke with Alexander in 1812 and the former's army poured across the border, east into the Russian homeland, again in an effort to expand the Napoleonic empire and to enforce his will upon Alexander regarding trade with England. The end result of this tragic war resulted in Napoleon's army of about 600,000 soldiers being reduced to roughly 60,000 men (largely due to an early and incredibly unforgiving Russian winter) as the defamed Emperor raced west from a mostly deserted Moscow (which he had taken), back across the frozen Russian tundra in his carriage, (leaving his troops behind to fend for themselves), en route for Paris. That encapsulates the military aspect of this work.
But the more intricate story involves both the activities and the peccadilloes of chiefly 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, naivety, stupidity, and so much more. Tolstoy has woven an incredibly intricate web that interconnects these noble families, the wars, and the common Russian people including the peasant serfs, to a degree that would seem incomprehensible to have achieved -- but Tolstoy persevered with superb clarity and with great introspection into the human psyche. His characters are timeless and the reader who has any social experience whatever will emotionally connect with most of them.
Tolstoy's Epilogues (an Epilogue in two parts) yield a shrewd dissertation on the behavior of large organizations, much of it by way of analogy and often honing in on his famous “Freewill versus Necessity” theme. It's actually an oblique and often caustic commentary on the lunacy of government activities and the madness of their respective wars.
"War and Peace" is a fictional, lengthy novel, based upon historical fact.
I've written seven reviews stemming from the nine “War and Peace” editions that I’ve read so far and you can find them pretty easily; however, Amazon's messed-up reviewing process has forced me to combine certain reviews, ergo: I tried to review the Dunnigan translation and since I had already reviewed the Maudes' translation, the software would not permit me to submit it for some incomprehensible reason. So in my title under the Maude(s) translation, I mention Dunnigan as well, submitting two reviews under a single edition.
BUT HERE'S WHAT YOU REALLY WISH TO KNOW: "Which translation should I read?" Well the answer is that it depends upon the type of writing style you most enjoy as well as your purpose in reading the book, (e.g., are you a student reading the work for academic purposes or, are you just up for some terrific escapism?)
Here are my comments which will hopefully help you to make an informed choice:
War and Peace: The Inner Sanctum Edition with Reader's Guide -- (UNABRIDGED) This translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude was originally published in 1922. It has been a huge favorite with "War and Peace" fans for many years. There are numerous editions of Maude but I like the Inner Sanctum Edition (Hardcover, Simon and Schuster, 1942) best because it's nicely-bound and includes a useful "reader's guide," which contains decent maps and relevant information about the primary characters -- don't buy this edition without the guide (which is a multi-page "insert" printed on yellow paper) but it's okay if it's missing a dust jacket unless that's a big issue for you personally. I've read this translation twice and it combines most of the best features of the others in that the bulk of the French language text (about 2% of the book) has been translated directly to English (no footnotes for this), and the work is paginated straight through (1,371 pages.) Only the Maudes worked directly with Tolstoy himself and, thus, gained his personal endorsement.
War and Peace -- (UNABRIDGED) I like almost everything about the Anthony Briggs translation and I’ve recommended it to a lot of people. First, it's newly published (2006, Viking, First American Edition) and the binding on this edition (with the white cover and dust jacket) is exceptional. Over its 1,412 pages you get the important maps along with a "straight read," with only very minor French language entries and almost no footnotes. Briggs has been criticized for its “British-isms” (such as the Russian soldiers calling each other "mate") but this purported drawback has been grossly exaggerated. It reads very nicely and for the casual reader this version is a dandy. Orlando Figes provides a nice Afterword section.
War and Peace -- (UNABRIDGED) There are many editions of the Constance Garnett translation (1904) available. I want to say up front that when I have completed my reading of all 12 current English translations, my first re-read will be this one. Critics have attacked Garnett for being free and easy with her translations; however, I found her work to be by far the most lyrical and poetic of them all. There are episodes in this book where Tolstoy has executed pure magic with his word painting and Garnett nails these inspired moments like no other. To summarize, I really fancy this translation but it's not a great choice for the student who is reading for academic purposes.
War and Peace (Signet classics) -- (UNABRIDGED) Ann Dunnigan was born in Hollywood and here she has presented us with a very nice contemporary (1968) "American English" version of Tolstoy's Magnum opus. I call this one the "doctor's office version" because, even though it is 1,456 pages long (Signet paperback/Penguin), a busy errand-runner can still reasonably carry it around without backache. I found the translation itself to be quite competently rendered and most of the text reads straight through with no footnotes to deal with for the French language parts. If you're an American, and plan to read "War and Peace" only one time, and you're a really busy person who likes to read during windows of time, then this is likely your top choice.
War and Peace (Vintage Classics) -- (UNABRIDGED) Here we have one of the newest translations (2007) and certainly the most academically-oriented version of "War and Peace," translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. It is available in both hardcover (powder blue dust jacket, 1,275 pages) and in paperback (red cover), the former being quite heavy much like the Briggs hardcover translation. The Russian words were rendered to English and the French words remain in French; however, every significant French entry has a corresponding footnote where the text is conveyed in English, again about 2 percent of the total work. There are also tons of informational footnotes and references. It would be fair to say that this translation views word for word accuracy as the priority. This is the version for both students and others who prefer this approach to translating books. I don't especially recommend it for the casual reader.
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-- (UNABRIDGED) The Nathan Haskell Dole translation (1889, 1,539 pages total) is the "most Russian" and the most contemporary with Tolstoy's worldview of them all. I loved Dole’s sensitivity to place and time – he articulated the action in English as Tolstoy did in Russian. Dole was word-specific in his translating where, citing one example, he depicts an outdoor kettle of primitive vittles, employing the term "pottage" as opposed to the more modern "mess." The reader encounters such specificity as this time after time. This translation is not for everyone -- if you're not a Russophile you might miss some of his more subtle entries and meanings and you might view many of his words as archaic; however, if you plan to read "War and Peace" three or four times, be certain to include Dole.
"War and Peace," translated from the French by Clara Bell -- (UNABRIDGED in six volumes) This edition/translation (1887) is so rare and expensive that you're probably not going to choose this one to read. And there's yet another more viable reason to skip over this one: it was originally translated from the Russian language into French by the anonymous "Une Belle Russe," [A Russian Lady] and then Bell took that document and translated the work from French into English. So, a double-translation clearly manifests problems. Still, I have a copy of the first two volumes and I plan to eventually read them all as the opportunity comes for me.
"War and Peace," translated by Leo Weiner – (UNABRIDGED) I have yet to read this translation which was first published in 1904. Weiner (1862–1939), was a historian, linguist, author, and translator – he was an American of Polish ancestry. Weiner knew more than twenty languages. He became the first American professor of Slavic literature at Harvard and he also translated an amazing 24 volumes of Leo Tolstoy's works into English! This one comes in a 4-volume set and manifests one big drawback for most folks. The 2% of the book which was rendered by Tolstoy in the French language REMAINS in French with no footnotes yielding an English translation -- so if you don't speak French, you'll miss about 2% of the text.
War and Peace (Vol. 1) (Penguin Classics Ser. ) Volume One and Two 1 and 2 Set -- (UNABRIDGED) The Rosemary Edmonds translation (1,444 pages in the Greenwich House revised edition) has been a generally popular version (1957, revised 1978) of the work but is not outstanding in any particular facet. It is conveyed in straight English with no bothersome footnotes for the English translation of French entries. One small but positive caveat, I liked how Edmonds handled situations such as German accents -- most others do not address this issue and many Germans are featured throughout "War and Peace." This is also the translation which served as the basis for the BBC mini-series starring Anthony Hopkins (see my review) : War & Peace. If you happen to already own an Edmonds translation you'll find that it makes for fine reading -- but the limited benefits of this one do not justify seeking it out from my view.
Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace -- (ABRIDGED) The Manuel Komroff "version" (1956) is heavily abridged (656 pages total.) It's not an independent "translation" at all but rather a cut-down version of Constance Garnett's translation so it's a poor choice for a first reading of this great work of literature. Komroff was chiefly an American writer of plays, novels, and screenplays. This version was used as the basis for the "War and Peace" Hollywood movie starring Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn, a terrible film: War and Peace. The Komroff abridgement of the Constance Garnett translation is illustrated by John Groth.
War and Peace -- (ABRIDGED) The Princess Alexandra Kropotkin translation (1949, 742 pages) reads very smoothly but some very key moments of Tolstoy's magic have been redacted. The only application I can think of for this abridgement might be as a gift for a bookish high school student (say ages 14-17) who might become bored with Tolstoy's "Necessity versus Freewill” mantra, (as well as other entries where Tolstoy speaks directly to the reader.) This one is illustrated by J. Franklin Whitman and each transition is set up with a paragraph (by Kropotkin) which provides an historical perspective for the upcoming text. Princess Kropotkin was born in England but her father was a Russian anarchist, the remarkable Prince Peter Kropotkin.
War and Peace -- (UNABRIDGED, but about 400 pages shorter than standard translations) This translation/edition (2007, 885 pages) has become "slightly infamous" as it arose from Tolstoy's "War and Peace" draft notes; thus, it's a little bit of a different story. It has been dubbed by some bibliophiles as "The Disney Version" because certain popular key characters do not get killed off as they do in the standard, authorized editions. I have a copy of Bromfield’s so-called “Original Version” (that’s how it’s being marketed) but I have yet to read it. While it may be very palatable (I simply do not know yet), for obvious reasons I cannot recommend it to the aspiring first-time "War and Peace" reader.
I think I would be quite remiss if I failed to mention Sergei Bondarchuk's magnificent "War and Peace" film which I highly recommend in this specific version: War and Peace.