At more than 1,200 pages and almost exactly four pounds, Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace is the hefty tome against which all other hefty tomes are weighed and measured. This story of the French invasion of Russia in 1812 was first published in 1869 in Russian, no less. So why is this old literary classic suddenly sitting near the top of bestseller lists, surpassing swifter, lighter, more modern American novels? Probably because War and Peace has been freshly translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the husband and wife team who gained national prominence in 2004 when Oprah Winfrey selected their translation of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina for her immensely popular book club program.
"I had been translating from French, Spanish and Italian for many years," Pevear, a poet, e-mailed from his home in Paris, where the couple, now in their 60s, have lived, taught, written and translated since leaving New York's Upper West Side in 1988. "The idea of collaborating on translations from the Russian came to us not long after we were married," Pevear says. "I was reading The Brothers Karamazov in a well-known translation. Larissa [who was born in Russia, studied English from an early age and worked for a while as a translator for a group of biologists] began to read the Russian at the same time. She came upon something striking at the very beginning and wondered, 'How do they translate that?' She looked at the version I was reading and said, 'Ah, I see, they don't translate it.' We talked about what was left out of the translation and whether it was possible to do better. I saw that it was certainly possible, and we decided to try it. And we've been trying it ever since."
The couple's translations of works by Dostoyevsky, Gogol and Tolstoy have been widely acclaimed by scholars, critics and general readers, and have won three PEN translation awards. The pair traveled to the U.S. this fall to promote the new book, something that is virtually unheard of for translators of a 138-year-old novel.
"We try to do in English what Tolstoy or Dostoevsky did in Russian," Pevear says. " We don't believe in modernizing or paraphrasing or writing smooth English prose. What we want is the most Tolstoyan or Dostoevskian English possible. But it has to move and live naturally, or at least as naturally as the original does." To achieve this, the couple collaborates in an unusual way.
"Larissa makes a complete first draft, in pencil, as literal as possible, with marginal comments on words, tone, rhythm, deliberate oddities, levels of usage, cross references to reappearances of the same word or motif. I take her draft, plus the original and other translations, and make my own complete draft, which I print out as I go (four to eight pages a day) and cover with penciled queries and uncertainties. We then go over that draft together, settling questions, arguing over choices, resorting to numerous dictionaries. From the results of that work, I then make another complete draft. Larissa reads the new draft line by line against the original, marking queries, making suggestions, and so on. Once we resolve the last problems together, I make a 'final' draft, which we send to the publisher."
Pevear admits that Tolstoy has suffered less than some of his countrymen at the hands of translators. Yet even the good translations fall far short of perfection. "We have tried to get closer to that impossible goal, mainly by paying closer attention to Tolstoy's Russian. We have also chosen to include all the French passages as Tolstoy had them (they amount to two percent of the text). All previous translations have removed them and have thus removed a whole dimension of the novel the war of languages that mirrors the war of armies. We thought it was time to stop underestimating the reader's intelligence. The French passages are translated in footnotes."
And what is the couple's advice for a general reader who has never before read War and Peace and is about to launch into the new translation? "Give yourself to Tolstoy's foreign world and you'll find you're at home; give yourself to its chaos and you'll find a great order."