Translating the Reflections in War and Peace

By Love, Jeff | Tolstoy Studies Journal, Annual 2008 | Go to article overview

Translating the Reflections in War and Peace


Love, Jeff, Tolstoy Studies Journal


The reflections on history that thicken into the long essay at the end of War and Peace are the novel's orphan children. They have never found a stable home among the novel's admirers and critics; they have never seemed to fit with the ostensibly "glorious" fiction that ensures the novel's greatness. It is thus hardly surprising that they have not been accorded the care which they might have received had they been considered an independent work of thought, worthy in its own right. While it is indeed highly unlikely that they should have been so considered, it is nonetheless undeniable that the reflections are sufficiently interesting and important, at least within the context of the novel itself, to merit much closer attention, particularly from translators. This brings me to the chief point of my investigation; namely, to assess whether the standard Maude translation along with the recent ones by Anthony Briggs and by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky render the reflections into English with the rigor they merit.

A preliminary point is in order here: Just what are these reflections? When I refer to them as such, I mean the relatively sustained abstract "digressions" that emerge first in Book Three of War and Peace and which culminate in the Second Part of the Epilogue. Specifically, aside from the latter text, the passages I have examined for the purposes of comparison are, in Book III, Chapters I, X and XI of Part One, Chapter I of Part Two, and Chapter I of Part Three; in Book IV, Chapter I of Part Two; and in the First Part of the Epilogue, Chapters I through IV.

My assessment of the translations turns on two primary considerations that would be germane to any abstract writing of this sort: 1) the precision and consistency of translation in regard to key terms; and 2) the success with which the translators have managed to convey the syntactic relations of the original. Let me linger a moment on this latter point.

One of the more interesting aspects of the novel's reflections on history is that they deploy a fairly complicated rhetorical strategy, one seeking to simplify while not fully concealing the complexity of the matters with which the reflections deal. The practical manifestation of this rhetorical strategy is alternation between more complicated agglomerations of thought and what amounts to a nineteenth-century equivalent of point-form summary, between syntactically dense, almost Germanic, sentences and those marked by Gallic celerity, directness and finesse.

This very pronounced quality of the reflections has contributed significantly to their mixed reception. The popular formulations, with their condensed, aphoristic style, offend the more serious student of Tolstoy's thought who might be deterred by the surface, as many scholars have been. The more complicated explorations are then ascribed to mere clumsiness or, indeed, to the author's intellectual incompetence, his lack of the appropriate learning or talent for the abstract. (1) But wariness is more appropriate. Like his immediate models, Arthur Schopenhauer and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Tolstoy is hardly a straightforward writer. The frequent alternation between suggestive argument and aphoristic pungency hints at the more recalcitrant issues of narrative the reflections address. Such issues have been made explicit elsewhere by scholars such as Boris Eikhenbaum and Gary Saul Morson. (2)

Translation of the reflections is thus a delicate balancing act in which terminological precision must be matched by a corresponding respect for the rhetorical approach they express. To anticipate a line of critique that will emerge more clearly in my brief review, the temptation to read the reflections in a more popular vein, to be seduced by their popularizing rhetoric, has led some translators to run roughshod over more subtle distinctions in the original thereby perpetuating a questionable prejudice and obscuring, if not fully concealing, the breadth of the Tolstoyan text. …

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