Thursday, August 20, 2015

War and Peace: choosing a translation

In the realm of reading, War and Peace is the equivalent of the 300-lb bench press. Having read the book, in other words, conveys a certain degree of bragging rights.

Saying “Oh, yeah: I’ve read War and Peace is another way of saying that you have hair on your chest. (Female readers are of course exempted from the preceding metaphor.)

But which translation should you choose? There are multiple translations of War and Peace on the market. At least one commonly sold one dates back to the 19th century—and reads like English written in the 19th century.

Let’s consider some criteria you should use when selecting a W&P translation:

Is it unabridged?

First of all, you should read an unabridged translation. If you read an abridged version of War and Peace, then you’re what Donald Trump would probably call a loser. You have absolutely no bragging rights, at the very least.

Seriously, though: It is almost always a bad idea to read abridged versions of literature. Every work of art is a gestalt. If you read a version that has parts randomly cut out, you miss out on a lot of the story. (It would be a bit like listening to “Stairway to Heaven” without the guitar solo.)

Does it contain untranslated French?

You should also be aware that not all translations of War and Peace are full translations. The Russian aristocrats of Tolstoy’s era spoke French among themselves. The original Russian version of War and Peace therefore contains numerous dialogue passages in French.

Many English translations of War and Peace translate only the Russian—but not the French. Since few native English-speakers are truly comfortable in French anymore, most of these editions also contain footnotes explaining the French. 

This means that if you aren’t fluent in French, you have to keep referring to footnotes. And that’s a lot of work when you’re reading a 1,400-page novel.

The Anthony Briggs edition

I recommend the Anthony Briggs Penguin Classics translation of War and Peace. This unabridged (ahem!) edition was published in 2008, and it employs colloquial English.

Briggs mercifully translates all the French, too—making the French of the original manuscript invisible to the reader. 

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