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26 October 2007

Ed. Note: The skies have been smoky, the air unbreathable in southern California. So I have cranked the air conditioning and closed the windows, and I don't go outside. The wildfires have interrupted the printing of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. It seems that the delivery of mail has also been slowed and fewer catalogs are being delivered.

The world is too much with us anyway. So this week, rather than finding an amusing-disturbing clipping from a newspaper or an amusing-disturbing item in a catalog, I have chosen another long quote from Count Tolstoy's 1868 novel. I'm reading a new translation, about thirty-five pages in. I'm still in “Peace,” haven't gotten to “War”; two soirées, no fires, no battles—unless family skirmishes are included.

About the translation, from the translator:

It is often said that a good translation is one that "does not feel like a translation," or one that reads “smoothly” in idiomatic English. But who determines the standard of the idiomatic, and why should it be applied to something so idiolectic as a great work of literature? Is Melville idiomatic? Is Faulkner? Is Beckett? Those who raise the question of the “idiomatic” in translation do not seem to realize that they are imposing their own, often very narrow, limits on the original. A translator who turns a great original into a patchwork of readymade “contemporary” phrases, with no regard for its particular tone, rhythm or character, and claims that is “how Tolstoy would have written today in English,” betrays both English and Tolstoy. Translation is not the transfer of a detachable “meaning” from one language to another, for the simple reason that in literature there is no meaning detachable from the words that express it. Translation is a dialogue between two languages. —Richard Pevear.



War and Peace

by Leo Tolstoy

A new translation
by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

Translation copyright © 2007
by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

A Borzoi Book published by Alfred A. Knopf

If the world could write by itself, it would write like Leo Tolstoy.—Isaac Babel


Anna Pavlovna’s drawing room gradually began to fill up. The high nobility of Petersburg came, people quite diverse in age and character, but alike in the society they lived in. Prince Vassily’s daughter, the beautiful Hélenè, came to fetch her father and go with him to the fête at the ambassador’s. She was wearing a ball gown with a monogram. The young little princess Bolkonsky, known as the most seductive woman of Petersburg, also came; married the previous winter, she did not go into high society now for reason of her pregnancy, but did still go to small soirées. Prince Ippolit, Prince Vassily’s son, came with Mortemart, whom he introduced; the abbé Morio also came, and many others.

“Have you seen yet” or “have you made the acquaintance of ma tante? [my aunt]” Anna Pavlovna said to the arriving guests, and led them quite seriously to a little old lady in high ribbons, who had come sailing out of the next room as soon as the guests began to arrive, called them by name, slowly shifting her gaze from the guest to ma tante, and then walked away.

All the guests performed the ritual of greeting the totally unknown, totally uninteresting and unnecessary aunt. With sad, solemn sympathy, Anna Pavlovna followed their greetings, silently approving of them. To each of them ma tante spoke in the same expressions about his health, her own health, and the health of her majesty, which, thank God, was better that day. All those who went up to her, showing no haste for propriety’s sake, left the little old lady with a feeling of relief after the fulfillment of a heavy obligation, never to approach her again all evening.

The young princess Bolkonsky came with handiwork in a gold-embroidered velvet bag. Her pretty upper lip with its barely visible black mustache 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 lower one. As happens with perfectly attractive women, her flaw—a short lip and half-opened mouth—seemed her special, personal beauty. Everyone felt cheerful looking at this pretty future mother full of health and liveliness, who bore her condition so easily. To old men and to bored, morose young ones it seemed that they themselves came to resemble her, having been with her and spoken with her for a time. Anyone who talked with her and saw her bright little smile at every word and her gleaming white teeth, which showed constantly, thought himself especially amiable that day. And that is what each of them thought.

from page 8


The Reader's Guide and Bookmark from my 1942 edition—still very handy.

War and Peace: The excerpt from last week.

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