The Big Read: War and Peace | Prelude #1

Translations!

Welcome to The Big Read! I’m thrilled with the turnout so far and I know we’ll have some robust discussions in 2021. Before we kick the reading off in January I’ll be sending a handful of these prelude emails to set some context for the book, provide some other tips on reading in general, and a few other things. You can expect probably 5-6 of these in the next couple months.

This week we’re covering translations, which is the first question I’ve gotten from many of you. When it comes to old Russians, choosing a translation is definitely an important consideration.

Let’s take a look at the few most common ones, as well as some general tips for picking a book to spend a year with.

One last note before we begin: Folks who signed up for the free edition will get this first newsletter, but to keep receiving them you’ll have to select a paid plan. There will be a few things in the coming months for the free plan, but not much. Don’t worry — if at any point you’re not happy with The Big Read, I’m happy to refund you.


Most Popular Translations

A quick look at the most common translations you’ll come across. Read through these, and the tips below, before landing on one.

Constance Garnett (Dover Thrift edition; likely any free ebook edition). Published in 1904, this edition was the standard in the early 20th century, but it’s not the easiest to read for us modern folks. As a general note, I also don’t love the paper/fonts of Dover Thrift editions. There are other editions of this translation though. This would be a great one to keep on your phone or Kindle since it’s in the public domain (see below for more on that).

Pevear and Volokhonsky (Vintage Classics). This is the teal-colored translation you’ll find at most bookstores. This husband and wife team are the rockstars of the Russian translation game (if there is such a thing). This one was published in 2007 and it’s certainly the best seller of this group, but I’ve not heard great things about it. The word-by-word approach can render it too precise. This version also keeps the French parts in French, rather than rendering them in English; it’s an important note, as about 10% of the dialogue is French (Russian aristocrats thought it was cool).

Aylmer and Louise Maude (AmazonClassics; Oxford World Classics). The Maudes knew Tolstoy personally and he approved of their work. Published in the early 1920s, critics both old and new have generally concurred on this being the best translation, but opinions abound on that, and critics/scholars aren’t the same as your average readers. That said, after testing a few translations, I went with this one for my first read-through back in May. The Oxford edition retains the French dialogue, which was somewhat of a challenge at first, but I quickly got used to it.

Anthony Briggs (Viking; Penguin Clothbound Classics). A new favorite on the block among Tolstoy fans, this translation was first published in 2005. Briggs is British and the only real complain with this one is that it includes some Britishisms, especially in the soldiers’ dialogue. It generally has great reviews though, and the beautiful Penguin Clothbound edition is what I bought to read in 2021.

There are a couple others you’ll see, particularly in older editions, but these are the biggies.


4 Tips for Choosing a Translation/Edition of War and Peace

So how do you actually choose an edition? With older books that have been translated numerous times, this can be a really tricky endeavor. But Tolstoy has a few things in his favor that actually making choosing a bit easier. A few tips and things to keep in mind while picking a War and Peace translation:

1) Tolstoy is an easy author to translate. I’m obviously not a translator myself, but this is something I’ve read in a few different places. Tolstoy writes with language that isn’t flowy or overly complex or heavy on metaphor. It’s much like how Hemingway writes—clear and simple language that tells a potent and powerful story. It’s certainly not a knock, just a writing style. Dostoyevsky, that other titanic Russian, is far harder to translate, which is why one translating team (Pevear and Volokhonsky) gets by far the most attention.

2) My preferred tactic for choosing any book, really: test the thing out and read a bit of it. With translated books, read the same handful of pages from a few different versions and see what sticks with you best. With War and Peace, there truly is no accepted “best” translation. Read the first couple chapters and simply pick your favorite. This book—this reading project—is for your benefit; read the one you like the most.

3) Don’t neglect the aesthetics. When you’re spending a lot of time with a book, how it looks (both the cover and the text itself) and how it feels in your hands can make a big difference. That’s not a hard and fast rule, but I’ve found it to generally be true that I enjoy the experience more when it’s nice font with decent spacing rather than a dark, squished font that takes up the entire page.

This can be hard to do with Amazon, and in an age where going to a physical bookstore might be off the table for some folks, but don’t hesitate to buy a few editions and keep the one you like (which is also an easy way to sample translations).

4) I recommend getting both a hard version and a cheap or free e-book version (easy to do with War and Peace). My own routine, which I’ve done with a number of large books, is to read mostly from the paper edition, but then have it on my phone/Kindle as well. That way, if I’m away from the massive book for any reason, or need some easy one-handed reading (my wife and I are expecting our third baby in February, so that’s a guarantee), it’s right there.

One final note on editions: I don’t know anything about audio editions of W&P; I’ve tried audiobooks on numerous occasions and it’s just never worked for me. My apologies, but I’d love to hear your feedback if you go that route. (And if you’re already sampled some audio, shoot me a note and I can share it with the wider group here.)


There ya have it. One more platform note: though you’re receiving this as an email, it does also live at thebigread.substack.com as a blog post of sorts. You can head there and comment publicly if you’d like, or you can email me back directly if you have any questions.

-Jeremy