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Although Tolstoy wrote most of the book, including all the narration, in Russian, significant portions of dialogue (including its opening paragraph) are written in French with characters often switching between the two languages. This reflected 19th century Russian aristocracy, where French, a foreign tongue, was widely spoken and considered a language of prestige and more refined than Russian. This came about from the historical influence throughout Europe of the powerful court of the Sun King, Louis XIV of France, leading to members of the Russian aristocracy being less competent in speaking their mother tongue. In War and Peace, for example, Julie Karagina, Princess Marya's friend, has to take Russian lessons in order to master her native language.
It has been suggested that it is a deliberate literary device employed by Tolstoy, to use French to portray artifice and insincerity as the language of the theater and deceit while Russian emerges as a language of sincerity, honesty and seriousness. It displays slight irony that as Pierre and others socialize and use French phrases, they will be attacked by legions of Bonapartists in a very short time. It is sometimes used in satire against Napoleon. In the novel, when Pierre proposes to Hélène, he speaks to her in French — Je vous aime ('I love you'). When the marriage later emerges to be a sham, Pierre blames those French words.
The use of French diminishes as the book progresses and the wars with the French intensify, culminating in the capture and eventual burning of Moscow. The progressive elimination of French from the text is a means of demonstrating that Russia has freed itself from foreign cultural domination. It is also, at the level of plot development, a way of showing that a once-admired and friendly nation, France, has turned into an enemy. By midway through the book, several of the Russian aristocracy, whose command of French is far better than their command of Russian, are anxious to find Russian tutors for themselves.
English and other translations
War and Peace has been translated into many languages. It has been translated into English on several occasions, starting with Clara Bell working from a French translation. The translators Constance Garnett and Louise and Aylmer Maude knew Tolstoy personally. Translations have to deal with Tolstoy’s often peculiar syntax and his fondness for repetitions. About 2% of War and Peace is in French; Tolstoy removed the French in a revised 1873 edition, only to restore it later. Most translators follow Garnett retaining some French, Briggs uses no French, while Pevear-Volokhonsky and Amy Mandelker's revision of the Maude translation both retain the French fully. (For a list of translations see below)
- Crafting the novel
- Background and historical context
- Plot summary
- Principal characters in War and Peace
- Full translations into English