War and Peace

War and Peace Translation Wars: English Versions of 'War and Peace'

Leo Tolstoy published a serialized version of Война и миръ (War and Peace) in 1869, and since then, the novel has been translated into English twelve times – not including various abridgments. This brief history of War and Peace in English can help you choose which version to read, but it also reveals what the English-speaking world has found most important in the novel at various points in time.

Tolstoy portrayed French as the Western world's lingua franca (the standardized language), and the first translation of War and Peace suggests that there's some truth to that. Because Russian was not a commonly spoken language in the English-speaking world, War and Peace was not introduced to American and British audiences until 1887. Even then, translator Clara Bell was working from a French manuscript rather than a Russian one. To make matters even more convoluted, the French edition Bell was working from had been published anonymously by "Une belle russe" ("A Russian Lady"). This version is very rare today, and is generally considered obsolete.

By 1923, four more versions of War and Peace had appeared in the English market. At this point, there began to be differences in how translators handled difficult aspects of the text. For example, they take varying approaches to the novel's long French passages. The 1904 version by linguist Leo Weiner includes the French passages in their entirety – with no translation. On the other end of the spectrum, Louise and Aylmer Maude's 1923 version translates the French text into English with no indication that it was ever in French. Most of the other versions combine the two approaches––for example, leaving simple phrases in French and translating longer passages, or including the French with the English translation in a footnote (Crabtree). The translations by Constance Garnett and Ann Dunnigan, which are the most popular of the twentieth-century translations, both use the compromise method. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky's popular 2007 translation renders the French text in full but includes English footnotes.

Some translations and abridgements try to cater to the tastes of a particular niche audience. Huntington Smith was the first to try this in 1899, when he separated War and Peace into two volumes – one with the story parts of the novel, and one with Tolstoy's essayistic meditations on history. He renamed this version The Physiology of War. Another difficulty that translators face is how to render the novel's use of slang, especially that used by the soldiers. Some have criticized Anthony Briggs's 2006 translation for rendering these passages into British slang (Simpson, Thirlwell). Even more radically, the 2007 translation by Andrew Bromfield and Igor Zakharov is presented as a "first draft" of the novel, and omits the deaths of Prince Andrei and Pyotr Rostov (Neyfakh).