Too Much 'War and Peace'?

A newish (2005) translation of Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace" has just landed on my desk, done by a man named Anthony Briggs and published by Penguin Classics. Is it a good thing that, with this one, we now have at least half-a-dozen mass-market English translations of the novel to choose from? First published in 1869, "War and Peace" has long since fallen into the public domain, as has the first translation into English, by the redoubtable Constance Garnett. So any publisher is free to either reprint the Garnett version (as several have) or to commission a new one, paying only the translator him- or herself. I recognize, too, that "War and Peace" is widely regarded as the greatest novel ever written, and that the marketplace probably knows a thing or two: That is, if Penguin and Oxford Classics and the rest of them didn't think they could sell droves of copies, they wouldn't go to the trouble of calling for new editions of "War and Peace."

But does the language change so much and so fast that Penguin must retire its own 1970 translation of the novel, by Rosemary Edmonds, and put forth this new one? I ask because the duplication of effort seems odd when so many other foreign novels of stature have yet to find their way into English even once. (And, as I'm sure you know, translating "War and Peace" is a herculean task: The new Penguin runs to almost 1400 pages of wee print.) About half the score or so novels by German writer Theodor Fontane (you may know of him as the author of "Effi Briest," itself published by Penguin Classics) remain untranslated, for example, including the work many critics consider his masterpiece: "Der Stechlin." Or consider "Les Civilisés," a fine novel by one of my pet neglected writers, the Frenchman Claude Farrère; exotic, sexually frank and beautifully written, it won the Prix Goncourt in 1905 but has yet to be Englished.

I'm not well enough versed in Russian literature to be able to rattle off worthy untranslated titles from its canon, but I have little doubt that they exist. As with other publishers these days, I wish those who put out the classics would widen their net a bit and devote some of the time and energy they expend on updating the same old favorites to taking us deeper into the treasure house of world literature.

-- Dennis Drabelle

By Denny Drabelle |  February 24, 2009; 7:08 AM ET Dennis Drabelle
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I agree wholeheartedly with the closing sentiments. I read the old Constance Garnett version (my copy was published in the thirties, I think... one of those old hard-covers) and while I might someday reread that excellent novel in another translation, I do think that there are probably many excellent books that go ignored simply because they aren't well known. It's a shame I speak few languages but if publishers spent a little less time retranslating books for the thousandth time and instead translated different (new) books, I might not need to start learning French.

Posted by: Biblibio | February 24, 2009 11:20 AM

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