I have been thinking a lot about the difference a translation of a novel can make to the way we read and feel about a text. Here are two passages from Anna Karenina, the first one translated by Rosemary Edmonds, and the second one by Pevear and Volonkovsky. It is the scene at the grand ball, and to Kitty’s dismay it becomes apparent that Anna and Vronsky are smitten with one another.
She saw that Anna was intoxicated with the admiration she had aroused. Knowing the feeling and the signs, she recognised them in Anna. She saw the quivering, flashing light in her eyes, and the smile of happiness and excitement that involuntarily curved her lips, and the graceful sureness and ease of her movements… Every time he spoke to Anna, her eyes lit up joyously and a smile of happiness parted her red lips. She seemed to be making an effort to restrain these signs of joy but in spite of herself they appeared on her face. ‘But what of him?’ Kitty looked at him and was filled with dread. What was so plainly mirrored in Anna’s face, she saw in him. What had become of his usually quiet, firm manner and tranquil, carefree expression? Now, every time he turned towards Anna, he bowed his head a little, as if wanting to fall at her feet in adoration, and his eyes held only submission and fear. ‘I would not offend you,’ his every look seemed to say. ‘I only want to save myself but I do not know how.’ The expression on his face was one Kitty had never seen before (pp. 95-6).
She saw in her a streak of of the elation of success, which she knew so well in herself. She could see that Anna was drunk with the wine of rapture she inspired. She knew that feeling, knew the signs of it, and she saw them in Anna – saw the tremulous flashing of her eyes, the happiness and excitement that involuntarily curved her lips, the precise gracefulness, assurance and lightness of her movements… Each time he spoke with Anna her eyes flashed with a joyful light and a smile of happiness curved her red lips. She seemed to be struggling with herself to keep these signs of joy from showing, yet they appeared on her face of themselves. ‘But what about him?’ Kitty looked at him and was horrified. What portrayed itself so clearly to Kitty in the mirror of Anna’s face she also saw in him. Where was his quiet, firm manner and carefree, calm expression? No, now each time he addressed Anna, he bowed his head slightly, as if wishing to fall down before her, and in his glance there were only obedience and fear. ‘I do not want to offend you,’ his glance seemed to say each time, ‘I want to save myself but do not know how.’ There was an expression on his face that she had never seen before (p. 81).
I find Edmonds’ translation infinitely more beautiful and than that of P&V. It is also more telling and subtle: the sexual arousal implicit in Anna’s parted red lips, rather than the repetitive smile “curving” her red lips, for instance. Vronsky wants to fall at her feet in adoration, and there is submission and fear in his expression: submission to his desire, and fear of the consequences. P&V would have him fall down before her, as if he were powerless because she had somehow bewitched him, and whenever he glances at her his expression is one of obedience and fear. This use of the word “obedience” makes it seem as though Anna has the upper hand and Vronsky is powerless to resist her, whereas in Edmonds’ translation he submits to his own desire and they are equally smitten with one another: Vronsky has not somehow fallen under Anna’s spell, but has fallen in love with her.
For me, there is a world of difference in the way Edmonds describes this interaction between Anna and Vronsky. P&V portray Anna as being drunk on her own power of seduction and Vronsky as being obedient and helpless to resist, whereas Edmonds portrays him as being complicit by submitting to his own desire, which is a different thing altogether. He wants to save himself from what he knows will be a great scandal, but he is not willing to offend Anna by denying their attraction, and anyway, the attraction is so strong that he does not know how to deny it. In the Edmonds translation, Anna is intoxicated by (under the influence of) her great happiness that she has aroused passion in Vronsky, but there is no talk of her being “drunk”. Granted, this difference in meaning is only slight, but “drunk” has the connotation of being out of control, whereas “intoxicated” veers more towards exhilaration. Another annomoly strikes me when Kitty sees Anna and Vronsky together: in Edmonds’ translation she is filled with dread, a sense of apprehension that something disagreeable will happen, which seems fairly natural considering that Kitty was attracted to Vronsky and suddenly realises that not only will there be no future for them together, but that Anna and Vronsky’s obvious mutual attraction will only lead to trouble. Why would she be filled with “horror”, an intense and debilitating feeling of shock, a state of being which seems totally out of place in this context. Once again, this may be a matter of semantics, but a close reading of the text throws up many such subtle differences in tone which can serve to influence how a reader interprets the narrative.
The fact that more people are reading the P&V translation after Oprah made it popular is perhaps one of the reasons why fewer people seem to have empathy with Anna these days, branding her as shallow and selfish. If the Anna they see is the one P&V portray, drunk with power because she has inspired rapture in Vronsky, rather than Edmonds’ Anna, who realises she shares a mutual passionate attraction with Vronsky, then I think they are missing a crucial point in the narrative. Anna does not give up her child and husband on a whim, but is driven to do so because she is passionately in love and the pain of leaving her child is less than the pain of giving up her one chance of experiencing true happiness and fulfilment. A woman is more than a mother, and realistically, Anna would not have had the close day-to-day contact with her child that modern women do. He would have been cared for by a nurse and Anna would have seen him for a short time each day, and perhaps not for days or weeks on end when she was away from home, so although mother and child did have a close bond and she did love her son, leaving him in the care of his nurse and under the protection of his father was not such a terrible or unusual act. Children belonged to their fathers, just as wives belonged to their husbands, but Anna chose to break that bond and live on her own terms. She chose to kick over the traces of respectability and repression and bolt towards love and freedom. Sadly, as time passed and their passion cooled, as it inevitably does, Anna and Vronsky were faced with the reality of what they had done and both of them realised that there was no going back. I do not think Anna wanted to die, but she did not know how to live with the pain of knowing that she and Vronsky were growing apart. Her dream had shattered and she did not know how to carry that burden.
Rosemary Edmonds was so pedantic about her work that she insisted on using the correct Russian form of Anna’s name in the title of the book, Anna Karenin. The P&V version may be a more literal translation of Tolstoy’s manuscript, but I trust Edmonds’ judgement in transposing the text the way she did. I think her version has more depth and subtlety and although she may have done away with the French and embroidered here and there, the resulting text is infinitely more beautiful and haunting and wonderful as a result.
I have embarked on a reading of the Oxford World Classics edition of War and Peace, which is basically a cleaned-up version of the Maude translation, with the French dialogue reinstated and the Anglicised names returned to their Russian originals. I am finding it a bit of a bore to have to glance at the footnotes for the English translation of the French sections, but otherwise it is not too bad.
I also have the newer Penguin translation by Anthony Briggs. His version strikes me as using very modern English and is rather British in tone. I have been swapping back and forth between these two editions, trying to decide which one I like better. The latter allows me to proceed at a gallop and the pages turn themselves. The OWC version takes more time to read because of the French, and the English is slightly less friendly, so I would describe it as a canter through War and Peace. I do miss the stately trot of the Edmonds’ version though, so I think I will end up just reading that edition again as my Christmas avoidance book of the year. :)