Tolstoy – a lesson in diction

For those of us reading War and Peace as part of ‘Team Tolstoy’ on dovegreyreader’s blog, here’s a little lesson in diction, as powerful as it is short.

It was suggested (presumably by OUP publicity department, who offered free copies to ten lucky winners) that the Maude is the BEST translation. As we had to wait a month for it to arrive (it was only published this week) I did the first leg of the epic journey with my old yellowing Edmonds translation (Penguin). The Maude arrived on Monday but I thought I’d finish Part One in the Edmonds before swapping. However, when I read this morning a particularly lively scene in the last chapter (25), out of curiosity I went to Maude to compare the two. Here are both versions. I’m not telling you which is which.

Version 1

...Prince Andrei encountered Mademoiselle Bourienne smiling sweetly. It was the third time that day that she had thrown herself in his path in a secluded corridor, with the same ecstatic and artless smile.

‘Oh, I thought you were in your room,’ said she, for some reason blushing and casting down her eyes.

Prince Andrei looked at her severely, and his face suddenly showed irritation. He did not speak but stared at her forehead and hair, not looking at her eyes, with such contempt that the Frenchwoman flushed scarlet and turned away without a word. When he reached his sister’s room his wife was awake and her blithe voice could be heard through the open door babbling away. She was chattering on in French, as though anxious to make up for lost time after long repression.

Version 2

Prince Andrei met Mademoiselle Bourienne smiling sweetly. It was the third time that day that, with an ecstatic and artless smile, she had met him in secluded passages.

‘Oh, I thought you were in your room,’ said she, for some reason blushing and dropping her eyes.

Prince Andrei looked sternly at her and an expression of anger suddenly came over his face. He said nothing to her but looked at her forehead and hair without looking at her eyes, with such contempt that the Frenchwoman blushed and went away without a word. When he reached his sister’s room his wife was already awake and her merry voice, hurrying one word after another, came through the open door. She was speaking as usual in French, and as if after long self-restraint she wished to make up for lost time.

How much there is to learn about writing good fiction from this short extract! In fact here in a nutshell is the difference between brilliant and merely adequate writing. One version is truer, no doubt, to the original in word but the other is truer in spirit.

I’m sorry if this is turning into a comprehension test, but I need to ask some questions of you!

1. Which passage painted the scene most vividly in your mind? What words did the magic?

2. It is a rule of good style that sentences end with strong words. Which are stronger: ‘artless smile’ or ‘secluded passages’? ‘Irritation’ or ‘face’? ‘Babbling away’ or ‘open door’? ‘Repression’ or ‘lost time’?

3. Good diction depends on choice of words and the order of sentences (see earlier posts). Doesn’t ‘blithe’ and ‘babbling’ do the work of ‘merry voice, hurrying one word after another’, and do it particularly well by changing the order of phrases?

OK, by this time, and despite my disguising the Maude by translating the French sentence into English, it’s going to be obvious where my preference lies. One is undoubtedly academically (ugh, two adverbs!) superior to the other; but the other is sublime in style.

David and I are reading W&P on the lectern David built in the throne room. As I was carrying both versions back to my study to write this, I passed him on the way. ‘Have you started this?’ I asked, holding up the Maude.

‘It’s rubbish! The paper’s rubbish, the typography is crap and it won’t lie flat.’

‘But what about the translation?’

‘Oh, I haven’t got that far.’

So, would anyone like to buy a book? It’s fresh, new and has a pretty yellow ribbon. Virtually unused. As Plato teaches us, beauty can be in ideas as much as in appearances, and I’m sticking with my forty-year old smelly, yellowing and glorious Penguin.

3 thoughts on “Tolstoy – a lesson in diction

  1. Hi Linda, I’m so sorry you haven’t liked the new OUP edition, I have to say I am very much in love with mine so snap that book up quick someone🙂
    I’m really enjoying the Maude translation over the last version I read which only today, in discussion with my non-reading OH, I said felt like a soap-opera version by comparison.
    I love the soft biblical feel to the paper too so clearly there will be differing opinions on the quality of the book based on what appeals to each of us.
    I think at the outset there was much debate in comments about “best translation” and everyone had their favourite be it Garnett, Maude or whoever and so everyone made their own choices about which to read. I’m not sure there are going to be rights and wrongs about this just a personal preference for one lot of words in a certain order over another lot in a certain order perhaps, and to be honest I think I’m in the opposite camp to you as regards issues of translation perhaps?
    How much license can a translator be allowed? They are not the writer but the mediator.
    I would prefer something that stuck fairly closely to the original that made me feel I was reading as near to that original as possible rather than a translator off on a frolic of their own.
    I also just wanted to clarify that OUP didn’t suggest I gave away free copies, I asked if they would kindly do so for a few readers who might want one and they agreed and sent out five worldwide, which feels like a very generous gesture to me and, when two got lost in the post they sent them out again and I know the recipients have been very grateful for them.
    Really glad you are joining in and still enjoying the troika ride, I think we have some interesting reading ahead, I’m loving the debate.

    • Thanks for the message, Lynne. I’ve been feeling bad all day for being the opinionated old party-pooper that I am. I don’t happen to agree with David on the book’s physical qualities, but he’s Godstow Press’s production manager and is as sensitive as old man Usher about such things. I don’t think Edmonds rewrote Tolstoy or simplified the story or anything like that; she was just obviously completely steeped in the wisdom of Strunk and White. So we’ve been having fun with the comparison test in tutorials this term, and the students got the points that Messers Strunk, White and Proud have been labouring to make. ‘Best translation’ would include more criteria than mere style, but as a reader I rank style and content equally; in fact, I’m old woman Usher in that respect. I may not worry too much about a split infinitive, or even a preposition at the end of a sentence, but I can become quite cantankerous over a sloppy sentence! So it’s all useful, and I’m glad TT is liberal in its allowance for all translations and not specifying one particular one. If I get slightly acidic about OUP, it’s because I used to work for them.
      I shall be reading the Count in healthy chunks as soon as I’m through Helen Waddell’s Wandering Scholars – now that is really badly written, but it’s too late at night to get upset about it. I need to get to bed early because I’ve decided to have my opinions surgically removed tomorrow.

  2. Oh heck Linda, don’t feel bad for goodness’ sake I live with a perfectionist in these things too who much prefers a book to be leather-bound with some old hide that’s come from a 15th century shipwreck:-)
    I’m giving the Maude’s a fair crack of the whip and taking into account the timeline context of their translation which is not contemporary, so almost bound to have its baggy moments in the way that even Henry James thought W&P was a ‘baggy monster’ so poor Aylmer and Louise had their work cut out and not doubt with Lev looking over their shoulders too!

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