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.
...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.
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.