Best War and Peace English edition?
August 12, 2005 6:51 AM   Subscribe

What's the best English edition of War and Peace?

I'm thinking about finally getting around to reading Tolstoy's War and Peace, and I'm trying to decide which edition to buy. I want the "best" translation possible (though "best" is highly subjective in these matters), but, superficial as I am, I also want a well-designed book (since I'm going to be spending at least a month with it). Clean, crisp type is a must, and a hardcover edition is preferable (though quality of the translation takes precedence over aesthetics in the end).

So far I'm looking at the Modern Library edition, translated by Constance Garnett (a single hardcover volume), and the Everyman's Library edition, translated by Aylmer Maude and Louise Maude (three hardcover volumes in a slipcase). There's another Penguin paperback edition translated by Rosemary Edmonds, but the typesetting in it doesn't look like the greatest. If the Edmonds translation is far and away the best, I'd be willing to deal, though.

Which of these three do you recommend (or are there other, better editions of which I'm unaware)?
posted by Prospero to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I read the Maude translation of Anna Karenina and found it quite readable. My biggest issue with the book was dealing with its size--it was impossible to hold in one hand. A Maude translation of War and Peace in three volumes sounds like it would be a very good thing to me.

(I'm no expert, though--I'm sure someone will weigh in with a much more scholarly response. This is just my opinion as an "ordinary" reader.)
posted by bcwinters at 8:13 AM on August 12, 2005

The Penguin edition is excellent. I read it several years back.

It's in excellent, idiomatic English and captures the sweep of this ultimate page-turner novel.

One small problem is that the typesetting was poorly proofread. It averages a typo every couple of pages, but it's nothing that you can't get past.

Avoid the old Constance Garnett translations, which are stilted and badly dated.
posted by KRS at 8:39 AM on August 12, 2005

I've read the Rosemary Edmonds translation several times, as well as the Garnett version. Let me throw in my vote for the Edmonds. Very exciting battle scenes. Wonderful read.
posted by MotherTucker at 9:24 AM on August 12, 2005

When in doubt go with WW Norton's publications. They do a good job of picking translations for Tolstoy. Though, now that I'm looking it up, it looks both Norton & Everyman are using the same (Maude) translation. I liked it.
posted by small_ruminant at 9:27 AM on August 12, 2005

Response by poster: With two votes for Edmonds, two-ish votes for Maude, and a negative vote for Garnett, I ordered the three-volume Maude translation. The ease of carrying around one-third of the novel at a time was pretty much the deciding factor (and I've got a couple of dozen other Everyman's Library editions--they're nice).
posted by Prospero at 11:14 AM on August 12, 2005

With Tolstoy it depends on what you are looking for when you say 'best translation'. Tolstoy in his natural Russian (any natives here, please jump in and correct me, I'm going back to what I learned as a Russian major in college) is severely lacking in actual style. This is why he was so popular..he wrote like a person might speak..with no flair and no embellishments. He was not about flowery or lyrical language. In English, this is BORING. For example, the Oprah edition of Anna Karenin tries very hard to copy his style into english and I found it almost laughable in its lack of sophistication. I felt like I was reading a bad freshman creative writing story (style wise..not plot/idea/message wise). Other translations, like the Contance Garnett one, try to spice up his english and while purists hate that, I like it.

So, when it comes to War and Peace, I like the Norton edition, which as far as I can remember also tries to jazz up the language a bit. My advice would be to read the notes on the translation and any forwards by the translators to determine what their precise mission was. Also, be warned, War and Peace has just as much French as Russian in the original, so skim through and make sure that the French is translate too (sounds like a dumb thing to have to check, but sometimes the more academic versions think eveyone knows french or they put the translation at the bottom of the page in a footnote..annoying).

Anyway, I don't think you can go wrong with the Norton Critical Edition.
posted by spicynuts at 12:43 PM on August 12, 2005

Tolstoy in his natural Russian... is severely lacking in actual style

This is quite wrong, unless you think "style" means "flowery or lyrical language" (in which case you presumably think Hemingway is lacking in style). Tolstoy was a superb stylist (far more so than the lumbering Dostoyevsky—the fact that Nabokov worshipped the former and couldn't stand the latter might give you a clue). If you didn't like "the Oprah edition," don't blame it on Tolstoy. I'll let "just as much French as Russian" go as an exaggeration, since there are quite a few passages in French; for instance, the opening paragraph in my Russian edition reads:
— Еh bien, mon prince. Gênes et Lucques ne sont plus que des apanages, des поместья, de la famille Buonaparte. Non, je vous préviens que si vous ne me dites pas que nous avons la guerre, si vous vous permettez encore de pallier toutes les infamies, toutes les atrocités de cet Antichrist (ma parole, j'y crois) — je ne vous connais plus, vous n'êtes plus mon ami, vous n'êtes plus мой верный раб, comme vous dites. Ну, здравствуйте, здравствуйте. Je vois que je vous fais peur, садитесь и рассказывайте.
But 99% of the novel is in Russian, as you might expect.

It looked to me like the Modern Library and Everyman were both using Garnett (check the copyright pages), but it doesn't really matter; if you like the translator's style, that's what's important, since it's got to carry you through many hundreds of pages. Don't worry, once you make it through the first hundred or two, you won't be able to stop!
posted by languagehat at 1:57 PM on August 12, 2005

Oh, I should add that I don't mean to put Dostoevsky down—he's one of my favorite novelists. Like Dickens, he just wasn't a stylist.
posted by languagehat at 1:58 PM on August 12, 2005

The Penguin edition was excellent. I tried to reread the book again some years later with another translation and was disappointed.
posted by Manjusri at 2:31 PM on August 12, 2005

Response by poster: It looked to me like the Modern Library and Everyman were both using Garnett (check the copyright pages)[...]

For some reason, the Amazon Search Inside the Book function for the Everyman's Library edition links to the Modern Library edition instead. Barnes and Noble's webpage for the Everyman's Library edition confirms that it's the Maude translation.
posted by Prospero at 6:36 AM on August 13, 2005

Ah, thanks.
posted by languagehat at 11:21 AM on August 13, 2005

Response by poster: Update for archival purposes: I'm about 125 pages into volume 1 of the Everyman's Library edition of War and Peace (Maude translation), and I'm really enjoying it--it's quite readable. Almost all of the French is translated, but not all of it, and there are no footnotes in this edition--something to consider.

There are a few minor typographical errors (missing quotation marks, etc.) but nothing to get excited about. Unlike the other editions of War and Peace I considered, the print in this edition is decently sized (12-point, I'd guess). It's bound in three hardcover volumes, each with a ribbon sewn into the spine to use as a bookmark--the books are designed to be carried with you. Recommended.
posted by Prospero at 5:51 AM on September 6, 2005

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