Don’t tell my kids, but I’m reading a book again that makes them nervous.
It all started more than a decade ago, when I first began reading “War and Peace.” I set it aside after a major ice storm hit. We had plenty to keep us busy and reading about winter in Moscow while the power was out suddenly wasn’t as appealing.
When things got back to normal, I started reading it again. Forecasters predicted another ice storm. I set it aside to prepare, and the ice stayed rain. Since then the joke at my house is that my kids insist I am not allowed to read Tolstoy during the winter.
It took me a while to decide which version of the novel I should read this time. I’d rather read it in the original, but the chances of me being able to master Russian are approximately the same as one of the birds in my yard pecking out Shakespeare in Morse code. That leaves me in the hands of translators.
It’s amazing how much difference the translation makes. The first time I attempted “War and Peace,” back in high school, I quit a few pages in. The translation was wooden, stilted and incapable of enticing the reader. Fast forward more than a few years, and I found a translation that was easy to embrace.
The same thing happened when I studied the Odyssey in college. The professor was brilliant, one of the best I’ve ever had. He loved the Odyssey, and wanted his students to do the same. Unfortunately, the translation he favored felt archaic to me. It lacked the fluidity of voice and language I want.
Back in 2017 Emily Wilson produced a new translation. I tried it based on the reviews I had read, and it was everything my professor had said the story was. Where that collegiate copy felt engraved in stone, this one moved. It gave the characters life, rather than consigning them to the past. In one reviewer’s words, it “scraped the barnacles off.”
Was my professor wrong? No. Neither was I. There’s a reason enthusiasts talk about which translations to favor. They make all the difference in the world. They are, inevitably, products of the time the translator lives. The changes are slight, but real.
I’m opting for an updated Maude translation for “War and Peace” this time. It was released in 2010, a new edition of Aylmer and Louise Maude’s work. They knew Tolstoy and he gave their work his seal of approval.
It’s not necessarily the easiest translation, nor the best entrance to the book. There’s strong support for Anthony Briggs’ work for first-time readers, and I can endorse that approach since it worked for me. But having read it, I’m looking forward to the challenges the Maude translation brings.
Finding the right translation — or the right book, for that matter — isn’t as simple as as it sounds. The biggest factor is the reader, and that means there is never a single answer. Attempting the right book at the wrong time won’t work. So it’s worth revisiting things, trying different translations. At worst, you’ve lost nothing but a bit of time. At best, you open new worlds.
And who knows? It’s entirely possible I’ll wind up revisiting my professor’s favored translation of the Odyssey.