Do we really need another English translation of Anna Karenina? This is a bit like asking whether we need a new recording of Beethoven’s Ninth. There is no English translation of the 1970 Academy of Sciences edition of the novel currently in print. This version contained a host of small differences from earlier versions; these may not amount to much individually, but cumulatively they add up to a new reading. And just as conductors and performers can produce revelatory new interpretations after intense listening, so translators have the potential to allow the author to speak more clearly. It’s all about the detail.
Do such details matter? Tolstoy certainly thought so. After helping him prepare the text for publication in book form in 1878, Nikolay Strakhov recalled his friend staunchly defending the slightest expression, and opposing even the most innocuous changes. Strakhov realised that “in spite of all the apparent carelessness and unevenness of his style”, Tolstoy had “thought over every word, every turn of speech no less than the most fastidious poet.” Such informed comments give the lie to the perception that Tolstoy was somehow indifferent to questions of form and style. In 1887, a year after the first woefully inadequate English translation of Anna Karenina was published, Matthew Arnold voiced the opinion that we are to take the novel as a “piece of life rather than as a work of art”. Henry James, who identified with his friend Turgenev’s elegance and consummate artistic restraint, in turn railed against Tolstoy’s “lack of composition” and “defiance of economy and architecture”. [Read More]