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Battle of the Translations: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

November 15, 2020

Reading a novel like War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy can be tough for a couple reasons. First of all, the novel is really long. Even more important, it’s in Russian, so having a good translation is very important.

If I ever decide to read War and Peace, I own a used paperback copy from 1968 translated by Ann Dunnigan (thank you, Ann Dunnigan).

Meanwhile, Amazon has a version translated by Louise and Aylemer Maude. Before I commit to reading, I want to compare translations and see if one is obviously more readable than the other. Below is an excerpt from War and Peace Chapter Two (translated by Ann Dunnigan) describing the aunt that nobody wants to talk to.


“Have you seen my aunt?” or, “You’re not acquainted with ma tante?” Ana Pavlona said to each new arrival, very gravely leading him to a little old lady with towering bows on her cap, who had emerged from another room as soon as the guests began to arrive, and slowly turning her gaze from the visitor to ma tante, she would pronounce their names and withdraw.

Every guest performed the ceremony of greeting this unknown, uninteresting, and unnecessary aunt. Anna Pavlovna followed these greetings with solemn, melancholy attention, silently approving them. Ma tante repeated exactly the same phrases to each of them concerning his health, her own, and that of Her Majesty, who, thank God, was better today. Out of politeness, the guests concealed their impatience, but it was with a feeling of relief at having performed an arduous duty that they left the old lady, not once to return to her the entire evening.


Below is an excerpt from the same two paragraphs, this time translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude (but I’ve that Louise did all the work):


To each new arrival Anna Pavlovna said, “You have not yet seen my aunt,” or, “You do not know my aunt?” and very gravely conducted him or her to a little old lady, wearing large bows of ribbon in her cap, who had come sailing in from another room as soon as the guests began to arrive; and slowly turning her eyes from the visitor to her aunt, Anna Pavlovna mentioned each one’s name and left.

Each visitor performed the ceremony of greeting this old aunt whom not one of them knew, not one of them wanted to know, and not one of them cared about; Anna Pavlovna observed these greetings with mournful and solemn interest and silent approval. The aunt spoke to each of them in the same words, about their health and her own, and the health of Her Majesty, “who, thank God, was better today.” And each visitor, though politeness prevented his showing impatience, left the old woman with a sense of relief at having performed a vexatious duty and did not return to her the whole evening.


Maybe these excerpts aren’t long enough to come to a conclusive conclusion, but I get the feeling that a translator can take a previous translation, move a few prepositional phrases around and throw in a few synonyms, and then claim he or she has created a new version.

Neither translator above could write a truly coherent sentence in the first paragraph. Whoever “emerged” or “sailed” into the room, I had to read both versions twice to figure it out.

I think the second translation is written a bit more dramatically, especially the first sentence in the second paragraph. So far, though, I haven’t seen enough differences to switch versions, so I’ll probably stick with the Ann Dunnigan version (if I continue reading at all).


What do you think? What differences did you notice in the two excerpts? What translation of War and Peace is reputed to be the best? Does it even matter?

  1. I think I actually like the first excerpt better, doesn’t seem as flowery. I have never been able to get past about the first 50 pages of War and Peace – too many different, hard to pronounce names (for each person) – trips me up every time.

    • I have the same issue. Maybe if we take the first 50 pages really slowly, and go back to recheck characters and their family lines, maybe the rest of the book is easier to follow.

      Or maybe one day some translator will write an Americanized version with shorter, more differentiated names.

  2. The second translation is more true to the original. Tolstoy’s prose is not the easiest read. War and Peace especially tends to be tedious. For instance, the famous dialogue of Natasha with the oak has one sentence that goes on for a page and a half. Similarly, the inner monologue of wounded Prince Andrei looking at the sky. It is cumbersome in translation, yet it is just as cumbersome in Russian.

    • Tolstoy is tedious in Russian? I thought it was just the translators messing with us readers. That’s good to know.

      • Well, not all his works are as tedious as War and Peace. Anna Karenina was a pretty easy reading for me at the age of 8 (snuck it off my mother’s bookshelf and didn’t understand what the whole tragedy was about!). But War and Peace made our high school miserable.

  3. The whole literature become tedious, when you understand, how many lies (even if unintended, as in the case of Lev (Leo) Tolstoy! Or even worse for literature: trivialities) are still hidden inside the books. Tolstoy tried to create his own religion; and he wrote in the last (“philosophical”) 50 pages of War and Peace, that if people will abandon sex (best of them, his followers), then they would become quite close to physical immortality:

    IF not having children – THEN physical immortality seemed logical, and even inevitable to Lev Tolstoy: when this and some other (“don’t kill”, including animals!) strict conditions will be fulfilled.

    He did not follow his own advice, having 20+ children (including some extramarital ones). But his religious “theory” is still ahead of “modern” immor(t)ality seduction of super-rich Google founders, together with Raymond Kurzweil (working there), who are ignoring completely the problem of inequality (and e.g. overpopulation) at all.

    Lev Tolstoy was the first Russian writer, who was able to publish long books, readable for foreigners as well as for many millions of Russians (after 1917). And the subject of wars with Napoleon (together with Great French 1789 Revolution) was extremely important in the 19th Century, when the greatest minds predicted some horrors of 20th Century, beginning with World War and 1917 Revolution(-s).

    Tolstoy was even strongly accused (in Gorbachov’s 1989), that being pacifist, he kind of provoked great Stalin terror. This “funny” paradox just illustrate, how much of desperate hope the educated Russians still invest in such extremely lone tragic figures, as L.N. Tolstoy.

    Tolstoy’s biography is interesting to compare to Mikhail Lermontov’s one (1814-1841; tragic and mysterious poet, with Scottish ancestry, the first open and clear anty-racist in the long Russian history; Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy tried to continue this!) and Vladimir Lenin, who tried to follow Tolstoy (style of writings, greatest influence on his followers, creating his own “sect”) and Lermontov (cult of exceptional hero, anty-racism), even when he did not admit this, as in such case:

    Lermontov was pictured as Leonin in his first (fictional) biography, written by his friend, when he was still alive (Lermontov was killed being 27 years old). Lenin knew all this, and took his pseudonym after Leonin, the fictional Lermontov! Becoming older, Lenin was ashamed to admit (even to himself) his hidden romantic passions.

    These three “writers”: M. Lermontov, L. Tolstoy, V. Lenin, were greatly involved in the historical events, they tried to predict future, and they influenced World History. Their mostly tedious texts have to be considered in such historical contexts. I read most their texts (normally available in Russian before Gorbachov – around 50 books, including biographies, historical books; 40 000 pages, plus unmeasurable amount of other texts about them).

    p.s. Some researchers (Nikolay Berdyaev, 1874-1948; “modern” Dmitry Bykov) claim, that the greatest Tolstoy’s deed was not his books, but his last desperate fight for his “religion”:

    Tolstoy and Sofya (wife) have had a long, passionate marriage, but his ideals and asceticism (he is opposed, for example, to private property) are at odds with her “aristocratic” and conventionally religious views. [

    Ultimately, Tolstoy travels to remote location where he can continue his work undisturbed. During the journey, Tolstoy falls ill (pneumonia). The 2009 film (UK, Russia, Germany) ends with his death (being 82 years old) near the remote railway station (called now his name) where Sofya is allowed by their daughter to see him just moments before his death (20 November 1910, when the old Christian Empires were also dying, partly resurrecting in 1990s in post/pseudo-Christianity and “nationalism”).

  4. Tom in Vermont permalink

    You might remember when Gandhi in 1905 wrote Tolstoy for guidance on opposing repressive regimes peacefully. And their exchange of letters in English that led in great part to the freeing of India from British rule. And Martin Luther King’s admiration for Gandhi. No one is without faults, but the American Civil Rights movement has deep Tolstoyan roots.

    It is also worth remembering the Russian government ignoring of the great famine of 1892-93, and Tolstoy’s immense movement to alleviate the starvation of millions. Tolstoy and his followers established over 250 soup kitchens in the affected areas.

    And by the way, Virginia Woolf, one of our greatest writers, was asked about the greatest novelist. She replied: “Who is the greatest novelist? What else would you call the author of War and Peace?”

    [proflapin’s post above is at the very best fatuous.]

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. 1. Battle of Words. 2. Peace and War in 2020. 3. Continuation of previous post about Burgess and his RuEnglish | INFOENERGY

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