Esther Swartzentruber is a newcomer to Elkhart County who teaches English grammar and literature at a small Mennonite school in Nappanee. You can read more of her work on her community blog for The Elkhart Truth, Shasta’s Fog.
Armed with a student’s thank-you gift card and a ferocious excitement for my summer classic choice (Tostoy’s War and Peace), I trotted into Barnes and Noble to pick out the classiest looking version I could find.
Yes, I’m a print girl. No Kindle yet for me.
We print people get to be choosy when buying classics – that is, on those occasions when we’re actually buying new books rather than sniffing out old, bargain-priced copies at garage sales or Goodwill. Among booksellers, Barnes and Noble stocks the largest variety of versions, printings and editions. Barnes and Noble, then, is a great stop for a picky book buyer. And we print people are especially picky concerning cover art.
I’ve been interested in cover art since I first noticed it in my parents’ little home library. While not exceedingly broad, my parents’ reading preferences (from Christian fiction to 40-year-old Bible college texts to my father’s current affinity for Jewish studies) exhibit the phenomenon that pop culture inspires cover art. Digging through my parents’ books in the boxes in the basement, I was never really quite sure what groovy font, bell bottoms or afros had to do with the subject of prayer, but it certainly made sense to book cover illustrators in the 1970s. Cover art becomes so quickly dated but can, nevertheless, remind book buyers of the period or decade in which they buy a book.
Hoping to make a simple choice between a classic hardcover with gold-edged gilding and a 2014 pop art cover, I wasn’t prepared for a heavier decision: which translation to choose. I had not done my homework before buying, and I wasn’t prepared to choose between various English translations of Tolstoy’s Russian text.
So I was reduced to judging books by their covers (and the little reviews on their backs). For example, did I want the most-read English translation? Or did I want a brand new 21st century translation? There were two: a 2005 Briggs translation and a 2007 Pevear and Volokhonsky translation with the French sections still intact. Would I rather be familiar with the versions most English speakers my age have read, or would I rather read the newer translations? Would I gain something from reading a classic version of a classic? Or should I cheerfully accept a highly readable modern translation with modern grammar, vocabulary and syntax? Or would that be jolting, since War and Peace is classic-y? Would the contemporary language take something away from the historicity of the text?
I reminded myself, though, that Tolstoy’s original audiences would have read War and Peace in a Russian text that would not have sounded antiquated to them – the same for English audiences soon after the 1904, 1923 and 1957 translations. I fingered the 2005 and 2007 translations, which, incidentally, had two cover choices: a heavy, colorful volume with eastern-inspired art and a bulky, rough-edged gilding little beauty sporting a bronze chandelier, which I’m sure has nothing to do with War and Peace but has everything to do with fashion design trends of the 2000s.
The point is, War and Peace is in modern, global English for the first time in 80 years (the ’57 version exclusively used British English). English audiences today (and in the next decade or so) get to have an experience with the text that will not happen for another 50 years. We get to read it in our contemporary language.
Picture this: It’s 2074 and a professor of English soon realizes her students or her grandchildren struggle through War and Peace. The diction and vocabulary are complicated and outdated. A re-translation will occur. Language changes over time.
Since I did not have a smartphone with me at the bookstore to Google which translation I should choose, I went with the Briggs. Later I learned there is quite a controversy between the 2005 Briggs translation and 2007 Pevear and Volokhonsky.
Some of it has to do with class – intellectual snobs argue Tolstoy’s book wouldn’t have been easily accessible to all social classes since he wrote portions in French and not all 1860s Russians were bilingual. So, modern English translations should also keep the French portions original to maintain this inaccessibility. Some of it has to do with style –Tolstoy’s Russian was choppy, so English translations should be choppy. And finally, some of it has to do with Britishisms – can we really handle Russian soldiers popping out in lower-class British dialects? But you can read all this scholarship for yourself by Googling it.
Or you could simply sit down and read for yourself, for the first time, a very accessible classic. I went with the Briggs, which leaves out the original French. It proves to be highly accessible, and I am devouring it more voraciously than even this winter’s A Tale of Two Cities.
Reader, you have raised your hand, I see.
“Why do we read Tolstoy?”
We read Tolstoy because he became convinced of the relevance of Jesus Christ’s teachings to everyday living. Fifteen years after publishing War and Peace, Tolstoy announced himself a pacifist inspired by Jesus’ Sermon the Mount. This fact alone drove this 21st century Anabaptist to read his earlier work. (What could I learn, I asked myself, from his early questioning?)
In fact, Tolstoy’s rejection of government involvement due to his pacifist leanings got him kicked out of the Russian Orthodox Church. Interestingly, Tolstoy’s writings on nonviolence went on to inspire Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
These reasons, dear reader, are why we read Tolstoy.
Nevertheless, to first-time readers of Tolstoy’s amazing work, choose for yourself between the 21st century Briggs and the Pevear and Volokhonsky. But do it sometime in the next decade. The freshness of the dialogue will not occur again for another 50 years.
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