Tolstoy translated

At the beginning of the 20th century, there were more people reading Tolstoy in translation than any other writer. That this was an extraordinary phenomenon becomes clear from reading an unsigned review of 13 new volumes of Tolstoy translations published in Britain’s liveliest literary periodical, the Saturday Review, in 1905. “Twenty years ago Tolstoy was hardly known outside Russia”, it begins. “We remember mentioning his existence to an American novelist of first rank, a great admirer of Turgenev, who did not seem inclined to believe that people would soon come to recognise the greater power of Tolstoy. Who has not heard of Tolstoy now?”

The novelist in question is undoubtedly Henry James, a friend and well-known admirer of Ivan Turgenev, the first leading Russian writer to be widely translated and recognised abroad. The critic is almost certainly James’s protégé HG Wells, one of a number of brilliant young writers drafted in to shake up the Saturday Review by its new editor in the 1890s. A year after this review was published, Wells would write Tolstoy a fan letter, telling him he had read everything by him he could find in English, about 18 volumes, and that, in his opinion, of all the works he had had the fortune to read,War and Peace and Anna Karenina were the “most magnificent and all-encompassing”

Before 1905, James could be forgiven for not immediately perceiving Tolstoy’s genius, as few people outside Russia had even heard his name before the mid-1880s. The English-speaking world was introduced to Tolstoy’s prose when the American scholar and diplomat Eugene Schuyler published a translation of The Cossacks in 1878. Schuyler had visited Tolstoy at his Yasnaya Polyana estate while working as the US consul in Moscow, and had translated the novella after an extended period in Russia, so he was highly qualified.

This was not the case with the first translators to tackle War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Clara Bell, who worked in London, was a talented linguist but the English War and Peace she published in 1886 was translated from the first French edition of 1879 rather than the Russian original, which it little resembled. The American Nathan Haskell Dole, who published the first translation of Anna Karenina, also in 1886, did work with the Russian text but this was not always apparent. To the critic of the New York Times, his version suggested “the geological subsidence of a layer of Russian into a substratum of English, leaving a number of words to linger fossil-like amid the latter in untranslatable durability”.

Not only was the sheer prolixity of Tolstoy’s great novels a deterrent to all but the most determined of translators, but after the urbane Turgenev, whose measured prose slipped so easily into English, Tolstoy was also far more unpolished, more uncompromising and, well, altogether more Russian. Henry James spoke for many when he proclaimed in 1896 that Tolstoy was a “monster harnessed to his great subject – all human life! – as an elephant might be harnessed, not to a carriage, but to a coach-house”. It would fall to the next generation of translators to produce the more faithful versions in English that would have so powerful an effect on modernists such as Virginia Woolf.

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