Anna Karenina – the devil in the details

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.

Take chapter eight of Part Six. By this stage of the novel, Anna and Vronsky have returned from their sojourn in Italy and have retreated to the country, having been ostracised by St Petersburg high society. Levin and Kitty are also spending the summer in the country, surrounded by family and friends, and in one of the novel's most charming interludes, spread over six chapters, Levin takes two of his house guests and their dogs on a snipe-hunting trip in the marshes. Before they start out, Tolstoy lovingly describes what they are all wearing. The nouveau-riche young upstart Vasenka Veslovsky is clearly not at home in the countryside, but has gone to some trouble to look the part, appearing in a pair of expensive new boots that reach half-way up his plump thighs, a stylish green smock and a fashionable Scotch cap with trailing ribbons. The old world aristocrat Stiva Oblonsky, by contrast, looks like a tramp: torn trousers, short coat, the remnants of a hat on his head, while on his feet – well, what exactly is he wearing on his feet? How does the translator cope with porshni and podvertki, the two words Tolstoy uses to complete his vivid picture of Oblonsky's scruffy apparel? Both words are drawn from colloquial peasant vocabulary and present a challenge to the conscientious translator wishing to emulate the author's precision in describing Oblonsky's effortless shabby chic, which he combines with a state-of-the-art firearm (as the hapless Veslovsky enviously notes for future reference).
Constance Garnett, whose translation of the novel was published in 1901, has him shod in "rough leggings and spats", the latter word being an abbreviation for "spatterdashes",(either short cloth gaiters covering the instep and ankle, or long leather ones). In 1918, Louise and Aylmer Maude inverted the word order and gave Oblonsky "raw hide shoes [and] bands of linen wound round his feet instead of socks" (similar to the "rough leggings and raw-hide shoes" in Rosemary Edmonds's 1954 translation). Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky settled on "brogues and leggings" in 2000, while Kyril Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes, translators of the most recent 2008 version, opt for "putties and rawhide shoes". Brogues were originally rough leather peasant shoes of Gallic origin whose perforations allowed the water to drain while the wearer crossed bogs, but it is surely the smart modern shoes with ornamental perforated patterns that will be summoned up in the reader's imagination first. Puttees, which derive from the Hindi word for band or bandage, are strips of cloth wound round the leg from ankle to knee for protection, and have an undeniable association with the Raj.
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