New translation of Anna Karenina more in the spirit of Tolstoy

Any new version of Anna Karenina enters a long and unresolvable argument about the nature of translation.

Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky at the station, from an edition illustrated by Paul Frenzeny. Culture Club / Getty Images
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Marian Schwartz's new English-language translation of Leo Tolstoy's great novel Anna Karenina [;] carries an unenviable burden. The number of English-speaking readers who will ever encounter Anna Karenina in Russian is vanishingly small, so translations become the book for the countless readers over the decades who've been spellbound by the tragic story of Anna's unhappy marriage to staid Karenin, her love affair with Count Vronsky, and the unruly passions that drive her to her death. Standing in for an author as powerful and personal as Tolstoy – trying to convey what the American novelist and critic, William Dean Howells, referred to as his "terrible, unsparing honesty" – is a very serious responsibility.

The novel has been getting new translations for 150 years and those translations themselves have developed extensive textual lives and devoted followings. Schwartz notes Constance Garnett’s “much-beloved translation of 1901”, to which we could add such alternate landmark versions as that of Louise and Alymer Maude in 1918, the version Rosemary Edmonds did for Penguin Classics in 1954, and of course the 2000 edition by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the popularity of which skyrocketed when it was chosen by Oprah Winfrey for her television book club in 2004.

For readers of a more critical bent, the appearance of any new Anna in English will necessarily prompt comparisons with all the previous Annas.

It’s only natural; “By comparison alone,” wrote the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, “we fix the epithets of praise or blame,” and Schwartz makes the case for her own version immediately, in her Translator’s Note: “What English translations have yet to address effectively,” she writes, “is Tolstoy’s literary style, which can be both unconventional and unsettling. Beginning with Garnett, English translators have tended to view Tolstoy’s sometimes radical choices as ‘mistakes’ to be corrected, as if Tolstoy, had he known better, or cared more, would not have broken basic rules of literary language.”

This admirably gets to the heart of the matter: is the goal of translation to preserve the tics and quirks, the “radical choices,” or to adapt them to the language of your reading audience? If Tolstoy uses the same adjective to describe 10 different things in one paragraph, do you assume, with Schwartz, that he did so as a deliberate artistic choice and translate accordingly, no matter how odd or tiresome your English-­language readers may find it? Or do you assume, with translators like Garnett and Edmonds, that part of your job is “cleaning up” such passages, so as not to alienate your readers from a text you’re trying to get them to love as much as you do?

And does it ultimately make much of a difference in actually reading the book? The novel’s signature scenes and moments are all but unaffected by such doctrinal squabbles. Take the character of Darya “Dolly” Alexandrovna Oblonskaya (you see the problem), a touchstone figure in the novel. In the famous scene where she’s relegated to a barren country house by her husband (Anna’s brother) and manages to find simple joys in her exile, Schwartz’s version goes: “These joys were so small that they passed unnoticed like gold in sand, and in bad moments she saw only the sorrows, only the sand; but there were good moments, too, when she saw only the joys, only the gold.” Taking Edmonds as a counter-example, we find virtually no difference: “Those joys were so small that they passed unnoticed, like gold in sand, and in trying moments she could see nothing but the pain, nothing but the sand; but there were good moments, too, when she saw nothing but the joy, nothing but the gold.”

Likewise when Anna’s husband Karenin confronts pious Dolly with his outrage over Anna’s decision to abandon her family and take up with Vronsky; the differences between the newest translation of Dolly’s horrified reaction and one from 70 years ago are almost negligible: “Anna and transgression – I cannot connect the two, I cannot believe it!” (Edmonds); “Anna and sin – I can’t connect them, I can’t believe it.” (Schwartz)

Schwartz has produced a comparatively lean and straightforward Anna Karenina, one far more Tolstoyan than most of its English-language predecessors. If that makes it less inviting to the millions of readers who made Edmonds' version such a huge success, well, Tolstoy himself knew something about that kind of risk.

Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly