Translating Tolstoy

Last week, my review of Bath Literature Festival's Translating Tolstoy event was published in the Bath Chronicle.  The editor restricted me to a mere 150 words, so for those who like a bit more meat on their bones, here is the piece in full written for a non-specialist readership.


Native speakers of English often forget just how spoiled they are. As speakers of one of the world's major languages we do not always appreciate just how much has been translated for our benefit. And it is rare that we ever consider how complex a task this might be.

Rosamund Bartlett, who has been commissioned by Oxford World Classics to produce a new translation of Anna Karenina, demonstrated some of the challenges she faces as she tries to convey the life, mind and culture of one of Russia's greatest 19th century writers.

Ms Bartlett began her presentation by explaining that having started the translation of Anna Karenina she then broke off to write a biography of Tolstoy. This experience revealed to her the many styles and registers that Tolstoy commands and has allowed her to return to her earlier drafts of her translation to rewrite passages now that she feels she knows the author so much more thoroughly.

Tolstoy's use of the Russian language is very simple but his sentences are very complex. Ivan Bunin said of him that he has a "complete lack of belletristic decoration, of trite devices and conventions". However, he does have a habit of making up words which are very difficult to translate concisely and another trick is to repeat the same adjective up to four times in a short paragraph.  This poses the question of how literal should a translator be? Should she retain and reflect the Russian syntax and grammar or write in idiomatic English and choose a variety of adjectives? Ms Bartlett takes the view that it is important to adhere to the original style. Russian uses one word to convey a range of emotions whereas English has lots of words with subtle nuances. The nuances in Russian are conveyed by the context of the piece and it is the translator's job to interpret this for the foreign reader.

What is Bartlett trying to achieve that is different from the many previous translations of Tolstoy's work? Her aim is to find language that is timeless. Previous translations need updating but it is not enough to make the translation contemporary for this, too, in time will date.  One considerable challenge is conveying Russian dialect. The translator has to bear in mind that the work is not going to be read only by British readers but also by readers of other variants of our language. It would therefore not be appropriate, for example, to have peasants speaking with a rendition of a British dialect so Bartlett's aim is to keep the language in these situations clean, neutral and simple.

The internet is a huge help to Bartlett as she demonstrated in a passage of the text concerning 19th century bee-keeping practices. Previous translators had struggled to convey a couple of words accurately and in one or two cases the words had been entirely lost in translation as they crumbled in the face of the task before them. With vast resources at her disposal Bartlett is able to research the necessary specialist glossaries to find the precise (and highly obscure) terminology required.  Such research can involve huge swathes of time and may sometimes mean that rather than translating a chapter in a day her output is reduced to a couple of paragraphs.

Rosamund Bartlett, clearly an expert in her field, conveyed a sense of humility about her work. She confessed unashamedly to drawing on other translations of Tolstoy's work and acknowledged the huge debt she owes to them. In having studied Tolstoy so carefully in writing about him as a man and translating his work, she was aware that she was still learning and still trying to understand him. We, the readers of Tolstoy, can only be grateful that she has devoted so much of her life to this task as most of us will not have the ability or time to achieve a standard of Russian to read his work in the original.


Thanks Lisa for this - thorougly makes up for not having been able to get to what was obviously a very popular event !

Thanks Anna! Yes, the event was packed out. Sorry you weren't able to get a ticket.

Thanks for the article Lisa - made most interesting reading!

Glad you enjoyed it, Sue.

Thanks very much for this, Lisa. I was sorry to miss it and glad to be able to catch up with it by reading your piece; 150 words in the Chronicle surely can't do it justice.
It makes you realise what a huge task Rosamund Bartlett took upon herself and how many choices you have to make in a literary translation. And fascinating that she can find things on the net which previous translators struggled with.

Thanks for your comments, Aletta.

In fairness to the Chronicle, I should make it clear that they published reviews of all the events over the ten days - about 180 events - so I guess space was at a premium! I'm glad the topic of translation was given some "air time" as we often forget just how much of the literature we read is not originally written in English.

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