An Anna Is an Anna Is an Anna

By Bob BlaisdellFebruary 2, 2015

An Anna Is an Anna Is an Anna

THE HOOPLA over Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation of Anna Karenina in 2000 made me think I was going to have a doubly intense experience, more than I had had the first time or in the dozen or 15 times I had already read it in other translations.

It was great, but it was just another translation. If I wanted to know what Anna Karenina “really said,” I decided I’d have to learn Russian. So on a sabbatical, 10 years ago, I set out to read it in Russian, having given myself a couple of months of lessons. Well, Tolstoy learned new languages by reading the New Testament in those languages, and as Anna Karenina was my bible, why couldn’t I?

Because Tolstoy was a genius and I was not and am not.

After seven years of daily practice, thousands of dollars spent on tutors, and several trips to language programs in Russia, including at Tolstoy’s estate, I had enough Russian to read Anna Karenina with some ease and complete fascination. I knew the novel, I found, the way a young man in love knows the body of his lover. I was only vexed when I hit the chapters involving farming or fashion. No matter how well I knew the word roots, I couldn’t guess the meaning of the names of flowers and grains, of fabrics and fineries, maybe because I didn’t even know some of those words in English. In any case, I wrote out each word I didn’t know and looked it up. Taking notes on my reflections and discoveries (discoveries, I discovered, I had made many times before), my trek through the original took more than a year.

The best article about the previous nine or ten translations of Anna Karenina is 2001’s “Which English Anna?” by Hugh McLean, a professor emeritus of Slavic Languages and Literatures at UC Berkeley. (It was published in the Tolstoy Studies Journal and then in his book, viewable online, In Quest of Tolstoy.) McLean is meticulous and generous; in trying to rank the various editions, this is his most important conclusion:

None of the existing translations is actively bad. From any of them the ordinary English-speaking reader would obtain a reasonably full and adequate experience of the novel. The English in all of them sounds like English, not translationese. I found very few real errors and only a few omissions, and of the latter most were only a few words or phrases. One’s choice among the existing translations must therefore be based on nuances, subtleties, and refinements.

McLean and C.J.G. Turner, author of A Karenina Companion (1993), have done more than most commentators to keep discussions of the novel sensible and free of jargon. Turner’s book was written exactly for us enraptured readers of the novel in English translation, neatly describing the history of Tolstoy’s various drafts and noting their surprising and interesting changes and developments; he provides the most comprehensive references available in English. (But anyone who reads can read Anna Karenina without any help, just the same way that any of my community college students who reads can read Pride and Prejudice without any help from me.)

But McLean hasn’t reviewed these two latest translations, while the great Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen has (in the 12/24/14 New York Times Sunday Book Review), and I agree with her that Schwartz’s “translation is often in the end less readable than Bartlett’s.” The easiest way to show their differences, I think, is in the dialogue. Bartlett’s phrasings give us the feeling of real speech, and her Anna sounds like Anna. In a scene between Anna and her husband (Part III, Chapter 23), she and he discuss their new domestic arrangements in light of her affair: “‘Alexey Alexandrovich,’ she said, looking at him and not lowering her eyes beneath his gaze, which was fixed on her hair, ‘I’m a guilty woman, I’m a bad woman, but I am the same as I was, as I told you then, and I have come to tell you that I can’t change anything.’” Schwartz’s Anna is comparatively stiff: “‘Alexei Alexandrovich,’ she said, looking at him and not dropping her eyes under his gaze, which was fixed at her hair, ‘I am a culpable woman, I am a bad woman, but I am the same woman I was, as I told you then, and I have come to tell you that I cannot change anything.’” Each to his own taste, but if you read them aloud you’ll just naturally want to loosen up Schwartz’s, like kicking up the tight sheets of a hotel bed.

kareninaOxford University Press. Nov 15, 2014.

When I took up these brand-new competing translations, I hadn’t read Anna Karenina in English since beginning my Russian quest. I couldn’t resist reading it again in Russian, but that reading still takes me ten times as long (so I’m not done). I occasionally feel disoriented, like watching a movie in the original language after having seen it dubbed.

All unhappy readers worry about Anna Karenina translations and their differences from the original, so let me retreat to my standard position: thank God for translators! They let us think about all the other spellbinding things that are going on besides the particular words. When I paused over Schwartz’s and Bartlett’s odd phrasings, almost all of them completely panned out once I checked them: Yes, that’s what the Russian says! I sometimes felt obliged to be on the lookout for gaffes — and yet the novel is too great and overwhelms me. If I wonder a moment why Vronsky “toppled” (Bartlett) instead of “fell,” (Schwartz) it’s only a moment before I shrug and get caught up with everything else: the characters, some of whom are more familiar to me than friends; the plot, which still surprises me in much the same ways as it still surprises the characters; the super-abundance of novelistic art that, by Tolstoy’s own definition, “evokes an endless stream of thoughts, images, and explanations” (in “Are the Peasant Children to Learn to Write from Us?” translated by Christopher Edgar).

There are no translation machines that can get us much closer to the novel than Constance Garnett did in 1901, or Leo Wiener in 1904, or Louise and Aylmer Maude in 1918. The Maudes’s has gone out of fashion and Wiener’s seems creaky to some (I like it), while Nathan Haskell Dole’s of 1886, the first, was rarely republished after the 19th century. They’re all available for free on the web. Translators of Russian literature are wonderful — except for their annoying habit of denigrating the work of earlier ones: “This translation seeks to preserve all the idiosyncrasies of Tolstoy’s inimitable style, as far as that is possible, including the majority of his signature repetitions, so often smoothed over by previous translators,” sniffs Bartlett. “What English translations have yet to address effectively, however,” huffs Schwartz,

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.

As readers of Tolstoy, in translation or not, we find ourselves developing the finely tuned receptiveness of the adoring newlyweds Levin and Kitty (Part VI, Chapter 3):

Schwartz: By now Levin was used to expressing his thoughts boldly, not troubling himself to put them in precise words. He knew his wife in moments of love such as now would understand what he was trying to say; one hint and she understood him.

Bartlett: Levin was used by now to blurting out his thoughts boldly, without bothering to put them into precise words; he knew that at loving moments such as this one his wife would grasp what he meant to say from a mere hint, and she did.

Got Russian? Here it is: Левин уже привык теперь смело говорить свою мысль, не давая себе труда облекать ее в точные слова; он знал, что жена в такие любовные минуты, как теперь, поймет, что он хочет сказать, с намека, и она поняла его.

In word by word translation, maintaining the syntax (insert definite and indefinite articles to taste): Levin already was used now to saying boldly his thought, not giving himself trouble to clothe it in exact words; he knew that (his) wife in such loving moments, as now, understood what he wanted to say, with hint, and she understood him.

As absolutely masterful as Tolstoy was in finding the exact words, he sometimes banged up his writing, in order for it to be more like speech, more natural. He so enjoyed the rough and ready voices of peasants and non-literary people. Too much fuss over language made Tolstoy grimace, made him too conscious of the author trying to pull something over on him. Tolstoy, I’m suggesting, has smitten us with his excited earnestness, and just as Kitty is so tuned in to Levin, we are so tuned in to Leo we almost always know exactly what he’s talking about. The language and his vision have the energy of life and of the moment, and Tolstoy has developed in us a sensitivity to them. We become as conscious as his characters are, and we feel as if we are as conscious as he is. We learn to get it all “from a mere hint.”

We read as if we have his imagination, and he is at his most imaginative with the character whose circumstances least resemble those he sympathizes with and yet whose heartbreakingly vulnerable super-consciousness is the deepest he ever created and the furthest he ever revealed himself. Anna’s thoughts glide unlike anyone else’s. Anna’s consciousness is Tolstoy’s and nearly hallucinatory:

Schwartz: … and as Anna walked past the staircase, a servant ran up to announce the visitor, and the visitor himself stood by a lamp; glancing down, Anna immediately recognized Vronsky, and a strange feeling of satisfaction and at the same time dread suddenly stirred inexplicably in her heart. He was standing there still in his coat, taking something out of his pocket. In that moment when she came even with the middle of the staircase, he looked up and saw her, and something shameful and frightened passed across his face.

Bartlett: … and while Anna was walking past the staircase, a servant ran upstairs to announce the arrival of the visitor, who was standing by the lamp. Glancing downwards, Anna immediately recognized Vronsky, and a strange feeling of pleasure mixed with an amorphous fear suddenly stirred in her heart. He was standing there without removing his coat, and taking something out of his pocket. Just as she came level with the middle of the staircase he raised his eyes, saw her, and his face took on a frightened, sheepish expression.

In Russian: ... и, когда Анна проходила мимо лестницы, слуга взбегал наверх, чтобы доложить о приехавшем, а сам приехавший стоял у лампы. Анна, взглянув вниз, узнала тотчас же Вронского, и странное чувство удовольствия и вместе страха чего-то вдруг шевельнулось у нее в сердце. Он стоял, не снимая пальто, и что-то доставал из кармана. В ту минуту как она поравнялась с серединой лестницы, он поднял глаза, увидал ее, и в выражении его лица сделалось что-то пристыженное и испуганное.

In word by word translation: … and, when Anna proceeded past the staircase, servant ran up in order to announce arriver, but arriver himself stood by lamp. Anna, looking down, recognized right away Vronsky, and strange feeling of pleasure with fear of something suddenly stirred in her in heart. He stood, not taking off coat, and something took out from pocket. In this moment as she leveled with middle of staircase, he raised eyes, saw her, and in expression of his face became somewhat ashamed and scared.

But you know what? If there is one more pulse of pleasure in the original, all the rest of the many pulses of life show up in the translations. Don’t fuss. Buy the one with the prettiest cover or with the most attractive formatting. That reminds me: as I fumble at my desk from one edition to the other, I appreciate the Oxford edition for its headers providing the part and chapter numbers. Yale’s headers are “Leo Tolstoy” on the left and “Anna Karenina” on the right. The Oxford edition, though having more pages, is more compact, on fine paper, while Yale’s, with its attractive cover off, looks like and is as hefty as the later Harry Potter books.

Karenina_SchwartzYale University Press. Nov 25, 2014.

In the mode of Professor McLean, let’s take up a few more passages for comparison. In Part II, Chapter 15, Levin, the most prominent character after Anna, shares many of Tolstoy’s characteristics and relives several of Tolstoy’s experiences. One day he encounters on his estate (much like Tolstoy’s at Yasnaya Polyana) a natural phenomenon during mucky, glorious, revitalizing springtime:

In Russian: В промежутках совершенной тишины слышен был шорох прошлогодних листьев, шевелившихся от таянья земли и от росту трав.

In word by word translation: In intervals of perfect silence heard was rustle of last year’s leaves, stirring from thawing earth and from growing grass.

Bartlett: In the spells of complete silence the thawing earth and growing grass could be heard making last year’s leaves rustle.

Schwartz: In the intervals of utter quiet he could hear the rustle of last year’s leaves, stirring with the earth thawing and the grass growing.

Does Bartlett’s seem misfocused? It’s as if, at first, the thawing earth and growing grass are heard rather than the шорох (“shorokh”), the rustle, which comes first. Levin is amazed and for the next few moments hears and sees with divine clarity:

Bartlett: “How about that! You can see and hear the grass growing!” Levin said to himself, noticing a wet, slate-coloured aspen leaf stirring beside a blade of young grass. He stood there, listening and gazing down the wet mossy ground, at the attentive Laska [his dog], at the sea of bare treetops which stretched out before him at the foot of the hill, and at the darkening sky, which was covered with strips of white cloud. High above the distant forest a hawk flew over, flapping its wings slowly; another one just like it flew in the same direction and disappeared. The birds were twittering more and more loudly and busily in the thicket. Not far off an eagle-owl hooted, and Laska gave a start, took a few cautious steps, and put her head on one side, listening intently.

An “eagle-owl”? Yes (филин in Russian), and Bartlett’s wording seems gorgeous and just right. Meanwhile, Schwartz’s ear for English seems bookish:

“Imagine! I can hear and see the grass growing!” Levin told himself, having noticed a wet aspen leaf the color of slate shifting under a blade of young grass. He stood there listening and looking down at the wet, mossy earth, at sharp-eared Laska, at the sea of bare treetops spread over the slope below, at the dimming sky masked with white bands of clouds. A hawk, lazily flapping its wings, crossed high above the distant woods; another crossed in exactly the same way, in the same direction, and was lost from view. The birds chirped more and more loudly and restlessly in the thicket. Not far away, an owl hooted, and Laska, shuddering, took a few cautious steps, cocked her head to one side, and listened closely.

Only a non-native speaker or a translator who isn’t reading her version aloud would prefer “told himself” to “said to himself.” Bartlett imagines a real dog when she translates “вздрогнув” as “gave a start,” whereas Schwartz seems only to have the word and not the English reverberations in mind when she chooses “shuddered.”

Bartlett’s seems to me as ecstatic as the Russian language feels.

There are so many treasures everywhere in the novel that even though I’d just read this next sentence in Schwartz’s translation (Part IV, Chapter 3), “He smiled, and she laughed gaily, that sweet, deep laugh that was one of her main charms,” I got caught by Bartlett’s, which I didn’t remember ever noticing, in a scene I well remembered, in which Anna is mimicking for her lover Vronsky her husband’s characteristic facial expressions:

He smiled, while she let out a merry peal of that endearing, chesty laughter which was one of her main charms.

In Russian: Он улыбнулся, а она весело засмеялась тем милым грудным смехом, который был одною из главных ее прелестей.

In word by word translation: He smiled, and she merrily began laughing with that sweet chesty laugh, which was one of her main charms.

This is a detail only someone who has spent a lot of time with her would know was “one of her main charms,” and while Vronsky is one of those people, one of his main defects is that he doesn’t seem to even know her as well as her dull husband does, and while he’s the beneficiary of her charms, it’s Tolstoy, her brother Stiva, her sister-in-law Dolly, and her young son (and, in their one meeting, even Levin) who seem to see her as she really is: marvelously sensitive, conscious, and vulnerable. I appreciate (no, delight in!) Bartlett’s “let out a merry peal” and “endearing, chesty laughter.” Does it go too far? For me, it’s in keeping with the intimacy of the scene, and I’m grateful Bartlett has managed to evoke a detail that’s always really been there but that I’ve overlooked.

We critics, because we have seen in a work of art this or that detail, this or that connection, congratulate ourselves on our discernment. What we’ve seen, however, is only, Tolstoy says, one of a million details; we give ourselves credit for seeing in isolation or in slow motion something the artist might well have not “known” he was doing, and yet he (and he alone) did certainly produce it in the big bang of creation. In Part V, Chapter 11, a minor character, the artist Mikhailov, is barely scraping by in Italy when Vronsky and Anna and a Russian acquaintance of Vronsky’s stop by his studio in a condescending attempt to help their countryman, and idly and politely remark on Mikhailov’s work-in-progress:

In Russian: Это было опять одно из того миллиона верных соображений, которые можно было найти в его картине и в фигуре Христа.

In word by word translation: This was another one of million true considerations that might be found in his painting and in figure of Christ.

Bartlett: This was another of the million valid opinions that could be formed about his painting and the figure of Christ.

Schwartz: This was again one of the million truthful reflections that one could find in his picture and in the figure of Christ.

Vronsky, who has retired from the army and taken up painting himself, commissions Mikhailov to paint a portrait of Anna. This leads to one of Tolstoy’s most profound observations of what art can do (Part V, Chapter 13):

Bartlett: From the fifth sitting onwards the portrait astonished everyone, and Vronsky in particular, not only with its likeness but also its special beauty. It was uncanny how Mikhailov had been able to uncover her special beauty. “One would have had to know and love her as I have loved her to uncover that most endearing heartfelt expression of hers,” thought Vronsky, although he had only discovered this most endearing heartfelt expression of hers from the portrait. But this expression was so truthful that he and others felt they had known it for a long time.

Schwartz: At the fifth sitting, the portrait impressed everyone, especially Vronsky, not only by its likeness by also by its special beauty. It was strange how Mikhailov had managed to discover that special beauty of hers. “One has to know and love her, the way I have loved her, to discover this very dear, tender expression of hers,” thought Vronsky, although it was only from this portrait that he had discovered this very dear, tender expression of hers. But this expression was so true that he and others felt they had known it all along.

Art makes us feel we already knew what we otherwise never would have known. Reading Anna Karenina makes me think I know what Tolstoy knows.

The closer or more often you look at Anna Karenina, the better it gets; this novel might, depending on your own enchantment, convince you to learn for yourself the marvelous Russian language, even if the translations are so good you don’t really need to.


Bob Blaisdell is the editor of Tolstoy as Teacher: Leo Tolstoy’s Writings on Education (Teachers and Writers Collaborative) and Great Love Stories (Dover, forthcoming).

LARB Contributor

Bob Blaisdell is the author of Creating Anna Karenina: Tolstoy and the Birth of Literature’s Most Enigmatic Heroine (Pegasus, 2020) and the editor of The Wit and Wisdom of Anthony Trollope (Blackthorn Press, 2003).


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!