Book Review: Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” — A Translation That Respects the Nuances

Marian Schwartz’s careful translation of Anna Karenina is exquisitely mindful of the book’s complex linguistic texture.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. Translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz with an introduction by Gary Saul Morson, Yale University Press, The Margellos World Republic of Letters, $35.


By Jim Kates

Leo Tolstoy, like Herman Melville or Marcel Proust, is one of those writers people invoke when they refer to weighty, serious literature, whether or not the invokers have actually read the volumes these authors wrote. The books themselves often take a back seat to their intimidating reputations or their drift into intellectual caricature. Plucked out of referential status (and made into a mega best-seller by exposure on Oprah Winfrey’s television show), Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has taken on a sudden popularity. 2012 saw the release of an Impressionist movie version starring Keira Knightley.

The popularity is deserved, even if the story’s eponymous protagonist is often romanticized and misunderstood. She is a woman who, driven by her selfishness (mirrored by her brother’s) and bovaryisme,  chooses to abandon her husband and child. Tolstoy’s authorial empathy comes close to overwhelming his moral disapproval and more often than not this sympathy deceives inattentive readers. Karenina’s trials and tribulations are played out against the dramas of two other families whose lives are as compelling as hers — the Oblonskys have their own chaos to deal with, the Levins face the challenge of embracing a new world.

Besides the standard English versions from the twentieth century, we’ve had three new translations of Anna Karenina within the last decade, one of them garnering considerable attention because of Oprah. What can possibly justify still another translation of this book? Marian Schwartz’s careful, long-awaited, and comfortably readable version proves that there is room for one more.

When I was finally able to read Tolstoy in the original Russian, I was surprised to discover that the English-language writer he most resembled in the precision of his language was Jane Austen. None of the current English translations had prepared me for this, perhaps because the difference in size and scope of Austen’s and Tolstoy’s novels obscured their similarities. The longer the work, the less patience a reader is likely to have for the subtleties of style, and Tolstoy’s book has become a byword for quantity rather than for precision. Yet Tolstoy’s conscientious drafting and redrafting of his manuscript argues for more, rather than less, nuanced attention to the language on the part of the translator.

Schwartz’s new translation of Anna Karenina redresses this balance. “He used language,” she writes in her translator’s introduction, “to convey meaning, to express his spiritual and moral concerns, and to show what he believed to be beautiful. I found the so-called roughness so widely remarked upon both purposeful and exciting.” (p. xxiii) Her translation demands a slower, more savory reading than, say, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s English version, which dominates the Karenina market at the moment. (I count myself a personal friend of Schwartz as well as Pevear and Volokhonsky. Their approaches to translation are very different. This review is not about judging their various strategies. Comparisons are for illustration only.) To show what I mean, here is a single, incidental passage, taken pretty much at random (Part 3, chapter 28) where the variations are small enough to be, perhaps, individually inconsequential, but add up over the course of the novel:

. . . Левин перед сном зашел в кабинет хозяина, чтобы взять книги о рабочем вопросе, которые Свияжский предложил ему. Кабинет Свияжского была огромная комната, обставленная шкафами с книгами и с двумя столами — одним массивным письменным, стоявшим посередине комнаты, и другим круглым, уложенным звездою вокруг лампы, на разных языках последними нумерами газет и журналов. У письменного стола была стойка с подразделенными золотыми ярлыками ящиками различного рода дел.

. . . Levin stopped at his host’s study before going to bed to take some books on the workers question that Sviyazhsky had offered him. Sviyashsky’s study was a huge room lined with bookcases and had two tables in it — one a massive desk that stood in the middle of the room, and the other a round one on which the latest issues of newspapers and magazines were laid out in a star-like pattern around a lamp. By the desk was a stand with boxes of all sorts of files marked with gilt labels. (Pevear-Volokhonsky, p. 335)

. . . Levin, before going to sleep, stopped by his host’s study in order to borrow the books on the worker question which Sviyashksy had offered him. Sviyashsky’s study was a large room furnished with shelves of books and two tables — one massive desk that stood in the middle of the room, and another round table laid with the latest issues of newspapers and journals in various languages fanned out around a lamp. Next to the desk was a stand of drawers categorized with gilt labels and containing various files. (Schwartz, p. 308)

First, let’s look at what the writer is up to here. The reader steps with Levin into an unfamiliar room, and with visual and psychological accuracy, our attention is directed at what we would take note of first, then next, if we were to step into such a room — shelves of books on the wall, the large desk, the smaller table, the file-cabinet. In the last sentence we are given a peek at the files themselves, jumping past Levin’s perspective by way of a tiny, seemingly unnecessary, authorial intrusion. This is a trick that Tolstoy often uses: it reminds the reader that the world stretches much wider and deeper than the scope of his story. That touch of “containing various files” shows the novelist at his most meticulous.

The Pevear-Volokhonsky version is designed for swift reading and easy comprehension (“stopped at his host’s study before going to bed”), while Schwartz’s slower phrasing (“before going to sleep, stopped by his host’s study…”) and her ordering of the passage’s descriptive observations catch the action’s offhand, incidental rhythm. These little details constitute an important aspect of Tolstoy’s style. One translation gets along with the story, the other looks at Sviyazhsky’s home with the kind of acute attention to the minute that Tolstoy cultivates deliberately throughout his writing. It is this embrace of the minuscule that critic Gary Saul Morson celebrates extravagantly in his brief but excellently argued introduction: “Better than anyone else who ever lived. Tolstoy traces the infinitesimally small changes of consciousness. That, perhaps is the key to the impression of so many readers that his works feel not like art but like life…..”

Very few people will read Anna Karenina more than once in their lives, and the translation a first-time reader chooses is most likely to be the one closest at hand. This review will probably not send a reader who has read the novel before scurrying off to read it again. But if there is a Tolstoyan out there who is interested in reading a translation that is exquisitely mindful of the book’s complex texture, or someone who has meant to get to Karenina but hasn’t yet got around to this particular pleasure, Schwartz’s tribute to Tolstroy’s craft and sensitivity should be at the top of the list.

Jim Kates is a poet, feature journalist and reviewer, literary translator and the president and co-director of Zephyr Press, a non-profit press that focuses on contemporary works in translation from Russia, Eastern Europe and Asia. His translation of Mikhail Yeryomin: Selected Poems 1957-2009 (White Pine Press) is the winner of the second Cliff Becker Prize in Translation.

1 Comment

  1. Reading Tolstoy during a plague – Cerno on May 30, 2021 at 5:22 am

    […] by finding noted Tolstoy scholar Dr Gary Saul Morson. He led to the translation by Marian Schwartz. A work faithfully carrying the flow and spirit of Tolstoy’s Russian into English. Halfway in, I’m experiencing that […]

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