Anna Karenina – the devil in the details
Do we need another translation of Anna Karenina? Rosamund Bartlett explores the challenges of Tolstoy's vivid colloquial language
Friday 5 September 2014 18.00 BST
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.In keeping with the central ideas Tolstoy puts forward in the novel about the importance of Russia's relationship to the land, it is not without significance that Oblonsky is wearing peasant footwear. One could never imagine the debonair Vronsky doing the same. Porshni denote primitive shoes made out of single pieces of leather which are drawn tight with a cord threaded through holes along the edges, like Native American moccasins. Because they are light and dry out quickly, they are well suited for tramping quietly through soggy marshes in search of snipe. Translating porshni as "light peasant moccasins" is one way to try and defuse one of the modern connotations of "moccasin". Podvertki are the cloths wound around the foot and lower leg which you can see most peasants wearing in 19th-century Russian paintings (and which, amazingly, were also a standard part of Russian army uniform instead of socks until 2012).
Do such details matter? Tolstoy certainly thought so. After helping him prepare the text for publication in book form in 1878, Nikolay Strakhov recalled his friend staunchly defending the slightest expression, and opposing even the most innocuous changes. Strakhov realised that "in spite of all the apparent carelessness and unevenness of his style", Tolstoy had "thought over every word, every turn of speech no less than the most fastidious poet." Such informed comments give the lie to the perception that Tolstoy was somehow indifferent to questions of form and style. In 1887, a year after the first woefully inadequate English translation of Anna Karenina was published, Matthew Arnold voiced the opinion that we are to take the novel as a "piece of life rather than as a work of art". Henry James, who identified with his friend Turgenev's elegance and consummate artistic restraint, in turn railed against Tolstoy's "lack of composition" and "defiance of economy and architecture".
In fact, Tolstoy brought a completely unfamiliar aesthetic to literary fiction, which the critic Dmitry Mirsky described as "the creation of a new literary language free from the bookish traditions of contemporary literature and based entirely on the language actually spoken". So it is not surprising that his early translators either failed to register the idiosyncracies of his style, or attempted to "tame" it, in order to make his novels more acceptable to a reading public brought up on Austen and Dickens. The general preference nowadays by contrast is for fidelity to the original text, but that has sometimes gone too far.
Take the opening sentence of Part 2, chapter 20, which is set outside St Petersburg, where the Russian army is garrisoned during the summer months. In one recent translation we read: "Vronsky stood in the spacious and clean Finnish cottage, which was divided in two". Although literally correct, it is the figurative meaning of the Russian verb "to stand" which is clearly intended: "Vronsky was billeted in a spacious and clean Finnish log cabin, divided into two".The English-speaking world owes Constance Garnett a great debt for producing a translation of Anna Karenina which has stood the test of time and set a high benchmark for future versions. But her remark that "Tolstoy's simple style goes straight into English without any trouble" is problematic when one remembers the thorny challenge posed by the many sentences in the book which are over 100 words long. Then there are the clotted sentences brimming with participles, gerunds and subordinate clauses, and others with clusters of adjectives strung together like beads, not to mention Tolstoy's deliberate and unorthodox use of repetition. Tolstoy's limpid simplicity is deceptive, and his artistry of a high order, despite his apparent artlessness and eschewal of traditional rhetorical devices.
The Soviet writer Yury Olesha once noted perceptively that "Tolstoy's style is an expression of his rebellion against all norms and conventions". Take Part 6, chapter 10, where Tolstoy deliberately uses variants of the same verb chmokat to describe the sucking sound made by Levin's heel as he extracts it from the bog, and the "scape" call made by the common snipe when flushed, typically described in contemporary Russian ornithology as chvek or zhvyak. "Levin thought the squelching sound of his heel as he pulled it out of the bog was the call of a snipe", we read, before a few sentences later encountering a snipe which "squelched before Levin had time to look round". Garnett describes the sound of Levin's heel "squelching" but then talks about the "whir" of a snipe, while Louise and Aylmer Maude describe the "smacking sound" of Levin's heel and the "cry" of a snipe. Pevear and Volokhonsky talk about the "sucking" of Levin's boot, and a snipe which "creeched", and Zinovieff and Hughes follow the "squelching" of Levin's heel with the "croak" of a snipe.
Translators will keep ascending the towering peaks of world literature, just as there will continue to be assaults on Everest.
• Rosamund Bartlett's new translation of Anna Karenina was published last month by Oxford World's Classics.