Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

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A New Translation by Rosamund Bartlett

Written by Helen Rappaport

Taking on one of the great novels of the nineteenth century is a huge challenge for any Russian translator. Even more so when, in the case of Rosamund Bartlett, your distinguished track record as a translator and commentator lies with the work of that supreme economist of words – Anton Chekhov. Notorious for his prolixity and his awkwardness, Tolstoy takes pages to say what Chekhov can effortlessly achieve, and with such consummate art, in a few lines.  Indeed, Chekhov’s graceful prose is such a handy shortcut to the best of Russian literature for those without the time or commitment for the long haul, that Tolstoy seems perpetually condemned as being ‘hard work’ in comparison.

As an undergraduate on the Russian Special Studies course at Leeds University I remember groaning at the prospect of having to re-read War and Peace yet again for finals, a feat that I accomplished, non-stop, in three days flat.  It was absolute torment ploughing through those long, interminable asides on the nature of history and national heroism, but I never had any problems with Anna Karenina, which for me remains the most compassionate, observant and moving depiction of a woman torn and tormented by love that I have ever read. Once one is sucked into Anna’s story, no one does it better than Tolstoy. The trouble is, to get there one has to get past some pretty heavy-handed proselytizing by Tolstoy’s rather more resistible alter ego  – Konstantin Levin – involving his views on agrarian reform and the simple virtues of life on the land. Such passages can be heavy going but in this crisp new translation, Bartlett brings a refreshing tone to some of the novel’s traditional, didactic black spots, as well as to its classic moments – the horse race, the railway station.  Bartlett is a scholar with an in-depth knowledge of the man she is translating – see her 2011 biography of Tolstoy – and this shines through in her instinctive ear for Tolstoy’s authorial voice and rhythm.

Tolstoy completed five different drafts of his 1878 novel and Bartlett has based her translation on the most complete and authoritative version of the text, made available in the Soviet Union in 1970.  It takes a detailed understanding of the Russian context to tackle the complexities of a nineteenth-century novel with such a broad canvas of characters and political and social issues. Here, as in all classic Russian novels, the translator constantly comes up against untranslatable idiom and usage that are long defunct and hard to finesse. Bartlett herself has talked of the problem of translating just two obscure Russian words – porshni and podvertki – for a particular kind of leather shoe and foot covering worn by peasants, for which there is no English equivalent. It’s a familiar challenge that typifies the pains and the pleasures of translation work – where the resolution can be a minor personal triumph for the translator but goes unnoticed of course by the uninitiated reader. For the end product – the published translation  – does not signal the many subtleties of how and when a translator gets it right – or as near as dammit – or when they have had to throw in the towel.

The only way one can truly evaluate translation in all the subtleties of semantics is to take a forensic approach, by knowing the source language well enough to make a painstaking line-by-line comparison, because the translator’s skill always, in the end, lies in the detail. And in this translation of Anna Karenina, Bartlett has gone to considerable lengths to get it right.

From my own experience producing literal translations from Russian for the theatre, the key lies in rhythm and word count. Brevity was always one of the most persistent problems I encountered in trying to give playwright adaptors a literal sense of the original.  All too often it took twice as many words in English to render what the original highly inflected and condensed Russian had said. One simple example from Anna Karenina will suffice. There have been numerous translations since the 1880s – all of which have had to face, on page 1, probably one of the most iconic and oft-quoted opening lines. 

Compare Louise and Aylmer Maude’s 1918 version:

All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way

with Rosemary Edmond’s 1954 translation:

All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion

and Rosamund Bartlett’s crisp and concise rendering:

All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Bartlett for me is closest to the matter-of-fact delivery of the original Russian and its shorter word count. What she does here and elsewhere is hold to a very delicate line, moving away from the excessive respectfulness of early translators while reining herself in from the temptation to latter-day freer renderings,  by working hard to retain the cadences and sentence structure of the original. She has allowed Tolstoy’s uneven style to stand, avoiding a natural enough desire most Tolstoy translators have to tidy up what she calls his  ‘congested sentences’. The urge to condense some of Tolstoy’s repetition is strong, but Bartlett resists it.  For Tolstoy is what he is – longeurs and all. The natural rhythm of his authorial voice has to be preserved if one is to appreciate the tone and pattern of the original language and get close to the text as the author wrote it. Bartlett has applied this approach in many key moments of  the book,  notably an equally skillful rendition of Levin’s reconciliation with life at the very end. Here she reproduces the repetitious beat of Tolstoy’s original sonorous refrain  tak zhe budu (I will continue) where others have in the past sought to minimize it:

I will continue to lose my temper with Ivan the coachman, and I will continue to argue and express my thoughts out of turn; there will still be the same wall between the holy of holies of my soul and other people, even my wife, and I will continue to blame her for my own fear and later repent of it; I will continue to fail to understand with my mind why I pray, and I will continue to pray, but my life now – my whole life, irrespective of everything that might happen to me, every minute of it – is not only not meaningless like it was before, but has the indisputable meaning of goodness, which I have the power to instill in it!

It is a poignant and uplifting conclusion to this excellent new translation.  As a Russian speaker I count myself lucky to be able to appreciate Rosamund Bartlett’s clever preservation of Tolstoy’s natural cadences and her vivid flashes of word choice. Hers may not be the most literary or even the most seamless translation, but it is one that has a real flair for linguistic nuance based on a deep understanding of the  author and his work and a sensitivity to the unique ring of Tolstoy’s language.

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Helen Rappaport is a historian and author of many volumes, including Four Sisters: The Lost lives of the Romanov Grand Duchesses (2014) (which we reviewed in Issue 1 here) and Magnificent Obsession; Victoria, Albert and the Death that Changed the Monarchy (2011). You can find her website here:

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, transl. R.Bartlett (OUP, 2014) 9780199232086, hardback, 865 pages.

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