Alex Massie

Oneupmanship Tutorial: War and Peace Division

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I've had occasion to write about Not Reading Books before. As a public service I've also mentioned the importance of Oneupmanship. Today's text, then, is the new and handsome translation of War and Peace. Clearly this is the kind of gift horse no self-respecting Lifeman looks in the mouth.

Needless to say it is not necessary to read the translation. Indeed, it is not strictly necessary to even possess a copy of the the book, though it must be admitted that casually leaving the book out on a sideboard or coffee table at home will intimidate any visitor, leaving you One Up and your guest One Down before you've so much as made reference to Tolstoy's Greatest Work. No, all that is required is that the impression be given that not only are you immersed in this translation but that you are capable of comparing it to previous renderings of War ad Peace.

When you do so, bear these points in mind:

1. Praise the translators' courage in leaving the French (and German) dialogue spoken by Russians in the original French (and German). You may lightly suggest how this reinforces the nuanced, complementary relationship between France and Russia and the distance between the Russian elites and the common people. No further details are likely to be required on this point and in any case the experienced Lifeman knows when not to press a point for fear of being asked to supply chapter and verse.

2. You may also mention how gratifying it is to finally have a translation that gives a sense of how Tolstoy wrote in Russian. Previous translations have made all the great Russians sound as though they wrote alike, with the same rhythm and the same tone. At long last Tolstoy has been freed to be Tolstoy!

3. Following that it is quite legitimate to murmur "Too much, alas, to hope that someone might do the same for poor Pushkin?"

4. If your interlocutor has recovered from this humbling and demands examples, you may feel like citing Tolstoy's deliberate use of repetition as something that previous translators have smoothed out and, irritatingly, de-Russified. Should you be encouraged to elaborate you may also pivot and say that the new translation has a "lyrical intensity" not found in previous versions. Consider, you may say, the shortest sentence in the entire novel: 'Kapli kapali' has previously been translated as 'The branches dripped' or 'The trees were dripping'. Worthy efforts, but scarcely as powerful or poetic or immediate as 'Drops dripped.' A trifling example,  you will say, but indicative of the superiority of this new, magnificent enterprise...

Armed with these few, easily remembered, observations you will be well on your way to establishing a small, niggling and crucial advantage over all-comers.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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