Recently I had cause to remember Gary Saul Morson’s devastating critique of the Pevear/Volokhonsky translations of Russian literature. (When you’re done with Morson’s critique you might want to go on to Janet Malcolm’s.) I decided that I need to read War and Peace again — I used to teach it occasionally, but I haven’t read it in maybe twenty years — and I picked up the beautiful Knopf hardcover of the P&V translation that someone gave me years ago.
In the second chapter we’re introduced to Princess Bolkonskaya, Prince Andrei’s young wife. Here’s that introduction in the old Louise and Alymer Maude translation:
The young Princess Bolkónskaya had brought some work in a gold-embroidered velvet bag. Her pretty little upper lip, on which a delicate dark down was just perceptible, was too short for her teeth, but it lifted all the more sweetly, and was especially charming when she occasionally drew it down to meet the lower lip. As is always the case with a thoroughly attractive woman, her defect — the shortness of her upper lip and her half-open mouth — seemed to be her own special and peculiar form of beauty.
Here’s Ann Dunnigan’s translation:
The young Princess Bolkonskaya had brought her needlework in a gold-embroidered velvet bag. Her pretty little upper lip, shadowed with a barely perceptible down, was too short for her teeth and, charming as it was when lifted, it was even more charming when drawn down to meet her lower lip. As always with extremely attractive women, her defect — the shortness of her upper lip and her half-open mouth — seemed to be her own distinctive kind of beauty.
And here is the P&V version:
The young princess Bolkonsky came with handwork in a gold-embroidered velvet bag. Her pretty upper lip with its barely visible black mustache was too short for her teeth, but the more sweetly did it open and still more sweetly did it sometimes stretch and close on the lower one. As happens with perfectly attractive women, her flaw — a short lip and half-opened mouth — seemed her special, personal beauty.
Her black mustache? The down on a woman’s upper lip is very much not a mustache. What a bizarre word-choice. Horrified, I set the book down, lovely as it is to look at, and went back to the Dunnigan translation, the friend of my youth.
But all that said: It’s remarkable, if inexplicable, how the P&V translations of Russian fiction have brought those wonderful books into the hands of many readers who otherwise might never have read them. So thanks be for that.