Lost in Translation
‘All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.’ This, the opening sentence of ANNA KARENINA, is one of the most famous in literature. But would it be better like this: ‘All happy families are alike: each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’? I’ve decided that it would, which is why I am reading the recent highly acclaimed translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky for Penguin Classics instead of Rosemary Edmonds’ 1954 translation in my old Penguin edition.
I read the novel when I was a very young woman and re-read it, too. I agreed with William Faulkner. When he was asked to name the three best novels ever, he replied, ANNA KARENINA, ANNA KARENINA, ANNA KARENINA.’ Mind you, I hadn’t read Proust then.
I’ve been meaning to reread ANNA KARENINA for a while. But at well over 800 pages it is a commitment. I suggested it to my reading group and we decided to have it an optional extra which we could spread over a year.
When I picked it up a fortnight ago I put it down after a few pages. It seemed a bit stiff and old-fashioned. I wondered if the translation was to blame. This was a question that never occurred to me when I first read it. Maybe I am more sensitive to language and more detached than I was when I first read it, devouring it for the story, living almost every moment, not knowing what would happen next.
I ordered the new translation, and now I am completely gripped. What a daring writer Tolstoy is. What writer nowadays would delay the entrance of the main characte until page sixty? And yet how important those introductory chapters are, how well they establish the themes of the novel, how absorbing they are.
I am well over half way through and it is as brilliant as I remembered (though some of Levin’s thoughts and discussions on Russian politics and agricultural economy are as dull as I remembered, too).
That’s for now. I’ll let you know what I think when I’ve finished it.