Thursday, July 20, 2006

Tolstoy's bloopers

Is it sacrilege to pick apart War and Peace — "the greatest novel ever written" — on this most superficial of levels?

It started innocently enough: the copyeditor in me notes a discrepancy and dismisses it as a typo. The next point I notice is not something wrong, exactly, but a disconnect between specific words and my sense of events in time — perhaps something unintended was introduced in the translation. But the more it goes, the more I believe Tolstoy had a very poor sense of time; at least he didn't map out a timeline for his characters.

Here are the discrepancies I've found:

1. Anna Pavlovna holds a soirée some July evening, 1805; Pierre leaves the party, visits with Andrei, and steps out into the June night. Typo?

2. Lisa goes into labour March 19, 1806. That previous July evening, we're told she "being pregnant, no longer attended any of the gala evenings," as though it had been going on for some time. How long had she even known she was pregnant? — "soon to become a mother," "bore her burden," "waddling steps"; she's plump and stout even in these early days. Were these references to her condition translated with some exaggeration?

3. Later in the summer of 1805, the Rostovs have a party for Natalya's name day (August 26). Natasha we're told is 13. (Sonya is 15.) When her brother returns in early 1806, she is "smiling as only a happy girl of fifteen can smile" (Sonya is now 16). (Later in 1809 Natasha is 16.)

4. Early in 1806, Rostov returns home on leave. (He'd left sometime after Aug 26.) Twice it's mentioned he'd been away for a year and half. (These bits are intercut with other scenes definitely occurring in 1806.)

5. In November 1805 the deal of Pierre's marriage is sealed, and he's married 6 weeks later. March 3 he's at dinner at the Rostovs and calls Dolokhov out to a duel. Dolokhov's mother: "And if he was so jealous, well, as I see things, then he ought to have shown it sooner, instead of letting it go on for a year."

6. It's the third day of Christmas holidays; Nikolai and Denisov plan to rejoin their regiments after Epiphany (January 6 by our calendar). There's dinner, a ball, a couple days go by, gambling, Denisov leaves, Rostov stays on a couple weeks, then leaves at the end of November.

Of course, none of this diminishes the quality of the work as a whole. Although, in a lesser novel, I might find these discrepancies distracting, evidence of a sloppy mind even, reason to (gasp!) abandon a book (or at least scoff at it).

I believe W&P was published in instalments, which likely accounts for most of these oversights (any insight into 19th-century Russian publishing practices?), but I'm curious whether any of these might be the effects of sloppy translation (are they present in your editions?). Most importantly, I want to know: have you come across any other "bloopers"?

9 Comments:

Blogger Martha said...

I'm impressed by the copy editor in you! I hadn't noticed any of these kinds of discrepancies, at least consciously-- it's true I have had a very hazy sense of time in this novel so far. What I have noticed is some very awkward phrasing, which I'm pretty sure is a result of my crappy translation. I've been meaning to post about it, and the difference in translations, though I feel it might be a bit late in the game to do so. Now that you've pointed out specific examples, I'll keep my eye out.

1:02 PM  
Blogger Amanda A. said...

I'm reading the Rosemary Edmonds edition and she lists these "sunspots" in the beginning of the book. Very helpful.

4:56 PM  
Blogger Bibliophile said...

You've touched upon a sensitive subject for translators. It is always a temptation when translating a story to "fix" discontinuities and errors like the ones you list, but a good translator knows that they are the author's fault and can not be blamed on them. Once a translator does "fix" errors, they are no longer just translating but editing, and when an author can not be consulted this amounts to bowdlerizing, even when it's done with the best of intentions. I sincerely hope, for the reputation of my profession, that these are author errors and not due to bad translating.

7:28 PM  
Blogger Isabella said...

I don't honestly believe any of these could be translators' errors. Most of them are to do with timelines. The only potential translator slip might be with a word like "waddling" — I don't know how it reads in Russian, whether we're meant to associate it with a pregnancy-related waddling or if it's more a shuffling. Given Tolstoy's other errors, I expect this one's his too.

I'm glad to know these spots are noted elsewhere. Frankly, I'm rather surprised that I hadn't heard about these difficulties before. With the book's overall reputation, I'd've thought these slips would have entered publishing lore, that more writers would resort to excuses along the lines of "well, Tolstoy didn't chart out his plots..."

8:45 AM  
Anonymous giles said...

the introduction to the penguin edition acknowledges quite a few of these incongruities. the inference being that tolstoy's mind was on higher matters than mere continuity. which I can't help but feel is fair enough!

12:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Guerre et Paix I (1 sur 4)

En 4 épisodes les Italiens sortent le roman de Léon TOLSTOY (= épais)
Qui parle de beaucoup de guerre napoléonienne et d’un peu de paix.
Le grand film de cinéma réalisé jadis par Bondartchouk le soviétique
Etait pourtant très bon. Que dire de plus, poétique ou tragique ?

Avec cet auteur on se sent dans l’histoire car les authentiques noms
D’aristocrates tels que vus du côté russe 100 ans avant la révolution
Evoquent peu le sort des moujiks collés aux terres, sans instruction
Et sans espoir. Le charme de l’ancienne Russie est ici exploité à fond.

On danse et on boit dans des championnats stupides, c’est la fête
Et le sans souci mais tout d’un coup on apprend que la guerre est faite,
Les empereurs Alexandre et François vont battre les armées ennemies.
Ils applaudissent, comme s’il s’agissait d’une simple affaire de famille.

Le prince André VOLKONSKY (de volk = le loup) rêve de gloire militaire
Et s’en va joyeux risquer sa vie pour le défilé d’uniformes de guerre.
Mais il y a Austerlitz, le gros KOUTOUZOV qui n’est pas d’accord
Et prévoit la défaite des deux empereurs. André est considéré mort
Au champ d’honneur, son père, sa sœur pleurent mais il revient vivant
Juste au moment où sa femme lui donne un héritier. En accouchant
Elle meurt, que de fièvres puerpérales en ces temps ignorant l’hygiène.

Et les bals reprennent, c’est la paix, Napoléon et Alex s’en viennent
A penser qu’il faut laisser tomber l’Autriche. Sur son lit bien entouré
Un riche impose ses volontés : le comte BEZUKHOV (= sans moustache)
Légitime son bâtard Pierre qui parmi les autres aristos faisait tache,
Malgré la mari de sa sœur, le prince KURAKIN, qui espérait hériter.
Pierre devient le plus gros propriétaire avec des «âmes» en quantité.

KURAKIN se dépêche de marier sa file au comte Pierre à lunettes.
On fait enlever les verres à ce myope pour qu’il ne voie plus net
Et qu’il soit ainsi plus beau ! Sa femme bientôt lui dit sans hésitation
Qu’elle ne veut pas être enceinte. Dans ce milieu à succession
Ce n’est pas admissible, d’ailleurs comment ferait-elle ? Parions
Que ce mariage subira des cahots et se terminera en séparation !


Guerre et Paix II (2 sur 4)
(première neige à Bourg)

On entame une période de paix : vodka, danse et pépées. Natacha ROSTOVA (Clémence POéSY) une jeune blonde sans dot est amoureuse d’André prince V. depuis qu’elle a dansé avec lui. Celui-ci (l’Italien Alessio BONI) est également amoureux mais froid comme un frigo. Son uniforme de général est très beau ; il suit cependant les conseils de son vieux père (Malcolm MC DOWELL) qui sans doute parce qu’il n’y a pas de roubles en vue lui demande de se marier seulement dans un an. Quel désastre pour la jeune beauté ! Le tsar envoie André à la frontière Polonaise pour reformer l’armée. Nul doute qu’il y excelle.
Pendant ce temps Elena BEZUKHOVA la femme de Pierre s’amourache du tombeur DOLOKHOV, ce qui provoque un duel. Pierre qui n’a jamais touché un pistolet blesse l’affreux et s’en sort. Le frère d’Elena, le bel Anatole KURAKIN, qui saute sur tout ce qui bouge en jupe est forcé par son père de visiter Marya VOLKONSKY, la sœur d’André, supposée laide, ce qui est faux dans le film, pour accueillir sa dot mais il ne peut s’empêcher de se jeter ouvertement sur la dame de compagnie (Française ?). Donc échec à la dot.
Le fameux Anatole prix de vodka et de vertu est capitaine sous les ordres d’André. Il veut se venger car un notable du coin se plaint de l’état prégnant de sa fille et veut qu’il la marie, André y tient, pour réparer. (Il est à noter qu’un prince KURAKIN donnerait un nom raccourci tel que RAKIN à son bâtard).
On anticipe donc sa conduite de séducteur expérimenté envers Natacha que lui présente Elena. Cette Natacha fiancée secrètement à André mais tous le savent se retourne deux fois sur Anatole. Que de complications amoureuses en perspectives !
En ce siècle tous les aristos de Russie parlaient français et il était anormal de se battre contre la France mais avec NAPO c’est inévitable!

Dans ce roman célèbre du comte Lev TOLSTOY les vrais noms de famille nobles VOLKONSKY, KURAKIN, etc. encore existantes notamment en France ont été légèrement changés en BOLKONSKY, KURAGIN pour accréditer la fiction. Difficile sans cela de décrire des anti-héros.
M.Th.14 nov.2007

5:37 AM  
Blogger samovar said...

J'aime bien le résumé précédent en français. Etes-vous russe? I like the "resume" in french.Are you from Russia? I just read for the 4th time "War and Peace". And I like it more and more. I was looking on google-earth the place of the battles (Borodino, taroutino) and the streets in Moskaw where some scenes took place. Do you think it's possible to find the places?

3:35 PM  
Blogger Ms. Lo Bosco said...

I am going crazy trying to figure out how the Rostovs get a letter from Nikolai in Midwinter (Dec.? Jan.? Feb.?). Meanwhile, in the next war segment, Rostov gets his money before the Battle of Austerlitz, which is November 20th by Tolstoy's date system. What's up with that?

1:06 PM  
Blogger Ms. Lo Bosco said...

Per the previous comment--all of this is going in in 1805.

1:07 PM  

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