Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, translated by Miriam Schwartz

annakareninaSo here we have one more translation into English of Anna Karenina (Yale University Press, 754 pages) the greatest novel ever written in the history of world literature (my opinion, but not only mine). The publicity announcements and blurbs make big claims for this book. Marian Schwartz, a renowned translator with extensive experience, “embraces Tolstoy’s unusual style—she is the first English language translator ever to do so.” Hmm. “Clearly a labor of love—over a decade in the making—this translation is the most accurate Tolstoy we have in English.” Hmm. Marian Schwartz “bequeaths us not a translation at all but Tolstoy’s English original.” Huh?

Such grandiose blurbery places quite a burden on the shoulders of the translated text. Let’s see if the text can bear such a heavy weight.

In the Translator’s Note, Marian Schwartz mentions that this work “has been more than a decade in the making,” and is for her “the most exciting translation ride of my life.” I can imagine that. If you’re a translator and you’re given a chance to work on the greatest literary work in the history of world literature, it must be a thrill. But imagine this scenario: you’ve been constructing your spiffy new frigate for, say, nine years. You foresee in the not too distant future the time when you’ll be breaking a champagne bottle over the bow and launching your beloved craft—to a full-throated roar of acclaim from all over the English-speaking world. Why, never a better frigate has ever been built! But then you look up from the final polishing of the bow and stern, and in the distance you see a huge battleship called the Pevear-Volokhonsky come steaming its way into port, blowing its whistle and flexing its smoke stack.

Of course, it did not happen exactly like that. The P-V translation of AK was published in the year 2000, presumably before Marian Schwartz began her labor of love, so she was not taken unawares. Nonetheless, in making her claim to have written the best-ever English-language AK, she is certainly aware that her main rivals for the honor are the translator pair of P-V. Or at least so it would seem. Recently the P-V translations of Russian classics (generally accepted in the world of American Slavic studies as the gold-plated rendition), have been held up to ridicule. See, e.g., Janet Malcolm, “Socks,” in the “New York Review of Books,” June 23, 2016. In treating translations of “Anna Karenina,” Malcolm also has some unkind words for the Schwartz translation.


Schwartz lays claim on the first two sentences of the book. Not mentioning P-V by name, she starts by citing their first sentence: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Then she explains why her first sentence is better: “All happy families resemble one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Moving on to the second sentence, “the book’s moral and stylistic cornerstone,” she makes an argument for “The Oblonsky home was all confusion.” The P-V translation has “All was confusion in the Oblonskys’ house.” Schwartz’s argument is rather belabored, but I can buy her sentence. Although the P-V sentence would be equally fine with a couple of slight changes: “All was confusion in the Oblonsky home.” To cite a couple of older translations, the Modern Library version (Constance Garnett updated) has the clearly inferior, “Everything was in confusion in the Oblonsky household,” and the Norton Critical Edition (Maude) has the even worse, “Everything was upset in the Oblonskys’ house.”

So, in my opinion, Marian Schwartz has won the battle for the first two sentences. Assuming that the older translations are not serious contenders (which, however, you should not assume with alacrity), the question is this: does she win out over P-V in the struggle for all the rest of the sentences in the book? I’ll get back to that later.

Schwartz’s main argument in favor of her translation is that she is the first to preserve the roughness of Tolstoy’s style, the first not to correct his “mistakes.” After all, he was an obsessive rewriter of his text, so when he got to the end of the rewriting you have to assume that that was the way he wanted it. In the space of two sentences, for example, he uses the phrase “the family members and the servants” three times. If he did that in Russian then you must do it in English. So that’s what Schwartz does, and I believe she is right. But only some of the time.

Tolstoy also has a way of using the same key words throughout the text. Schwartz has counted all instances of vesyolyj (gay, happy, joyous, cheerful) and its corresponding nouns and verbs; the number comes out at 316. Very perspicaciously she remarks that if you stick in such a joyous word so many times over the course of the book “the reader begins to wonder just how cheerful anyone really is.” Point well taken. She does not mention this, but there is even a character who embodies the joy-taking word in the novel, and his name is, appropriately, Vasenka Veslovsky. It would translate into English as something like “Jack Joy.” Marian Schwartz would perhaps render him as “Charlie Cheerful.”

I like Schwartz’s idea that you should try to use the same word in English every time that vesyolyj or one of its variants shows up. Her choice is “cheerful,” but she cautions the reader that you can’t use “cheerful” exclusively, since “two words in different languages will always have different ranges of meaning.” Then you read the book and discover that she sometimes ignores her own advice. “Cheerful” shows up too much, and sometimes it is gaily stuck into sentences where it just won’t fit. Take this (Part I, Ch. 29): “Anna felt herself being swallowed up. But she found it not frightening but cheerful.” Something not quite right there. P-V has “But all this was not frightening, but exhilarating.” The Russian text: “No vse eto bylo ne strashno, a veselo.” The word “exhilarating” for “veselo” might be a stretch. I’d try this: “But all of this was not frightening, but full of joy.” Or, to take a worse example, Vasenka Veslovsky is going out to party with the peasants, and he says, “Farewell, gentlemen. If it’s cheerful, I’ll call you.” That’s an awkward sentence in English. You have to give up on “cheerful” here. What he means is, to paraphrase, “If we’re having a good time I’ll come back for you.”

This is not to say that I don’t admire Schwartz for her efforts. I do. But in now going on to treat her translation in some detail, I have to keep asking myself the main question: has she really done the best translation into English of AK ever done? One other question before we begin: given her insistence that previous translations don’t measure up, is Marian Schwartz consistently checking previous translations as she works? We don’t know. But in places where she repeats previous errors you kind of wonder. When I was working on translating Ivan Bunin’s works, I made it a point not to look at previous translations. Once in a while, when I simply could not figure out a locution, I would take a peek. And guess what? Most of the time the previous translator had simply given up on the word or phrase, had thrown the offensive passage out the window with the slops, and then blissfully gone on about his/her business. Marian Schwartz certainly does not do that.


Since I do not have the ten years it would require to check the Schwartz translation line by line with the original Russian, and to compare its sentences to all those of previous translations, I have proceeded as follows. Reading through the Schwartz (from now on termed S), when I come upon sentences that strike me as somehow off, I check the original as well as the following translations: (1) Pevear-Volokhonsky (P-V) (2) Modern Library Edition, translation by Constance Garnett, as revised by Leonard J. Kent and Nina Berberova (ML) (3) Norton Critical Edition, L. and A. Maude translation (NC).

The beginning sentence in Ch. 2 of Part I is one of those rough Tolstoyan sentences that S mentions in her note. But she makes the roughness smooth: “Stepan Arkadyevich was always truthful with himself.” ML has “S.A. was a truthful man with himself.” P-V gets the roughness best here: “S.A. was a truthful man concerning his own self.” Not a very good sentence in English, but the Russian original is awkward as well. This assuming that we should accept Schwartz’s idea that we make bad English out of rough Russian, an idea that is, to put it mildly, contentious.

Part I, Ch. 26: Levin returns to his country estate and says (S), “It’s fine being a guest, but being home is better.” ML has, “Visiting friends is all very well, but there’s no place like home,” and P-V: “There’s no place like home.” I’ll go with P-V here; translate a proverb by a proverb.

Part I, Ch. 30 Anna returns home from Moscow, in love with Vronsky, and she sees her husband in a new light. From then on she sees him mainly as a pair of ears. The Russian is “Otchego u nego stali takie ushi?” S: “Where did he get those ears?” P-V: “What’s happened with his ears?” ML: “Why do his ears look like that?” NC: “What has happened to his ears?” I’d call this one a draw.

All through the novel Vronsky is said to have krepkie zuby. S, along with everyone else, goes with “strong teeth.” Is it only me, or is that just not said in English? I don’t know any way to do this except “good teeth,” but I’ll check with my dentist to see if anyone ever says “strong teeth.” At times those bothersome teeth give a toothache to the translators. P-V: “The nagging pain in the strong tooth” Huh?

In Part II, Ch. 16 we come upon a passage that seems as if calculated to drive translators mad. By way of describing a minor character, the merchant Ryabinin’s steward (or clerk), Tolstoy uses the adverb tugo (tightly) four times in two sentences. P-V: “A little gig was already standing by the porch, tightly bound in iron and leather, with a sleek horse tightly harnessed in broad tugs. In the little gig, tightly filled with blood and tightly girdled, sat Ryabinin’s clerk, who was also his driver.” Give P-V an ‘A’ for effort (for getting the ‘tightly’ in four times), but that “tightly filled with blood” is bizarre. The Russian here is “V telezhke sidel tugo nalitloj krov’ju i tugo podpojasannyj prikazchik,” literally, “In the cart sat the tightly infused with blood and the tightly girded steward.” I don’t even know exactly what the Russian here means (“tugo nalitoj krov’ju”), and I doubt if the translators do either.

Here is S: “Pulled up at the front steps was a buggy fitted in iron and leather [she gives up on the first tugo], with a sleek horse tightly harnessed with wide traces. Sitting in the buggy was the blood-engorged, tightly-belted steward who served as Ryabinin’s driver.” So she gets only two of the four tugos, and she gives us that awkward “blood-engorged.” ML throws up its hands in the face of the tugos and the “tightly filled with blood”: “At the steps there stood a trap covered with iron and leather, with a sleek horse tightly harnessed with broad collar straps. In the trap sat the chubby, tightly belted clerk who served Ryabinin as coachman.” We get only two of the four tugos, but you got to love that otsebjatina (invented by the translator) “chubby” there. The translator has embellished Tolstoy’s clerk, “improved” on him by giving up on the bothersome tight blood, then adding on some pounds and plumping him up!

The NC translators (the Maudes), in my book, deserve a Hero of the Soviet Union medal for the way they handle that bothersome business of “tight blood”: “At the porch stood a little cart strongly [strongly?] bound with leather and iron, and to the cart was harnessed a well-fed horse with broad, tightly stretched straps. In the cart sat Ryabinin’s clerk (who also performed a coachman’s duties), his skin tightly stretched over his full-blooded face [my emphasis, YES] and his belt drawn tight.” To me that’s as good a guess as any and probably the best anybody can do with the phrase of the tight blood.

In addition to the problem of all the tugos here, the passage presents all sorts of other problems: how, exactly, is the horse harnessed in (with wide traces? with broad collar straps? with tightly stretched straps?); and what is the conveyance, a buggy, a cart, a gig, which one? Ponder deeply on the passage with the tugos and the tight-blooded whatever, any of you readers who may be considering becoming a literary translator!

Part III, Ch. 2 In contrast to the tugo business above, to that complicated phrasing, sometimes one word, or a very simple passage in the original can cause problems. The one word here is roevnja. Walking out on his estate, Levin comes across a peasant who is carrying a roevnja with bees. Most of the translators I have checked use the word “hive” for roevnja, which is incorrect. The word for hive is “ulej.” Roevnja is a kind of bast netting where swarms of bees are placed to transport them from one place (or hive) to another. Of the four translations I have checked only NC has it right: “carrying bees in a swarm carrier.”

Here’s the simple passage. Levin asks the peasant, “Chto? ili pojmal, Fomich?” Literally: “What? Or did you catch [it, them, bees], Fomich?” Russian can often do without the direct object when it is understood. English cannot. S: “What’s this? Did you catch that, Fomich?” The reader is slightly shocked: what does the word ‘that’ refer to? P-V: “Did you catch it, Fomich?” Same problem. What does the ‘it’ refer to? If it’s “bees,” then it should be, “Did you catch them, Fomich? NC: “Have you found one, Fomich?” One what? ML uses a bit of otsebjatina, but I believe that’s the best approach here: “Taken a stray swarm, Fomich?” That’s good. Point goes to ML. Here a very simple problem, the absence of a direct object in Russian, leads the translators astray, and only one of the four I have consulted successfully renders this into English. That translator also uses otsebjatina (ownself making up), which is illegal. But then, in the realm of literary translations, all rules are made to be broken.

Part IV, Ch. 9 Kitty is trying to catch with her fork “nepokornyj otskal’zyvajushchij grib.” S: “a recalcitrant, slippery mushroom.” [Good]. P-V: “a disobedient slippery mushroom” [Good]. ML: “a perverse mushroom” [clearly wrong].

Part V, Ch. 6 The word “molodye,” literally “young ones,” is used in reference to Levin and Kitty, who have just been married. S: “After supper that night the young people left for the country.” [clearly wrong]. P-V: “the young couple” [right]. ML: “the young couple.” You could also translate the word here as simply “the newlyweds.”

Part V, Ch. 21 Karenin is “shamefully and repulsively unhappy,” oppressed by the hatred of people all around him in society.
S: “He felt it was because of this, precisely because his heart was lacerated that they would be pitiless toward him. He felt that people would destroy him, the way dogs suffocate a dog lacerated and howling from pain.” “Suffocate” won’t work here, although the Russian word can mean “suffocate” or “strangle.” Dogs can’t suffocate or strangle another dog. And normally in English you howl “with” pain, not “from.”
P-V: “as dogs kill a wounded dog howling with pain” (better)
ML: “men would crush him as dogs rip the throat of a crippled dog yelping with pain” (somewhat embellished, but not bad—my favorite of the three translations here—point goes to ML again)

Part VI, Ch. 23 Tolstoy has so many wonderful lines. Here is Anna, telling Dolly why she wants no more children. The Russian reads, “Esli ikh net, to oni ne neschastny po krajnej mere.” Literally: “If they are not, then at least they are not unhappy.” You can’t get it that perfect in English.
S: “If they don’t exist, then at least they are not unhappy.” [Good]
P-V: “If they don’t exist, at least they won’t be unfortunate.” “Unhappy” is better than “unfortunate.”
ML: “If they are not, at any rate they are not unhappy.” That “if they are not” is good, it’s a literal translation of the Russian, but it’s not English.

In the same conversation Anna goes on to say that if she brings unhappy children into the world she alone is to blame (guilty). Dolly comes up with a wonderful thought in answer to this, another sentence that is perfect in the Russian, but cannot be exactly duplicated in English:
“Kak byt’ vinovatoju pred sushchestvami ne sushchestvujushchimi?” Literally: “How can you be guilty before beings that are not in being?”
S: “How can she be guilty before beings who don’t exist?” (the “she” is wrong here)
P-V: “How can she be guilty before beings that don’t exist?” (the “she” is still wrong)
ML: “How can one wrong creatures that don’t exist?”
NC: “How can one be guilty toward beings who don’t exist?”

The word “guilty” in English presents special problems. It does not appear to have a perfect preposition-complement. In Russian the person toward whom you are guilty is always expressed with the preposition “pered” or “pred” (before). You took Ivan’s pie, so you are guilty before Ivan. But that won’t work in English. Are you guilty toward somebody? In regard to somebody? “Of” works to express what you have done: I’m guilty of taking your pie. But there seems to be no perfect preposition-complement to use in regard to the person you have offended. Given that fact, S, P-V, and NC above are guilty of using inappropriate prepositions. The winner of the point here is me (with a nod to ML): “How can you wrong creatures who don’t exist?”

Part VII, Ch. 2 Here we have a proverb about drunkards, and all of the translations I have checked do a good job.
S: “The first shot’s a squawk, the second a hawk, and after the third—like tiny little birds.”
P-V: “The first glass is a stake, the second a snake, and from the third on it’s all little birdies.”
ML: “The first round sticks in the throat, the second flies down like a hawk, but after the third they’re like tiny little birds.”
NC: “The first glass you drive in like a stake, the second flies like a crake, and after the third they fly like wee little birds.”

Part VII, Ch. 28 Anna is in the middle of a long stream-of-consciousness riff, her anguished mind skipping from image to image.
“Voda moskovskaja tak khorosha. A mytishchenskie kolodtsy i bliny.”
S: “Moscow water is so good. Oh, the springs of Mytishchi and the pancakes.” .
P-V: “The Mytishchi springs and the pancakes.”
ML: “Ah, the springs at Mytishchi and the pancakes.”
NC: “Oh, and the wells in Mytishchi, and the pancakes!”
Two problems here. The Russian letter “A” at the beginning of the second sentence is a conjunction (“and” or “but”), and not an exclamation. So P-V wins out on that one (by simply omitting it and not exclaiming). But NC is the only one that gets the wells right. “Springs” here is bad (1) because kolodtsy means “wells” and (2) because the word “springs” creates confusion. In the Russian we are clearly speaking of water, but in the English word “springs” we could be speaking of spring seasons in Mytishchi.

Finally, on p. 737 of the S translation there is a misprint or mistake that slipped past the proofreader. The word “Kitty” shows up in the middle of the page, and then, two lines later, we get “but the Katya’s dress was soaked through.” Should be, “but Kitty’s dress was soaked through.” It’s as if some importunate Russian translator had elbowed his way briefly into the book, grabbed Marian Schwartz’s pen, forgetting that Katya is most often called Kitty (and has just been so called two lines up, and is so called by Tolstoy in the original), and, unable to grasp the use of English articles, this jerk sticks an extra “the” in there for good measure. I point out this error not in some caviling spirit, but really to congratulate the translator—this is the only such error I have found in the whole long book!


This review is already getting long. If I had the time and energy to go on comparing passages in various translations it could easily go to 10,000, 20,000 words. So the sad fact is this: I can’t really tell you if Marian Schwartz has done the best translation ever into English of Anna Karenina. The sampling of comparative passages above is simply too small to be statistically relevant. To see who wins enough points to win the whole game we would have to go on and on and on.

I suspect that the Schwartz translation is very good. It reads well, it shows evidence of extremely conscientious work. I enjoyed reading (for the umpteenth time) Tolstoy’s AK through the mediation of Marian Schwartz! Pointing out places where her translation is in error (as I have done above) is not entirely fair—because I have not gone to the trouble to point out the many many passages where Tolstoy is rendered into English effectively, sometimes even brilliantly. And there are surely many more of those successful passages than the unsuccessful ones.

Is the S translation better than the P-V? Once again, I don’t know. The sampling of passages is too small, and I’ve never read P-V all the way through. Then again, we tend to accept new translations as somehow automatically better than the ones already out there. Some of the samples above suggest that we may too quickly assume that good old Constance Garnett or the good old Maude couple are somehow automatically inferior. Take another look at my sampling above. It’s rather surprising how often the ML or the NC translators have done a better job than S or P-V.

What’s the solution? Here’s my idea. Since Anna Karenina is the best work of literary fiction ever written, and since the target language of English is probably the most important target language in the world, don’t you think AK deserves some highly unusual, even herculean effort? Why not let all living translators of AK make one more collective effort? Let S and P-V and whoever else is still out there come together for a mass translation marathon. They could bring with them Constance and the Maudes and all other now-dead translators in the person of their books. Then they would sit together and hash out the whole thing—checking texts and arguing their way through to the final, definitive, best-ever translation of AK into English. It might take them a year to do it, but it would be worth it. That’s what I think anyway.

U.R. Bowie, author of Googlegogol: Stories from the Data Base of Russian Literature, Inc., 2016


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

The Oblonsky home was all confusion. The wife had found out about her husband’s affair with the French governess formerly in their home and had informed her husband that she could not go on living in the same house with him. This had been the state of affairs for three days now, and it was keenly felt not only by the spouses themselves, but by all members of the family and the servants as well. All the members of the family and the servants felt that there was no sense in their living together and that travelers chancing to meet in any inn had more in common than they, the Oblonsky family members and servants.

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