I first read Anna Karenina more than a decade ago, when I was still in college. I remember being inspired by a (potentially apocryphal) story about how Theodore Roosevelt, in his youth, read the novel in three days while on the back of a horse during a trail ride. I took one look at Anna Karenina and knew I couldn't pack it away in three days, so I aimed to read one book per day and finished it in eight. In fact, I also remember that that's all I did for those eight days.
It's a hefty tome, you see.
Since then, I've tended to look at it as one of those classics I checked off my list, and I didn't remember liking it enough to return to it. Well, until I heard about the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, that is. This fairly recent translation aims at getting the English-speaking reader as close to the original Russian meaning as possible, and that in itself interested me. English and Russian are pretty far apart as languages go. The Latin and Germanic roots of English make it possible to get a decent translation from any Latin-based or Germanic-based language. But Russian? Yeah, I could see how a great deal could be lost in translation. There's a lot more than just words in any language. There are entire ideas packed into those words, and these ideas, if not understood or even easily translatable, can simply fall by the wayside, leaving the reader of the translation with little more than a husk. It really does take a translator who is not only a speaker of the language but someone who appreciates the deeply rooted elements of the culture to get the "sense" of the language across in the translation. (And Volokhonsky, as a Russian, could accomplish this. In fact, she started on the process of translating when she picked up another English translation and said, "But where's Tolstoy in this? It's all wrong!")
For instance -- and this is a very simple example that isn't directly related to Anna Karenina but represents the differences embedded in the Russian language -- here is a quote from a book I have, Ivan the Fool: Russian Folk Belief, by Andrei Sinyavsky: "In Old Russian, krasny ("red") and krasivy ("beautiful") were synonyms" (p. 15). Now this might sound like a basic fact, but if you really think about there's an entire cultural understanding in these words that simply doesn't translate. At least in Western cultures, the color "red" is associated with things like violence, the fallen woman, etc. That's pretty far removed from the color red being linguistically associated with the idea of beauty. So "Red Square" in Moscow is also a beautiful square, and so named (in part, at least) for that purpose. No doubt the American reference to Russian Communists as "reds" was a little lost in translation...
All of this to say that the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, to my mind at least, accomplished what very few translations of Anna Karenina prior to this have accomplished, and that is to convey the mood of the Russian language as closely as possible in English. I can see how some readers might find it all a little cold at first. Some of the sentences and conversations seem short. But there are two things going on here. One is the simple fact that Tolstoy preferred to be an economist with words. Why be flowery? Or so he felt. Then add to this that he was writing in a language already rich with cultural connotations, and flowery usage would begin to feel redundant. There was definitely an abruptness to the writing style in this translation that was exactly what I was hoping to see -- something that felt very much like it feels to speak in English to native Russian speakers. This is because there's often an abruptness to the translated expression that might seem cold but is really a reflection of how words and ideas from one language don't quite move into another language so easily. English speakers rely on a vast vocabulary to nuance ideas and often talk around the point. Russian speakers rely on a language rich with its own cultural connotations.
I don't know that I'm explaining any of this very well, but I'm definitely recommending this particular translation.
Another point I'd like to bring up is the fact of Russia's Orthodox heritage that absolutely cannot be ignored in reading Russian literature. Even if the characters aren't particularly religious, the heritage is still there. When Tolstoy says that the characters in Anna Karenina repeat "Lord, have mercy," it's not just a simple prayer. It's the core of the Orthodox belief system, repeated again and again in Orthodox liturgy as a reminder that we must always place ourselves in a position of humility before God. The Orthodox don't start by asking, "Lord, please help me!" They start by praying, "Lord, have mercy on me a sinner." Anna, no matter how many times she tries to justify her relationship with Vronsky, can just never quite come to terms with the decision. She knows she despises her husband; she knows she wants to be away from him. But she also knows in her core that her choice is a destructive one. And it is when she can no longer say, "Lord, have mercy," when she can no longer acknowledge her sin and ask for mercy, when she no longer believes that there is any mercy for her to receive, that death becomes preferable. At the same time, her last words before she throws herself beneath the train are a plea for mercy and forgiveness. After Anna's death, Vronsky's mother makes a passing comment regarding her son's lover: "Well, what are these desperate passions!" The word "passions" is not being used idly here. In the Western world, passion is generally viewed in a positive way. We are encouraged to have passion for what we do, those we love, including God. In the Eastern tradition, passion is viewed as something to sacrifice, to give up; passions keep us from drawing closer to God, because they represent those things we choose in place of God. Resist the passions, the writings of the fathers and mothers of the Church tell us. Ask God to free you from them. (To have a passion for God is unthinkable in the Orthodox mindset.) Although Pevear and Volokhonsky did a great job overall with footnotes, this is one place I would really have liked to see a footnote. If ever there was an example of words have directly opposite meanings in languages and cultural traditions, at least for readers today, this is one of those words. (Before some do-gooder comes along and tells me this, I'm fully aware that earlier Western tradition understood the word "passion" as related to suffering -- i.e., the Passion of the Christ -- with an Old English connection to the enemy or the devil. But since the 16th century, the word has taken on the decidedly positive connotation that it bears today. I concede that modern Catholics might have a more traditional, and as far as I'm concerned correct, understanding of the word.)
Obviously, this is less a review of Anna Karenina that it is my own commentary on the book. And this is largely because I see no reason why everyone shouldn't read, or have already read, Anna Karenina. It's a classic for a reason. It should be read, and as I have discovered during this experience, re-read throughout life. Reading it in my thirties was far more enlightening than reading it when I was barely twenty. It's not that I found myself justifying Anna's choices but that I had more sympathy with her struggle. In fact, I found myself picking up the book, reading a few pages, and then having to walk away from it because my mind was so full of the story. No wonder it took me far more than eight days to read the book this time! But I enjoyed every moment of it and savored a truly good translation. If you're going to read Anna Karenina, I'd say read this version. But just remember that in doing so you're reading Russian literature. So don't expect it to sound like anything else.
A completely random mention here, but something quite bizarre happened while I was reading Anna Karenina. I took it with me on a flight and just before take-off tucked it under the seat in front of me. A few minutes later, I reached down for the book and didn't find it. I started searching, so much that the flight attendant came over and asked if I had found what I was looking for. I explained, and she ultimately had to make an announcement over the intercom to see if someone had a book that didn't belong to them. Within moments, the bell rang. Apparently, during takeoff the book had slid all the way from row 3 to row 23, under the seats. I didn't even know that sort of thing was possible. (Not one person had a bag blocking it? Must have been an empty flight. Not to mention a heavy book.)