Anna Karenina

So.. I gave up on Anna Karenina. I know, I know, every single one of you saw that coming months ago. But after the third (fourth? tenth?) time discussing translations with Violet and Mrs. B I decided that it would probably be better to start over next year with a good translation. It feels a little wrong giving up on a book after reading 400 pages, but both of the translations I used made me focus more on the horrible language than the actual story.

All of this means that one thing became crystal clear to me: translation matters. I never realised it before, but they do. So much so that I am afraid to start reading any translated classic at the moment because using for classics is, I guess, not the way to best enjoy a book if it was originally written in another language.

All I have to do now is prepare for my next read of Anna Karenina and the first thing I have to do is choose a translation. I have two translations to choose from and I am divided. I know many of you love the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky edition, but Violet is adamant that Rosemary Edmonds did a better job translating Anna Karenina and I do not take her advise lightly. I could say that I will read both of them, sometime, since I am sure I will reread Anna Karenina after finishing it for the first time. But I still don’t know which book to pick up for the first time reading (&finishing) this classic.

What do you think?

25 responses to “Anna Karenina

  1. I didnt realise how important translations were either until I was going to read Madame Bovary. I have quite a few Russian classics that I borrowed from my parents which I just asumed would be fine, now I have to check the translations on them all LOL

  2. Translations are important especially those of books like Anna Karenina that’ve been around for such a long time. Well, I never got through my first reading to Karenina. I don’t think that it was due to the translation though. I could be wrong. Better luck next year. Maybe I will join you.

  3. I think I read the Penguins Classics edition and really loved it. But I can’t recall who translated it. I’m having the same dilemma with War & Peace. I’ve heard lots of good things about Pevear & Volokhonsky but a lot of people are reading the OWC version by the Maudes and Mandelkar.

  4. The Penguins Classic should be good, shouldn’t it. I haven’t read either, so I couldn’t say. I didn’t realise there were so many translations.

  5. I can’t speak about Anna Karinina because I haven’t tried reading it, but I know how important translations are. It’s always best to get a good one – though sometimes I forget to check. I have realised my version of Anna Karinina is translated by one of the translators most criticised in Russian literature…. Constance Garnett (although apparently edited by someone else) and she apparently either translated things too literally or missed out parts she didn’t understand. So I’m kinda bummed out by this.

    I’m having to get another translation of The Idiot by Dostoyevsky because I don’t really like the one I have (and the text is also minuscule and I’m not going to give myself eye-strain).

    I agree that Penguin translations (the more modern editions) are probably the best to go for and not to get the cheapie classics.

    The translation issue is interesting – it is hard to know unless you can speak the language in the first place to know if a translation is good. Do the translators for instance, update the language to make it more readable for modern English speakers? I don’t mean by using modern language as such, but adding their own style perhaps… obviously when translating the book perhaps the style is lost, especially if there is word play. How much do they have to change – are we reading the translator’s language, style of writing, or the original authors? It all depends on the translator’s own interpretation of the text.

    That frustrates me about translated books – I love Alexandre Dumas but unless I learn French I’m never going to really feel as if I’ve read him because I have to rely on someone else to tell me the story.

    I’ve recently bought myself a whole new set of the Three Musketeers series by Dumas all translated by someone called David Coward. I’ve already read The Three Musketeers and really loved it – but by a different translator. I wanted to get a copy of The Three Musketeers because mine was falling to pieces so I decided to hang it all and buy the whole series in a different edition – Oxford World Classics rather then Penguin as I had before. At least the whole series is translated by the same person rather then several different people. I just hope though that I like Coward’s translation!

  6. Oh I’m sorry to hear that you’ve given up. But makes sense. Translations do matter more than I consider, especially with classics. Newer books are usually well done, older ones… it’s always harder to know! I wish you best of luck with your decision, and with your next read!

  7. I think translations need updating from time to time ,as language changes it makes it easier to read through ,hence me choosing the newest translation of war and peace one that seems to have right balence ,it shows when a translation is bad I really disliked a older Japanese translation I read this year ,hope you come back at some point ,all the best stu

  8. I have no idea which translation I read, but I do know I hated it and I’ve been told since that perhaps it was the translation that bothered me and not the actual book. I think it’s smart to stop and find a translation you enjoy. Then, if you find out you hate the prose in ALL translations, you’ll know it’s really the book you don’t like.

  9. My mother made me read the Penguin edition when I was in middle school; as a matter of course, I remember nothing about it, although I did finish it. I hope it works out with a better translation!

  10. Reading is such a personal thing that it’s hard for me to give or take translation advice! For me, I actually have to sit down with the potential editions and read a few pages (or chapters, whatever it takes). I can usually tell that way which translation I’ll get along with best. It’s amazing how translation can affect your experience of a book. Definitely best to stop and switch, I think; otherwise, you may end up thinking you hate the book when really you just don’t care for the translation! Best of luck choosing your next edition!

  11. I’m by no means a Karenina completist, but I did read the Pevear version in school several years ago and really enjoyed it. It didn’t feel translated at all, but was very organic and a real joy to read. AK is such a fun (if tragic) book when you get into a groove with it; Tolstoy had such a great sense of humor. He reminds me a lot of Jane Austen.

  12. How very brave of you to give up Anna rather than drag yourself through it excruciatingly. Hope you have better luck with it next year. Translations do matter but I think nobody really takes notice of it until it becomes evident that what you’re reading has nothing of the finesse of the original writer! Sometimes, i wonder how much they actually translate. I remember reading Nana earlier this year and some phrases were high modernised.

    • Is it brave? I do not know. I thought at first it would be brave to pull through regardless, but in the end I think that would have been a foolish thing to do.

  13. I’ve stalled a bit on AK but it’s my own fault–too many other distractions bookwise. I do plan on getting back to it–I just finished part three with all the farming scenes which slowed me down. I will read books on project Gutenberg but only those that were written in English as often it seems the translated works are older translations and not always the ones that have been recommended–so I totally understand wanting to get a better translation. It’s no fun reading something like this when the translation is klunky! I am reading the Pevear translation and really like it. Maybe you can check the two out in a bookstore and read them side by side for a bit and see which one flows better for you.

    • I am sorry to stop reading AK “together” with you, even though it seems we are all a bit behind on the original schedule ;)

      And I am not looking forward to rereading prt of the farming scenes or the horse racing scene.

  14. Oh this makes me sad but I know where you’re coming from. I’m about 500 pages into Brothers Karamazov and hate it. Every page. If I weren’t reading it with a group of bloggers I’d surely quit. I’m reading the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky edition, which I think is supposed to be good.

    Makes you wonder, though–how does one know which translation to choose?

  15. I never used to even consider the translation of a book until I started blogging and so many people talked about it. I want to read some more French classics soon but I have no idea which is the best translation and how to choose.

    Interesting post, Iris, thank you.

    • I’ll be looking for your choices of translation of French classics, I am fearful to pick any up myself. Except the new Madame Bovary translation, but that is based mostly on the cover and the absolute trust of fellow bloggers in Lydia Davis ;)

  16. I read the Penguin edition and didn’t think about translation at all while reading–which I think means it was good? Anyway, Anna Karenina is one of my favorites, so I’m very sorry you didn’t get one with it the way I did! Better luck next time.

  17. I’m reading the Pevear and Volokhonsky edition and having no problems with it. When I saw your comment about how your sceond translation had started using different names to the first I was so confused because I’m used to Russian classic translations that uses all the different forms of a persons name, rather than just using one form of the name throughout – keeping one form of the name seems like a strange idea and so confusing if you switch between translations.

    • I think the Wordsworth edition uses names that are “less Russian” or something, to make it easier to read? I am not sure.

      I am sorry to stop reading this together with you :) I really liked the idea of that.

  18. I gave up on The Brothers Karamazov recently, so I feel your pain (although I was probably only about 125 pages in!). Luckily, I haven’t had a bad translation experience, but I can definitely understand how off-putting a bad translation would be.

  19. I never realized the importance of translations either. When I read Crime and Punishment last year, I read a no-name translation and struggled a little. I still loved the story. But when I read The Brothers Karamazov (with the P and V translation), there was a huge difference in quality. It made reading it much more exciting and interesting. I know that in the future I am always going to pay attention to what translation I am purchasing to read.

  20. I read Anna Karenina in high school and really enjoyed it. I found it captivating and romantic. My book group read it a few years ago and most of the other women had read the book in their early twenties and had a similar reaction. After rereading it in our 40′s, we had a completely different experience – what was once romantic now drove us crazy. Where we admired Anna when young, now as mothers we wanted to slap her silly and tell her to suck it up and deal. So I think context is also important.


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