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'War and Peace' Sparks a Literary Skirmish

Many literati agree that Leo Tolstoy's masterwork is history's single greatest novel. But two new versions raise the question: Which <em>War and Peace</em> are we talking about?
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Many literati agree that Leo Tolstoy's masterwork is history's single greatest novel. But two new versions raise the question: Which War and Peace are we talking about?

The opening paragraph of the Richard Pevear-Larissa Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace might take some readers by surprise: It's in French.

The translators left it that way, says Knopf editor LuAnn Walther, because that's the way Leo Tolstoy wrote it. Readers of this new translation will have to consult footnotes for the English versions of French passages.

Not so in another new translation by Andrew Bromfield — which is also some 400 pages shorter. The Bromfield translation may seem less daunting, says Walther, but readers should understand what they're getting.

"They wouldn't get War and Peace," she says. "They're two different books."

It was Walther who first said it was misleading to call the Bromfield translation the "original version," rather than a first draft that Tolstoy re-wrote many times.

"So much of what is great about War and Peace came in those rewrites," Walther says. "So it seemed important to me to clarify that one is a first draft, and one is the complete book that Tolstoy finished and was happy with."

But Daniel Halpern, the publisher at Ecco, which released the Bromfield translation, says it is the original version — the first version that Tolstoy wrote and signed "The End" to.

Halpern says the Bromfield translation is a publishing event: the only English translation of Tolstoy's original version of the book.

"The question might be, 'Do we need yet another translation by the Pevears, who translate every Russian novel, more than we need a look at something which is really unique and has never been seen by anyone, which is this original version?'" Halpern asks. "It's a very different take — it's got a different ending. The feeling of the book is different. Those 400 pages make the book go a lot faster. I can tell you, having read them."

Walther says that's just the point. The Bromfield translation is different, and can only give a reader a glimpse into the book that we have come to know as War and Peace.

To make her case, Walther points to two different versions of a passage that depicts the moment when the character Prince Andrei is shot in battle. It's a lot shorter in the Ecco edition.

As different as the two books may be, Tolstoy's original version is still worth a look, Halpern says.

"It is a literary curiosity," he says. "I think it deserves to be seen by people who care about War and Peace and Russian literature and Tolstoy. For the general reader, I don't know what they'll do."

Ideally, he says, people should read both versions of the book. Bromfield plans to translate the complete version, as well.

Whether anyone these days has enough time to read one version of War and Peace, much less two, is quite another matter.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.