Our book group have now read to the end of part two of Anna Karenina, and we’re all deeply engaged in the novel. Opinions are forming about the characters and their actions and we’re enjoying the descriptions of 1870s Russia. There’s no doubt that Tolstoy tells a cracking story.
Between us, we’ve bought a good range of translations. None of us read or speak Russian, so it seemed to me that the closest we could get to Tolstoy’s voice was through comparing and contrasting the various versions at key points. It’s raised interesting discussions about how translation and author-ship work, and something that we often take for granted, that is the significance of language choices in any text.
Take these three versions of the same description of Prince Stepan Arkayich Oblonsky. In one, he has a ‘portly pampered body‘, in the next a ‘full, well tended body‘, in a third version his body is ‘stout and well-cared- for‘. There’s nothing wrong with any of these, and I don’t have a preference for one over the other. But I do think each suggests a slightly different character picture. Perhaps you think that doesn’t really matter.
Well, lets try considering his wife, Dolly, at the moment she discovers her husband has been having an affair with their ex-governess, who is now pregnant. Dolly confronts her husband with a revealing note she’s discovered in his pocket, and looks at him with an expression of:
a) ‘horror, despair and wrath’
b) ‘horror despair and indignation’
c) ‘terror, despair and wrath’
I’m not questioning the quality of the translation here. I’m sure the dictionaries would allow each of these variations. I’m looking at the difference in effect created by each of these three interpretations, and wondering about the impact such choices have upon our overall reading experience.
This isn’t the place to draw conclusions on the novel, that’s something we’ll be discussing in the group. I’ve been thinking about the way I employ words though, and reminding myself that words are not just about explaining what I mean, the choices I make are my voice, and my language creates subtle shades of meaning within the text.