The War Over War and Peace

Two new translations of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace will be published in the United States this fall, one claiming

Two new translations of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace will be published in the United States this fall, one claiming to be the definitive version and the other claiming to be the long lost, more accessible first draft.

The first translation, out on Knopf in October, is by all-stars Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. It clocks in at 1,219 pages, and according to editor LuAnn Walther, it represents “what Tolstoy would have wanted us to read if he were alive today.”

The other one, translated by the lesser known Andrew Bromfield, will be published by Ecco in September; it is being marketed as the “original version” of Tolstoy’s classic, one that has never been seen in this country. This edition comes with pictures—illustrations commissioned by Tolstoy himself—and it is about four hundred pages shorter than Knopf’s.

The two books are scheduled to arrive in stores about a month apart, and in the grand tradition of Russian confrontation, Ecco and Knopf are ready to duel.

Knopf has mounted an aggressive effort to discredit Ecco’s edition, arguing that it is not an “original version” at all but a dumbed down misrepresentation that violates Tolstoy’s work and misleads readers. Ms. Walther told Publisher’s Weekly last month that Ecco was making “a serious mistake,” while Mr. Pevear has written an open letter to journalists at her behest, in which he condemns Ecco’s “philistine attitude towards Tolstoy as an artist” and warns readers against falling for their sales pitch.

In an interview Monday, Ecco vice president and publisher Daniel Halpern said his only aim is to offer Toltoy fans and scholars a potentially enlightening text, while giving new, more casual readers a chance to read War and Peace without having to slog through all of Tolstoy’s philosophical digressions.

Ecco had put out two well-received translations when they got started on Tolstoy—one of Death in Venice, the other Don Quixote—and Mr. Halpern wanted to keep the series going. So it was decided that Ecco's next project would be War and Peace, and the Ecco staff went looking for a translator.

At first, as Mr. Halpern tells it, they wanted Mr. Pevear and Ms. Volokhonsky, the celebrated husband-and-wife duo whose profile had recently swelled when Oprah Winfrey selected their translation of Anna Karenina for her book club. According to Mr. Halpern, he was close to finalizing a deal with the couple when they had a change of heart and decided to stay with Knopf instead. (Asked about Pevear and Volokhonsky’s flirtation with Ecco, Ms. Walther suppressed a laugh and went through the impressive list of Russian classics that the couple had already translated for Knopf when they started War and Peace).

With that, the search committee at Ecco reconvened and eventually settled on Mr. Bromfield, who had translated a pile of contemporary Russian writers, among them Boris Akunin and Victor Pelevin. It turned out Mr. Bromfield was already working on it for a British imprint of HarperCollins called Fourth Estate.

He wasn’t working on the well-known version of the novel, though, but an early draft, first made available to the Russian public in 2000 by a philologist-turned-publisher named Igor Zakharov. Intrigued, Mr. Halpern swiftly arranged for Ecco to publish the book in the United States.

This version of the book was based on three serialized chapters Tolstoy published in a Russian journal in 1865 and 1866. According to a note at the front of the Ecco edition—and the introduction by Nikolai Tolstoy, who is vaguely related to the author—Tolstoy used these chapters as the foundation for a draft he completed in December 1866. At that point, he is said to have written “The End” on the last page of the manuscript, but soon after, he changed his mind, left Moscow for his country estate, and for three years made extensive revisions that would lead to the publication of the complete work, totaling six volumes, in 1869. This version, for the most part, served as the basis for the widely used English translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude, published in the 1920’s.

Mr. Zakharov, the Russian publisher, had taken quite a beating from critics when he put out this edition of War and Peace in Moscow. The text of the book, totaling about 700 pages, was adapted from an academic monograph compiled over the course of 50 painstaking years by a Russian Tolstoy scholar and published in 1983. The general public had been largely unaware of this first draft until Mr. Zakharov decided to clean it up—that is, remove all the cumbersome footnotes, brackets, and variants that its editor had lovingly inserted for the benefit of academia—and repackage it for trade.

“I’m a popularizer,” Mr. Zakharov said in an interview, speaking to the Observer in Russian from Berlin. “I see something interesting and I start waving my hands and yelling ‘hey, hey, everyone come here! I’ve got something here! Maybe you’ll like it too!’”

Mr. Zakharov spent a month editing Zaidenshnur’s monograph and printed 5,000 copies of it when he was done. On the back, he included a rousing editorial statement declaring that his version of War and Peace was better, shorter, and above all more authentic than the one people were used to.

“Twice as short, four times as interesting,” he promised. “More peace, less war.” Almost no philosophical digressions or incomprehensible French. A happy ending: “Prince Andrei and Petya Rostov remain alive.”

Before long, Mr. Zakharov was at the center of “a huge wave of protest, objection, and fury of the wildest variety.” He even participated in a “public trial” of the book, shown on national television, during which he fielded criticisms from various Tolstoy scholars (Mr. Zakharov recalls, “One person said, ‘Igor, how could you? You are in Russia! If a stick of butter says “real” on it, then everyone knows it is definitely margarine!’ I hadn’t thought of that.”)


Mr. Zakharov was insulted by the reaction: “‘The hell with you all,’” I said to them, “let them read it overseas—there are normal people over there, who actually read books.’”

With the help of his literary agent (who also represents Mikhail Gorbachev), Mr. Zakharov has since gotten his War and Peace translated into fourteen languages. Mr. Zakharov said that seeing the English translation, which appeared in the UK last April, made him feel like Napoleon.

Mr. Halpern and his staff at Ecco have deliberately distanced themselves from Mr. Zakharov, avoiding his rhetoric as they prepare to release the book; as a result, according to Mr. Halpern, the venom coming from Knopf is misplaced.

“All the stuff in [Pevear’s] letter, the headlines that he quotes in there, we chose not to use it,” Mr. Halpern said.

Actually, the press release Ecco issued in advance of the book’s publication does quote Mr. Zakharov’s remarks quite prominently, but qualifies them by saying that he “went a little overboard.” (Mr. Zakharov said he does not blame the American editors for abandoning his sales pitch: “Sometimes understatement is better than running out and beating your chest.”)

Still, Mr. Halpern said, Ecco is not claiming that their book “will replace the canonical version.” In fact, he said, Mr. Bromfield is about to start work on a translation of the actual War and Peace—that is, the long one everyone knows—and in all likelihood Ecco will be publishing it when he’s done.

“It’s confusing until you just sit down and read the introduction to our book,” Mr. Halpern said, “which clearly LuAnn hadn’t done.”

Tolstoy scholars, meanwhile, seem distrustful of Ecco’s “original version,” pointing out that Tolstoy’s work on the book was too scattered for there to be any one authoritatively “first” draft.

“This is certainly not a duel,” said Donna Orwin, who used to edit the Tolstoy Studies Journal from the University of Toronto, “because the Bromfield version of War and Peace really is a fraud. It is an early version of War and Peace, that’s certainly true, but it’s not War and Peace.

Still, most of the academics contacted for this story were wearily disinterested in the controversy that has erupted over the two translations.

“This is purely commercial bullshit,” said Stanford Slavist Gregory Freidin. “I do not think it deserves anyone’s attention. It is about which car gets the best gas mileage, that kind of thing. Anyway, it is a great book though.”

The War Over War and Peace