03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Tolstoy's Stories

"The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories" is the third book of Tolstoy's fiction that we have translated, following "Anna Karenina" and "War and Peace", and in some ways the most difficult. Tolstoy's later stories are remarkable for the variety of their voicing and for their formal inventiveness. No two are alike. Translating them requires a retuning of the instrument each time. For instance, "Master and Man" is a variation on the theme of "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," but the rural setting, the speech of the peasant characters, and the intense rendering of the elemental catastrophe are worlds away from the law courts, the decorous salons and petty social aspirations amidst which Ivan Ilyich's agony and final illumination take place. While in his last novella, "Hadji Murat", which Harold Bloom has called "the best story in the world," Tolstoy looks back over his life's work and sums it up in a most unexpected way, achieving at the same time a formal perfection and diversity of voicing that he had never attained before -- all of which calls for the greatest attention and tact from the translator.

We are sometimes asked why new translations are needed. In fact, Tolstoy has been better served by translators than other Russian writers -- Dostoevsky, for instance -- but there is still the challenge of coming closer to the original, of catching more of its specific stylistic qualities than previous translations have done. And that desire is not so much nourished by ambition or by cultural high-mindedness. It has a sort of appetitive immediacy. "Translating a work we like," wrote the French translator Valery Larbaud, "means penetrating into it more deeply than we do by a simple reading; it means possessing it more completely, in some ways appropriating it to ourselves." Larbaud is right to stress the importance of this "primitive instinct of appropriation" in the work of translation. It is an organic thing: machines don't have it.

Take the opening sentence (and paragraph) of the first story in our collection, "The Prisoner of the Caucasus." One older translation reads: "An officer named Zhilin was serving in the army in the Caucasus." A more recent version reads: "A certain gentleman, whose name was Zhilin, was serving in the Caucasus as an officer." Neither catches the most important thing, though it's as simple as could be. We translate what Tolstoy wrote in the way he wrote it: "A gentleman was serving as an officer in the Caucasus. His name was Zhilin." Does the difference matter? We think it does, and that it is even crucial. Tolstoy adopted a primer style in this story, constructing it as a series of simple, declarative sentences. He intended it to be felt that way, to move and live in that way. Of course, the three English versions convey the same information. But then, literature is precisely not the conveying of information. It is the making of an image, and through the image of an experience, using all the resources of language -- rhythm, sound, texture, tempo, suggestion, intonation. What's more, every good writer has a particular way of using those resources. That is what the translator must try to follow as closely as possible. The transposition can never be total, and therefore it is always worth trying anew. In this way translation, which is a dialogue between languages, also becomes a dialogue in time, a fresh response to the ongoing life of the original.