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One of the world's great novels, "War and Peace," is in the thick of a literary skirmish. In September, Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins, fired the first short when it published a new translation of "War and Peace" by Andrew Bromfield. It's calling this one the original version of a novel. Another publishing house, Knopf, fired back with its own new version of "War and Peace" by a superstar team of translators.
NPR's Lynn Neary has this report on what's been dubbed the war over "War and Peace."
LYNN NEARY: The opening paragraph of the Richard Pevear and 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 translation will have to consult footnotes for the English version of French passages. Not so in the 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.
Ms. LUANN WALTHER (Editor, Knopf): They wouldn't get "War and Peace." It's really - they're two different books.
NEARY: It was Walther who first said it was misleading to call the Bromfield translation the original version, rather than a first draft, was Tolstoy re-wrote many times.
Ms. WALTHER: So much of what is great about "War and Peace" came in those rewrites. So it seemed important to me to clarify that one is a first draft, and one is the complete book that Tolstoy finished, published, and was happy with.
Mr. DANIEL HALPERN (Publisher, Ecco): It is the original version. It's the version that he first wrote and signed the end to.
NEARY: Daniel Halpern is the publisher of Ecco, which released the Bromfield translation. He says the Bromfield translation is a publishing event - the only English translation of Tolstoy's original version of the book.
Mr. HALPERN: The question might be, do we need yet another translation by the Pevears, who translate every Russian novel, more than we need something which is really unique and has never been seen before by anybody, which is this original version? 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.
NEARY: But that, says Walther, is just the point. The Bromfield translation is different, and can only give a reader a glimpse into the book that we've come to know as "War and Peace."
To make her case, Walther reads two different versions of a passage that depicts the moment when the character Prince Andrei is shot in battle.
Ms. WALTHER: This is from the first draft.
(Reading) This is real death. This is the end, he told himself at that moment. A shame. What now? There was still something, something good. It's annoying, he thought. Some soldiers picked him up.
Here's what happens in the complete edition.
(Reading) Can this be death? thought Prince Andrei, gazing with completely new, envious eyes at the grass, at the wormwood, and at the little stream of smoke curling up from the spinning black ball. I can't, I don't want to die, I love life, I love this grass, the earth, the air.
NEARY: As different as the two books may be, Ecco's Daniel Halpern says Tolstoy's original version is still worth a look.
Mr. HALPERN: It is what it is. It's a literary curiosity. I think it deserves to be seen by people who care about Russian literature and about "War and Peace" and about Tolstoy. For the general reader, I don't know what they'll do.
NEARY: Ideally, Halpern says, people should read both versions of the book. And he adds Bromfield now plans to translate the complete version as well, which Ecco will be happy to publish as a boxed set.
Whether anyone these days has enough time to read one, much less two versions of "War and Peace," is quite another matter.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
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