What’s the best translation of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy?

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Old books and cup of coffee

A few years ago, I first shared my thoughts on the best translation of War and Peace, the book that inspired me to create this blog (spoiler alert: I love the Anthony Briggs translation).

But what about Tolstoy’s other books? And in particular, what is the best translation of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s classic love story-meets-tragedy?

There are roughly ten English translations of Anna Karenina that are currently in print. However, you’re likely going to be comparing just five translations of Anna Karenina, which I explore in this post.

These are the translations you’ll find sitting in most well-stocked bookshops, recommended on university reading lists, and suggested at the top of Reddit threads.

Academic Hugh McLean shares that “None of the existing translations is actively bad. From any of them the ordinary English-speaking reader would obtain a reasonably full and adequate experience of the novel. […] One’s choice among the existing translations must therefore be based on nuances, subtleties, and refinements”.

For this post, I’ve looked into the thoughts and reviews of other readers of Anna Karenina for these translations. But ultimately, it’s based on my own thoughts, taking these key points into consideration:

  • How easy and enjoyable it is to read in English
  • How faithful it is to the original Russian

This is the main challenge of the translator, and there’s no right answer to which version is best. When reading a comparison of the different translations of Anna Karenina, it can be infuriating to work out which one is better. “Just give me a clear answer!” you mutter at the internet… So I’m going to try and make it easier for you.

Which translation of Anna Karenina should you read? (The short answer)

The short answer is that the best translation is the one you enjoy reading. Especially if you’re not a Russian literature academic (which I’m certainly not). That said:

Personally, I prefer the Rosamund Bartlett translation of Anna Karenina. And fortunately, Anna Karenina is a book that can (and if possible, should) be read multiple times over the course of a lifetime. If you choose a different translation each time, you create your own translation comparison project. (That might sound more interesting to some than others.)

If you need more help deciding, let’s look into the different translations of Anna Karenina in a bit more detail, see some text samples, and weigh up their pros and cons…

Comparing the five best translations of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Click to jump to my commentaryMore idiomatic or literal?
Constance Garnett (1901)More literal. Her Tolstoy is “a monocled British gentleman who is simply incapable of taking his characters as seriously as they take themselves” (NYT)
Louise and Aylmer Maude (1918)More literal. And Tolstoy-approved.
Pevear and Volokhonsky (2000)More idiomatic. P&V “created a reasonable, calm story­teller who communicated in conversational American English” (NYT)
Rosamund Bartlett (2014)More idiomatic. Bartlett “creates an updated ironic-Brit version of Tolstoy” (NYT)
Marian Schwartz (2015) More literal, doesn’t shy away from Tolstoy’s awkwardness: “probably the least smooth-talking and most contradictory Tolstoy yet” (NYT)

Constance Garnett – the original translation in the public domain, but dated, overly literal, and sacrifices style

Garnett translation by Modern Library Classics.

You can’t deny the influence that Garnett’s translations have had on literature. It wasn’t until her translations were published that the Russian classics were read in English. As Rosamund Bartlett writes for The Guardian, Garnett’s translation from 1901 has “stood the test of time and set a high benchmark for future versions”.

That said, her translations can be very literal and sacrifice style for accuracy. Being one of the first major translators of Russian into English, she rushed to translate as many books as possible in the shortest time (which sometimes meant skipping over difficult sections entirely). Her translations can also seem tinged with dated Edwardian English.

You can find the Garnett translation in the public domain (Project Gutenberg), but a good choice for reading Garnett’s translation is a revised edition, especially this thorough revision from Leonard J. Kent and Nina Berberova in 1965, complete with fairly full notes at the bottom of the page.

“Kent and Berberova did a much more thorough and careful revision of the Garnett translation than Gibian did of the Maude one, and they have supplied fairly full notes, conveniently printed at the bottom of the page”, writes Hugh McLean.

Aylmer and Louise Maude – worked with Tolstoy to get as close to his intent as they could

Maude translation by Wordsworth Classics.

The Maude translation has an interesting advantage: they knew Leo Tolstoy and worked with him to get their translation as close to his original intent as possible.

While researching this post, the Maude translation seems to be a lot less controversial than the Garnett or P&V translations. The consensus seems to be, sure, it’s fine.

Like the Garnett, the Maude is more at risk of sounding dated in places because of how long ago it was translated, but a revised Maude translation is a good choice. To guide your reading, this Wordsworth Classics edition includes notes from E.B. Greenwood.

Pevear and Volokhonsky – bestselling and award-winning, but can be clunky

Pevear and Volokhonsky translation by Penguin Classics.

The P&V version is the translation of Anna Karenina you’re most likely to find in a bookshop or be recommended by a friend. It also tends to be the translation taught in university courses. And it was the version of Anna Karenina I read first – and enjoyed a lot, even if the Bartlett translation nudged ahead on a reread.

When it was chosen for Oprah’s book club, the P&V translation sold hundreds of thousands of copies – yet, as the New York Times shares, it’s worth noting that Winfrey had not read the book and chose this particular translation out of consideration of convenience. It was the most recent and therefore the most widely available at that moment. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Although the P&V translation of Anna Karenina won the 2002 PEN translation prize, read any Reddit thread about the best translations of Anna Karenina (or any other Russian classic) and you’ll see one comment praising P&V translations and the next saying how awful and clunky they are. (Or to quote one critic, “awkward and unsightly muddles”.) Their translations are more polarising than others on this list, mostly because they’ve had such a monopoly on marketing.

The husband-and-wife team has a unique translation process: Volokhonsky first prepares her English version of the original text, trying to follow Russian syntax and stylistic peculiarities as closely as possible, and then Pevear turns this version into polished English. 

Hugh McLean shares, “It is certainly a good translation and generally follows Tolstoy’s style more closely and with less editing and ‘prettifying’ than other versions. But one must still regret that it is not better than it is”. He commends them for their explanatory notes, but adds that they’re inconveniently tucked away at the back of the book.

Ultimately, the best way to see if it’s a good translation for you is to download a Kindle sample or sit down with it in a bookshop (and ideally, compare the first few pages with those of other translations in this list). If you want to keep reading, go for it. If not, try another. Such as…

Rosamund Bartlett – modern and intended to read as if it were written in English

Bartlett translation by Oxford World’s Classics.

I enjoyed Bartlett’s biography Tolstoy: A Russian Life in 2010, and was interested to see how she would approach her 2014 translation of Anna Karenina. I liked it a lot. She creates a more British Tolstoy, but considering I’m British, I probably notice that less than others. In her introduction, Bartlett writes:

“This translation seeks to preserve all the idiosyncrasies of Tolstoy’s inimitable style, as far as that is possible, including the majority of his signature repetitions, so often smoothed over by previous translators”.

However, she also adds that “[Tolstoy] would have surely expected his translators to draw on the particular strengths of their own languages. The aim here, therefore, is to produce a translation which is idiomatic as well as faithful to the original, and one which ideally reads as if it was written in one’s own language.”

There are plenty of footnotes and endnotes to give you more background information, as well as a character list with the various names and nicknames of each character in case you start getting confused.

Marian Schwartz – an embrace of Tolstoy’s awkward style, in a faithful translation of the original

Schwartz translation by The Margellos World Republic of Letters.

The Schwartz translation of Anna Karenina is the one I know the least about. I’m intrigued by it though, and will probably choose it for my next re-read. The most direct competitor of the Schwartz translation is Bartlett’s; after all, they were published within a year.

However, while Bartlett wanted an Anna that seemed crafted in English, Schwartz was focused on translating an accurate Anna, not shying away from Tolstoy’s awkwardness or “correcting” supposed mistakes.

In this translation, Schwartz uses repetition where Tolstoy does, uses clichés when he does, and re-creates his style in English more than any other translator has aspired to.

Michael Holquist, author of Dostoevsky and the Novel, shares that, “The translation is the most accurate Tolstoy we have in English. Marian Schwartz has been a major force in bringing Russian literature into English for many years, but this is her masterpiece.”

If you go by the New York Times comparison of the Bartlett vs. Schwartz translation of Anna Karenina, you might be left feeling a little confused, though. They say that Schwartz has a better ear for the Russian. But her translation is often less readable than Bartlett’s. But Bartlett introduces “an awkwardness that is absent in the original”. Hmm.

As is the recurring advice in this post, start with the translation that sounds the most interesting to you. Continue reading the translation you like to read. And don’t be afraid to switch.

Sample text from each Anna Karenina translation

Sample text
Constance Garnett (1901)“Oh, it’s awful! oh dear, oh dear! awful!” Stepan Arkadyevitch kept repeating to himself, and he could think of nothing to be done. “And how well things were going up till now! how well we got on! She was contented and happy in her children; I never interfered with her in anything; I let her manage the children and the house just as she liked. It’s true it’s bad her having been a governess in our house. That’s bad! There’s something common, vulgar, in flirting with one’s governess. But what a governess!”
Louise and Aylmer Maude (1918)‘How awful! Oh dear, oh dear, how awful!’ Oblonsky kept repeating to himself, and could arrive at no conclusion. ‘And how well everything was going on till now–how happily we lived! She was contended, happy in her children; I never interfered with her but left her to fuss over them and the household as she pleased…. Of course it’s not quite nice that she had been a governess in our house. That’s bad! There’s something banal, a want of taste, in carrying on with one’s governess–but then, what a governess!’
Pevear and Volokhonsky (2000)‘Ah, terrible! Ay, ay, ay! terrible!’ Stepan Arkadyich repeated to himself and could come up with nothing. ‘And how nice it all was before that, what a nice life we had! She was content, happy with the children, I didn’t hinder her in anything, left her to fuss over them and the household however she liked. True, it’s not nice that she used to be a governess in our house. Not nice! There’s something trivial, banal, in courting one’s own governess. But what a governess!’
Rosamund Bartlett (2014)‘Ah, this is awful! Oh dear, oh dear! It’s awful!’ Stepan Arkadyich kept repeating to himself, unable to come up with anything. ‘And how good it all was before this, what a good life we had! She was happy and contented with the children, I didn’t even get in her way, and let her take care of the children and the household as she wanted. It’s true that it was not good she was a governess in our house. Not good at all! There is something tawdry and vulgar about chasing after your own governess. But what a governess!
Marian Schwartz (2015) “Oh, it’s awful! Oh, my! Simply awful!” Stepan Arkadyevich repeated over and over to himself, but he could conceive of no remedy. “And how fine everything was before this, how well we lived! She was content and happy with her children, and I never interfered in the slightest way, I left her to manage the children and the household as she pleased. True, it was not good that she had been a governess in our own house. Not good at all! There is something common, vulgar even, about making love to one’s own governess. But what a governess!

Remember that the main goal of reading Anna Karenina should be to enjoy reading Anna Karenina. Let the translation you choose help you with that, and don’t be afraid to read the first pages of a few different translations before picking your favourite.

If you’re really not sure though, I’d recommend trying Rosamund Bartlett’s translation as a starting point. See how you get on.

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