Anna Karenina–Translations

Every time we read a book we have to translate it into our mind, even when we’re reading a book written in the language we speak.  If the book was written in another language, we have to depend on another mind to do an initial translation for us.  Sometimes two or more people work on a foreign language translation.  Those translators must interpret what they read in the original language and refashion it into English for us.  They have to choose between a literal translation and one that reads well.  Many decisions have to be made.  If an old book is being translated, does the translator preserve the language of the past, or modernize it, do they translate the colloquial phrases, or substitute similar English sayings, should they improve upon the original authors writing, for example, and change a weak passive sentence into a strong active one, etc.

In our modern world books are most often translated to film, but every reader translates words into pictures when they read.


There are so many kinds of translations going on, more than just moving ideas from one language to another.  When we read a story we picture it in our minds, and we seldom picture it as the author pictured it.  How often have you read a book and then talked with someone about that book only to find they translated the book completely different.  The best illustration of this when movies are made from books.  Is Keira Knightley what you think when you imagine Anna?  Or is Aaron Johnson how you picture Count Vronsky?


If you’ve read a book about a poor person and have never been poor yourself, you will translate the book different from a reader who has been poor.  I have never been a woman, Russian, rich, dashing, beautiful, lived in the 19th century or been part of an aristocracy, so I have to imagine a lot when reading Anna Karenina and translating what it must have been like to been Anna or Count Vronsky.  I have studied American History, but is translating concepts about American slavery equal to Russian serfs?  I’ve seen Greta Garbo play Anna in a 1930s film, but is Garbo anything like what Tolstoy pictured when he was describing her with words?

Here is a portrait of Baroness Varvara Ivanovna Ikskul von Hildenbrandt that was painted in 1889, years after the book was published, but who people in Russia then used as a model for Anna.

PZ 401-038-753
Ilya Repin
Portrait of Baroness Varvara Ikskul von Hildenbandt, 1889
The State Tretyakov Gallery

Researching translations is fun.  That’s why studying the Bible is fun for me even though I’m a non-believer.  My friend Mike loves studying Homer and other Greek and Roman writers and comparing translations.  Readers have to constantly ask:  Is this a good translation?  Think of how many Christian creeds, sects and churches been created from reading one book.

I’ve always wanted to tackle Anna Karenina or War and Peace.  Well I’ve finally read (listened) to Anna Karenina, but how much of the story did I get?  Is one reading enough to make a fair judgment?  Did I pick the right translation?  Without doing any research I ended up with the Maude translation because I liked the sound of the reader of the audio book.  But I have to wonder, did I pick a good translation.

I’ve gone out and found four different translations.  Two of which I have on my Kindle, and two of which I did a screen shot of the first page off of

Here’ is the opening of Anna Karenina translated by Constant Garnett (1901):

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Everything was in confusion in the Oblonskys’ house. The wife had discovered that the husband was carrying on an intrigue with a French girl, who had been a governess in their family, and she had announced to her husband that she could not go on living in the same house with him. This position of affairs had now lasted three days, and not only the husband and wife themselves, but all the members of their family and household, were painfully conscious of it. Every person in the house felt that there was no sense in their living together, and that the stray people brought together by chance in any inn had more in common with one another than they, the members of the family and household of the Oblonskys. The wife did not leave her own room, the husband had not been at home for three days. The children ran wild all over the house; the English governess quarreled with the housekeeper, and wrote to a friend asking her to look out for a new situation for her; the man-cook had walked off the day before just at dinner time; the kitchen-maid, and the coachman had given warning.

Here is the same opening translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude (1918), the version I listened to:

ALL happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Everything was upset in the Oblonskys’ house. The wife had discovered an intrigue between her husband and their former French governess, and declared that she would not continue to live under the same roof with him. This state of things had now lasted for three days, and not only the husband and wife but the rest of the family and the whole household suffered from it. They all felt that there was no sense in their living together, and that any group of people who had met together by chance at an inn would have had more in common than they. The wife kept to her own rooms; the husband stopped away from home all day; the children ran about all over the house uneasily; the English governess quarreled with the housekeeper and wrote to a friend asking if she could find her another situation; the cook had gone out just at dinnertime the day before and had not returned; and the kitchen-maid and coachman had given notice.

Here is another translation, from Joel Carmichael (1960).


And here is the more recent translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (2000):


This last translation was made famous by being picked for the Oprah Winfrey book club in 2004.

While listening to the novel I felt there were phrases that sounded modern, and wondered if Russians had some of the same sayings we did, or if the contemporary feel came from the translators.  Then my friend Mike called me to talk about his research on translations of War and Peace.  So I got to thinking about the translation of Anna Karenina.

I was very happy with the Maude translation, but it felt like I was reading Dickens.  But then Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina just after Dickens died.  It was also serialized like Dickens’ novels, so it had that episodic feel.  Plus, both writers are coming to grips with similar changes in society brought about by industrialization, science and technology.

If you look at these different versions you’ll notice they are different and similar.  So, does the translation really matter? 

In the old two, Oblonsky had an intrigue with the French governess, while in the modern versions he had an affair.  Why the change?  How long has “an affair” meant what it does now?  But look at some other phrases:

“The wife did not leave her own room, the husband had not been at home for three days.” – Garnett.

“The wife kept to her own rooms; the husband stopped away from home all day;” – Maude, and it’s only part of a long sentence.

“Oblonsky’s wife refused to leave her rooms; he himself hadn’t been home for three days.” – Carmichael.

“The wife would not leave her rooms, the husband was away for the third day.” – Pevear and Volokhonsky.

Notice, there’s even changes in facts.  In the first the wife had one room, in the others, rooms.  In the second, the husband had been away all day, but in the others three days.

Notice how we’re told the cook has left.

“the man-cook had walked off the day before just at dinner time” – Garnett.

“the cook had gone out just at dinnertime the day before and had not returned” – Maude.

“the day before the cook had picked dinner time to go out” – Carmichael.

“the cook had already left the premises the day before, at dinner-time” – Pevear and Volokhonsky.

The Carmichael one doesn’t mention that the cook never returns.  And why doesn’t three of them mention that the cook is male?  I assumed the cook was female from my translation, but that’s my cultural spin on things.  I thought “walked off” was the strongest way of saying the cook quit.  “Left the premises” seems passive and not definite about why.

Well we do know why, the household is in confusion, upset and topsy-turvy.   Each of those words convey a different meaning to me, and none of them really convey the anger of a marital fight.  But then that might be Tolstoy’s failure.

Also, the famous first line is subtly different.  I wanted it to be more succinct.  Like “Happy families are all alike, unhappy families are distinctive.”  I don’t know Russian and would never be in the position to do a translation, but are the others translators like me, wanting to write the lines like they would want to read them?  If I had translated Anna Karenina it would have been a much shorter book, but is that translating or editing?

Then there’s Android Karenina, a parody mash-up of classic novel and science fiction – it’s another kind of translation.


Now many readers will be outraged by this particular translation of the novel, but really, is it any different in its extremes than the many film versions of Anna Karenina?  Most movie versions jettison the stories of Levin and Kitty, who appealed to me far deeper than Anna and Count Vronsky.  Just look at all these images from a Google search.  Each actress, or each painting for a book cover is an interpretation or translation.

How can modern readers understand Anna Karenina without understanding the social norms of the 1870s?  How much history do we have to know to really appreciate what Tolstoy is writing about?  I read AK at 60 and admired it greatly.  I could not have comprehended it at 20 or 30 or even 40, but even at 60 I’m sure I’m missing most of the story.  I don’t know Russian, but even if I did, I really don’t know much about life in 19th century Russia.  However, reading Anna Karenina is teaching me about Russia, like Dickens, Elliot and Trollope are teaching me about 19th century England.  Again though, through their translation.

History and fiction are constant mistranslations of reality, that change from generation to generation.

To see how we mistranslate history watch this little video “5 Historical Misconceptions Rundown" at YouTube:

JWH – 5/11/12

9 thoughts on “Anna Karenina–Translations”

  1. Read War & Peace years ago…still one of my favorites. I haven’t read Anna Karenina’s work yet. Now I must. As usual, you’ve peaked my interest in something I’ve been missing out on Jim. Have a great weekend! 🙂

  2. This is a really great article and makes you wonder how accurate every translation you’ve ever read has been. And also makes you think about how every book even those you read in the original language will be interpreted though a different cultural lens 50, 100 or 1000 years from now.

  3. Great work with setting-up those Anna Karenina, especially that mush-up one. Mostly, I can’t bear the mush up fashion, but yes – in some way it’s just another way of translation – the level of the outrage mostly depends on the degree of difference in plot layer – when somebody puts robots in AK, it maybe isn’t the worst idea, but there is a constant danger of zombie hords destroing the orginal plot – is it still Anna Karenina when not only decoration has changed, but also a story?

  4. Here is another example – the opening lines of Homer’s
    The Iliad:

    Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
    and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
    hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
    of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
    of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
    since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
    Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.


    Rage–Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
    murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
    hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
    great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
    feasts for the dogs and birds,
    and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
    Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
    Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.


    Sing, Goddess, Achilles’ rage,
    Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks
    Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls
    Of heroes into Hades’s dark,
    And left their bodies to rot as feasts
    For dogs and birds, as Zeus’ will was done.
    Begin with the clash between Agamemnon–
    The Greek warlord–and godlike Achilles.


    1. I like Lombardo’s succinctness. “Sing, Goddess, Achilles’ rage” is right to the point. But this definitely illustrates how different translators can interpret one text.

  5. I recall Samuel Delany making a similar point about different translations of one of Jules Verne’s novels (I don’t remember which one). Delany was teaching a class and one of the students was having trouble finishing the Verne novel. Delany asked to see the book and he was amazed at how bad the translation was. The other students had read a different translation, as had Delany.

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