The main discussion list for Slavists often fields questions about which translations people recommend for course use. Lately, there has been a minor flurry of emotions over Tolstoy and War and Peace in general and, in particular, over a recent review of the new Anthony Briggs translation written by someone with no known knowledge of Russian.
Stephen Pearl, contributed an excellent extended comment, which I’m quoting below with his permission, that raises questions about the very question being asked. What do we mean when we ask for the “best” translation. Do we really understand our criteria? Having served on numerous translation prize juries, I’m not so sure we’ve reached any kind of consensus. Pearl’s mention of Oprah is a reference to the fact that she chose the Anna Karenina translation by the team of Pevear and Volokhonsky for her book club, thus giving them her powerful seal of approval and generating millions in sales. This is by way of introduction. Here’s what Mr. Pearl wrote:
In this interesting and provocative discussion of the merits of the various English translations of War and Peace, there seems to be a tendency to overlook the rubric under which it is taking place, namely: "The Best WAR & PEACE English translation of All Time". A British philosophical school which flourished about six or seven decades ago, whose leading light was Alfred Ayer ["Language , Truth and Logic"], held that the fact that a language allows certain questions to be formulated, does not mean that all possible questions, such as "What is Truth?", "What is Beauty", "What is the Sound of One Hand Clapping", "When did you stop beating your wife" and "Which is the best English translation of W&P of all time" ? "are necessarily meaningful or answerable; although they have certainly engaged philosophers in sterile wrangling down the ages.
Defining one's terms is crucial. In this case, there are two extreme, although not exhaustive or mutually exclusive, criteria. Do we mean by a "good" translation one that contains few errors of translation, or one that reads "well", i.e. smoothly and seamlessly in the target language, both - or none of the above?
A translation that is error free may be totally unreadable, and one that is a good read may be totally inaccurate. Fitzgerald's "Rubaiyat" of Omar Khayam is said to be riddled with "errors" and the same has been said of the King James version of the Bible, but they are both impressive works of literature.
The culture in which we currently operate - Oprah-rate? -is one where the word "loser" is just about the most opprobrious epithet going, where winning is "not the best thing, but the only thing", where "nice guys finish last", where being "numero uno" is "it" and so often determined by PR and "hype", where endless "Awards Ceremonies", which celebrate and boost the "Entertainment Industry", have themselves become popular entertainments in their own right, where a Texan bishop once declared that the people of Texas are "the churchgoingest and guntotingest people in the world", and where Oprah decrees which books shall be bought, although her writ may not extend quite as far as enforcing the actual reading of them. Indeed it is Oprah who is largely responsible for the anomalous fact that in a discussion of the competing claims of the different translations of War and Peace, such disproportionate attention is being paid to a translation team which has not actually produced one.
Among the numerous symptoms of this unslakeable public thirst for an authoritatively proclaimed victor ludorum is the The Heisman Trophy which is awarded annually to the the "best" college football player of the year, almost always to a quarterback or running back, whose glamorous and conspicuous functions are at least as different from those of their "mute, inglorious" team mates as the apples are from the oranges which we are taught not to compare. Also, the Young Artists Artists Award for instrumentalists, an award which nearly always goes to those musical counterparts of the quarterbacks and running backs - violinists and pianists. The pernicious and distorting logic of this suggests that the hapless trombonist is ipso facto a worse performer and a lower form of musical life.
One other distinction that runs the risk of being muffled is that, whoever the reviewer may be and wherever s[he] may be coming from, there is a printsipiyalniy difference between the point of reviewing a translation of a new or previously unknown work in order to bring it to the attention of English speaking readers and that of reviewing a retranslation of a classic. Essentially, a review of the former should be about the work itself and a review of the latter about the quality of the translation. A review of a translation of a classic by a reviewer who does not have the necessary linguistic qualifications ,or is not prepared to take the immense trouble of comparing the translation with the original, is at best a review of its readability, and cannot be a review of the accuracy of the translation, still less of the skill, ingenuity and inspiration with which that accuracy has been conveyed. Accuracy itself is only a necessary, but not a sufficient condition.
A reviewer who fails or is unable to evaluate the quality of the translation as such, is disqualified from making an informed judgment as to the winner of "The All Time Best Translation" Stakes; although the fact that the question can be formulated doesn't mean there is an answer - unless, of course, Oprah is asked to deliver the final verdict.