At the beginning of the 20th century, there were more people reading Tolstoy in translation than any other writer. That this was an extraordinary phenomenon becomes clear from reading an unsigned review of 13 new volumes of Tolstoy translations published in Britain’s liveliest literary periodical, the Saturday Review, in 1905. “Twenty years ago Tolstoy was hardly known outside Russia”, it begins. “We remember mentioning his existence to an American novelist of first rank, a great admirer of Turgenev, who did not seem inclined to believe that people would soon come to recognise the greater power of Tolstoy. Who has not heard of Tolstoy now?”

The novelist in question is undoubtedly Henry James, a friend and well-known admirer of Ivan Turgenev, the first leading Russian writer to be widely translated and recognised abroad. The critic is almost certainly James’s protégé HG Wells, one of a number of brilliant young writers drafted in to shake up the Saturday Review by its new editor in the 1890s. A year after this review was published, Wells would write Tolstoy a fan letter, telling him he had read everything by him he could find in English, about 18 volumes, and that, in his opinion, of all the works he had had the fortune to read, War and Peace and Anna Karenina were the “most magnificent and all-encompassing”.

Before 1905, James could be forgiven for not immediately perceiving Tolstoy’s genius, as few people outside Russia had even heard his name before the mid-1880s. The English-speaking world was introduced to Tolstoy’s prose when the American scholar and diplomat Eugene Schuyler published a translation of The Cossacks in 1878. Schuyler had visited Tolstoy at his Yasnaya Polyana estate while working as the US consul in Moscow, and had translated the novella after an extended period in Russia, so he was highly qualified.

This was not the case with the first translators to tackle War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Clara Bell, who worked in London, was a talented linguist but the English War and Peace she published in 1886 was translated from the first French edition of 1879 rather than the Russian original, which it little resembled. The American Nathan Haskell Dole, who published the first translation of Anna Karenina, also in 1886, did work with the Russian text but this was not always apparent. To the critic of the New York Times, his version suggested “the geological subsidence of a layer of Russian into a substratum of English, leaving a number of words to linger fossil-like amid the latter in untranslatable durability”.

Not only was the sheer prolixity of Tolstoy’s great novels a deterrent to all but the most determined of translators, but after the urbane Turgenev, whose measured prose slipped so easily into English, Tolstoy was also far more unpolished, more uncompromising and, well, altogether more Russian. Henry James spoke for many when he proclaimed in 1896 that Tolstoy was a “monster harnessed to his great subject – all human life! – as an elephant might be harnessed, not to a carriage, but to a coach-house”. It would fall to the next generation of translators to produce the more faithful versions in English that would have so powerful an effect on modernists such as Virginia Woolf.

It was politics rather than art that first made Tolstoy truly famous in the English-speaking world. After the spiritual crisis that overcame Tolstoy upon completion of Anna Karenina in 1877, he renounced his career as a professional writer in favour of proselytising his own brand of rational Christianity in whatever way he could. His consistent challenge to conventional assumptions in his novels was one thing, but his outspoken diatribes against state-sponsored violence and organised religion posed a direct challenge to the Tsarist government, which tried to silence him. Censorship only increased his zeal, and drove the formerly reclusive author to communicate his ideas of non-violence via translations published abroad.

The first translations of his religious writings happened to appear at exactly the same time as those of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, and it was the lucidity of thought in works such as A Confession and What I Believe that made by far the greater initial impression. Within months of its completion in 1893, Tolstoy’s philosophical magnum opus The Kingdom of God is Within You was being read in English in northern Pakistan by the explorer Francis Younghusband, and in South Africa by a young Indian lawyer called Mohandas Gandhi. It had an equally immediate and explosive impact on both of them, and on countless others in cities as far-flung as Chicago, Alexandria and Rangoon who promptly resigned army commissions or abandoned commerce.

The translation they read was by Constance Garnett, a remarkable woman who would play a key role in popularising Tolstoy as a novelist. Born Constance Black in Brighton in 1861, the momentous year in which serfdom was abolished in Russia, she graduated in classics from Cambridge and began her career as a librarian in the East End of London. Marriage to the editor and critic Edward Garnett brought her more directly into the world of letters. His work led to friendships with writers such as Joseph Conrad and DH Lawrence, and also to contact with Russian émigrés. Through her interest in socialism, Constance Garnett had already met George Bernard Shaw, a leading light in the Fabian Society, which was a common thread uniting the community of radicals, writers and exiles from Tsarist Russia among whom she and her husband ended up living on the Kent-­Surrey border. She took up translation in the early 1890s, having learnt Russian from the revolutionary journalist Felix Volkhovsky. He provided assistance in her first translating project: Ivan Goncharov’s A Common Story.

Garnett learnt more Russian with another revolutionary with whom she fell in love. Sergei Stepnyak (who had assassinated the Russian head of the secret police in St Petersburg in 1878) encouraged her to tackle Turgenev. But then, as now, the market for literary translation was small, and publishers needed to sell books. What was selling in 1894 was Tolstoy, so it was to The Kingdom of God is Within You that Garnett turned next. Earlier that winter she made her first visit to Russia, and had an inspiring meeting with Tolstoy in a snowbound Moscow. His piercing eyes, she reported, “seemed to look right through one and to make anything but perfect candour out of the question”, while at the same time “there was an extraordinary warmth and affection in them”.

While the new ascetic Tolstoy now deplored the earlier fiction that had made his reputation, and did not care whether it was translated or not, this was not the case with his last, explicitly didactic novel Resurrection, completed in 1899. Eight years earlier, at the age of 63, he had decided to waive his copyright on everything he had written since Anna Karenina, but now he temporarily reasserted it in order to raise funds to help the Dukhobors. These peasant sectarians, whose religious beliefs forbade them to take up arms, had been persecuted over their refusal to be conscripted but now, through Tolstoy’s agency, they were being allowed to emigrate to Canada en masse.

The appearance of a new novel by Russia’s greatest living writer was an event, and a popular weekly journal with 200,000 subscribers happily paid Tolstoy an astronomical sum for the serial rights to Resurrection – double what he had been paid for Anna Karenina. In a triumph of marketing orchestrated by Tolstoy’s chief disciple Vladimir Chertkov, who had himself translated many of the religious tracts, the novel was soon being read by hundreds of thousands of people around the world. The first English translation was entrusted to Louise Maude, who, like her husband Aylmer, was a devoted Tolstoyan, drawn to the writer first and foremost because of his religious and political stance.

Aylmer Maude, born in 1858, was the son of an Anglican clergyman from Ipswich. After finishing his schooling in Moscow, he settled there in 1884, having married Louise Shanks, who had grown up in the city and also spoke fluent Russian. For the next decade Maude embarked on a successful career selling carpets while raising a family, but in 1895 he came under Tolstoy’s spell. Soon he had become a trusted associate, working with Tolstoy on the translation of his contentious treatise What is Art? in 1897, and being beaten by him at tennis on a regular basis during visits to Yasnaya Polyana, despite Maude being 30 years younger. By the time his family had settled back in England later that year, Maude had given up his job and he and his wife devoted themselves full-time to Tolstoy, returning to Russia to visit him in 1902 and 1906. Louise led their collaborative translations of Tolstoy’s artistic works, while Aylmer took responsibility for his non-fiction writings, as well as a detailed (but not uncritical) biography, which would be completed in 1910, the year of Tolstoy’s death.

After meeting Tolstoy, Garnett had felt emboldened to translate Anna Karenina, her version of which was published in 1901, and she made her second trip to Russia in the summer of 1904, immediately after completing War and Peace. This was the translation she later decided she wished to be judged by, but it was not completed without cost, and her failing eyesight was seriously damaged during long nights working by candlelight. Maude’s path was also not smooth, as his close relationship with Tolstoy caused him to become proprietorial, as well as blind to the defects of his work as a translator. In 1905 he engaged in the first of many protracted tussles in the press after Max Beerbohm, in his capacity as drama critic in the Saturday Review, objected to the clumsy way he and his wife had translated peasant speech in Tolstoy’s play The Power of Darkness.

Garnett had anxiously awaited translations of Anna Karenina and War and Peace from her rivals. They did not appear until 1918 and 1922 respectively, but then Aylmer Maude started campaigning for a complete Tolstoy edition in English, supported by luminaries including Shaw, Wells, Rebecca West, W Somerset Maugham, Jerome K Jerome and Thomas Hardy. Oxford University Press, after much deliberation, offered the necessary contract. Like the Soviet 90-volume Collected Works, the Maudes’ 21-volume edition was launched in 1928, on the centenary of Tolstoy’s birth. But it is their translations of the two great novels which remain their towering achievement. Together with Garnett, the Maudes did more than anyone else to ensure Tolstoy’s reputation as one of the world’s great writers, ultimately eclipsing his once hallowed status as religious thinker and patron of the pacifist cause.

Arguments have raged for decades over their relative merits. Having lived in Russia for so long, the Maudes had flawless Russian, as well as Tolstoy’s imprimatur, while Garnett’s less advanced linguistic skills were compensated by her greater literary sensitivity. It was not until the 1950s that new translations of War and Peace and Anna Karenina were commissioned, while the most recent translations have caused controversy either by resisting the earlier temptation to smooth over Tolstoy’s rough edges or by updating his classical 19th-century Russian. In his homeland, meanwhile, Tolstoy has once again become a dangerous figure, his legacy of non-violence no more acceptable to today’s bellicose regime than it was in the last days of the Tsarist empire.

Rosamund Bartlett is author of ‘Tolstoy: A Russian Life’. Her new translation of ‘Anna Karenina’ is published this month by Oxford University Press

Photograph: Rue des Archives

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