Commentary

Translating War and Peace is an arduous task. So why attempt it? Because most previous efforts have

The typescript weighed in at a stone and a half, about as much as a one-year-old child. I carried it to London in a big bag. It was my new translation of War and Peace, the 600,000-word product of four years' work and 4,000 hours at the computer.

That is the problem with this famous novel: its magnitude can put people off. War and Peace has become a jokey byword for bookish fatness and length. For every person who has read it, there must be a dozen who have always meant to, but chickened out.

This is a pity, because War and Peace should be easily accessible and should be enjoyed by everyone. Many describe it as the finest novel ever written, which would not be possible if it did not have a gripping tale at its centre. This is storytelling of soap-operatic intensity. Two young men begin their adult lives with colossal advantages. Pierre Bezukhov inherits the biggest fortune in Russia and marries the sexiest woman in Moscow. Andrei Bolkonsky is married to a beautiful young princess, who is pregnant, and he, too, is heir to big estates and great riches. But they get everything wrong, making one mistake after another, and plumb depths of unhappiness known to few.

Tolstoy weaves intricate tales of error and mischance that show us how difficult it is for anyone, not just the poor and downtrodden, to live out a human life. The spirit of compassion for all of us engaged in the curious business of living is without parallel, even in Shakespeare. It is the opposite of what the Germans call schadenfreude.

These leading players are backed up by 500 characters (even the dogs have names) in stories of birth, childhood, young love and idealism, bruising experience of the real world, stupidity continuing into mature years, hard-won maturity and wisdom, good luck and bad, adventure, excitement, boredom, disaster and triumph, for all classes of women and men. In its best moments, War and Peace examines the possibilities and problems of living a meaningful life; it distils wisdom in generous draughts, telling us more than we get from psychologists, philosophers and archbishops.

So it is a remarkable novel, and more people ought to read it. Will a new translation help? Translation is an impossible task - how appropriate that the Italian word for "traitor", traditore, should be so similar to "translator" (traduttore). Are the existing versions of War and Peace so bad that they need correcting? No; the past three or four are of a high standard. One of them, by Louise and Aylmer Maude, was approved by the author, who declared that "better translators could not be invented". Not encouraging for subsequent aspirants.

Tolstoy was right, but only in one sense. The Maudes and their successors make few mistakes. Yet there is one good reason for trying again: to find a new tone for the narrative. Setting aside two late 19th-century attempts by American professors, all subsequent translators have been women from the cultivated, well-spoken intellectual elite. They are precise about language, obeying the rules even when the results take them away from ordinary speech. When Natasha looks in the mirror, such translators have her say "Can this truly be I?", when what you and I would exclaim is: "That can't be me!" Or they allow wounded soldiers to call out, "I say, fellow-countrymen, will they set us down here or take us on to Moscow?" - making them sound like Bertie Wooster.

Translations such as this do not represent Tolstoy's language in the best possible way. The experience of English readers should be as close as possible to that of Russians reading their own language, and this calls for a wider range of speech registers, especially in dialogue, but also in the narrative. To get near the unconstrained flow of the original, ordinariness needs to be infused into the translation. However, this does not mean that Tolstoy's words should be brutalised. There were occasions when I considered expressions such as "hooliganism", "between a rock and a hard place" and "we've been rumbled", before rejecting them as too modern.

Throughout, I had one purpose in mind: to persuade more people to start reading Tolstoy's masterpiece. There could hardly be a better moment to trumpet the virtues of Russian culture: Britain is abuzz with Roman Abramovich's antics, Russian art and Russian fashion. It would be gratifying if the reading public could be persuaded to catch this wave, plunge into Tolstoy's narrative and revel in the stories. Certainly, it would be a nice reward for four years of "treachery".

War and Peace, with an afterword by Orlando Figes, is published by Penguin Classics (£16.99)