A family affair. Robert Winder reads a new translation of Tolstoy's masterpiece, the first for 40 years, and wonders what happened to the flash and glitter of the book he loved

Anna Karenina

Leo Tolstoy, translated and edited by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokonsky <em>Alle

The opening sentence of Anna Karenina - "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" (in Constance Garnett's version, published in 1901) - is one of the most famous lines in all literature. It is squirted casually, usually with approval, into the super-candid appraisals of domestic life that fill the pages of our newspapers and magazines - so much so, it almost has the status of an absolute truth. Perhaps it is because of this crushing ubiquity that I, for one, have never much liked it. The sentiment seems surprisingly glib and unTolstoyan. A happy family is a rare enough beast: the suggestion that they are ten-a-penny seems trite and unimaginative (indeed, if we are honest, most family tragedies follow grimly predictable lines). As for the idea that unhappy families are somehow aesthetically superior, more dramatic, more passionate - well, isn't that a mite too easy a Bohemian pose? I'd be the last person to dispute Tolstoy's genius, but I suspect that all he really meant was that happy families are a fat lot of good to a man planning an 800-page novel.

Anyway, it's an intimidating first line for a translator - a bit like "To be or not to be" for an actor. Almost 20 years after Garnett, Aylmer and Louise Maude came up with: "All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." This is the version that has lived on in the dictionaries of quotations, so Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokonsky must have tussled with both the desire to make a big splash and the fear that they might trip at the first fence. In the end, they combine tact with precision, giving the slightly sloppy efforts of Garnett and Maude a gentle buffing-up. "All happy families are alike," they write; "each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." There we are: nothing to it. They have preserved the improved balance provided by "all . . . each", rather than "all . . . every", steered clear of the muddy vagueness of "all alike" and restored the grand symmetry of the equation by losing that pseudo-conversational "but". It seems exemplary; they have neither fiddled with so classic a sentence, nor flinched from giving it a fresh lick of paint.

It is enough to persuade us of the value of their endeavour. A translation, after all, can hardly be definitive - there seems every reason to applaud fresh assaults on famous peaks. When Jorge Luis Borges said of a story that "the original was unfaithful to the translation", he indicated that new interpretations can surpass, if not exactly reproduce, the works that inspired them. So why shouldn't great books, like symphonies, be granted the dignity of the occasional new performance?

This is all very well, in theory. But I couldn't help feeling, as I read this new Anna Karenina, that it was a little muted and drained of life. Where was the flash and glitter of the book I remembered (in Garnett's century-old translation)? It took only a few quick comparisons to see what had happened. Here, for instance, is the moment at the end of the ball where Anna and Vronsky first connect. He asks her if she really is leaving the next day.

"'Yes, I suppose so,' answered Anna, as if she were wondering at the boldness of his question; but the irrepressible, quivering brilliance of her eyes and her smile set him on fire as she said it."

That is how Garnett put it. Here's the new translation:

"'Yes, I think so,' replied Anna, as if surprised at the boldness of his question; but the irrepressible tremulous light in her eyes and smile burned him as she said it."

Almost every alteration here is for the worse. "I suppose so" is far more dramatic than "I think so" (with its bizarre suggestion that Anna is not sure whether she is leaving or not); and the original also carries a spike of obligation and regret on which Vronsky can hang his hopes. As for the "tremulous light" in her eyes (not to mention the light in her smile), it is a muddy comedown from the "quivering brilliance" with which Anna's eyes once sparkled so temptingly. I winced to see her being no more than "surprised" by Vronsky's boldness - it was so much more eager and ardent of her to be "wondering". Finally, is "burned" a crisper metaphor than "set on fire"? No offence but, in the Harry Potter era, we can almost take it literally.

This steady subtraction of the upper register in favour of a more understated prose saturates the entire book. Garnett liked loud colours, and was happy to let vigorous overstatements collide and ignite; Pevear and Volokonsky settle for a calmer colour scheme. At the same ball, Kitty looks (or used to look) at the bewitching Anna and feels there to be "something uncanny, devilish and fascinating in her". Now she merely observes "something alien, demonic and enchanting". After her encounter with Vronsky on the train, Anna feels "both frightened and happy", where she used to feel "panic-stricken and blissful". And when confronted by her husband, she shines with "the terrible glow of a fire on a dark night" - which is mysterious in itself, given that fires on dark nights usually seem warm or welcoming rather than "terrible" - in place of her original fiery resemblance to "the fearful glow of a conflagration in the midst of a dark night". In all these moments, and in hundreds of others, Anna is shooed away from Garnett's vigorous physical descriptions towards a more abstract depiction. Her heart seems to beat less pulsatingly in exact proportion.

I suppose I resemble a typical reader of the book in having no Russian to refer to, so all of this might be an ignorant response. The new version may well be a more exact rendition of Tolstoy's tone. But it does feel as if a superb Russian mansion has been refurbished by Swedes: it is very clean and neat, but it lacks passion - which is ironic, given that this is more or less the subject of the book. In filtering away what might seem like the period excesses of Garnett's version, the novel has been robbed of a certain historical frisson that even the 100-year-old English version possessed. And faithfulness to the original is all very well, but not if it means taking the trouble to translate enfant terrible without taking the trouble to come up with something better than "terrible child". If this is what fidelity leads to, then Anna Karenina had it about right.

Robert Winder's reviews appear monthly in the NS