Today a long advertisement appeared in the Times Literary Supplement for Chapman & Hall’s ‘Latest List’. Top of the column was ‘The Final Word on Tolstoy, the Man: REMINISCENCES OF TOLSTOY. By His Son, Count Ilya Tolstoy’. The book had been translated by George Calderon in the first half of 1914, serialised in the Fortnightly Review (owned by Chapman & Hall) between June and September, and published in the last fortnight as a handsome illustrated volume. In this particular advertisement, George was not named as the translator, although he was subsequently.
There were few reviews of the book, because it did not need them. The Russian original had been published in Berlin in 1913 and an English translation was awaited by readers worldwide. It was simultaneously published in the United States. It would have been normal for a translator to be paid only a fee, but George was ‘more’ than a translator: a writer in his own right, an eminent Russianist who had written about Tolstoi, and the first published translator of Chekhov’s plays (1912). Probably, then, as with Grant Richards’s edition of Chekhov, George had a contract for a royalty on sales. It was a good earner.
Reminiscences of Tolstoy is a superb translation that has stayed in print for a century. It is informed by a deep knowledge of Tolstoi’s works and his life (Kittie and George were particularly fond of Anna Karenina and War and Peace). Quite possibly, George himself visited Iasnaia Poliana in 1896. All this enabled him to provide detailed explanatory footnotes to the translation. We would look askance today at the quantity of these, but they were undoubtedly part of George’s contract, and they were praised by reviewers.
The main virtue of the translation, however, is that it is impeccably native, literary English. You feel it was translated by someone with a confident writerly persona of their own. Its register is not limited by ‘dictionary English’: George’s English vocabulary is so open-ended that he can describe the cries of courting woodcock as ‘wheepling’ and ‘horking’, for example, yet the translation is rarely ‘quirky’ as some people find his Chekhov versions. One can be pretty sure that, as his agent, Kittie brought him a copy of the TLS in hospital.
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