Found in Translation: Tolstoy’s Moral Tale is Alive in English


Called by Joyce Joyce “the greatest story that literature of the world knows,” Tolstoy’s How Much Land Does a Man Need  is a story that's just as useful and timely for our moment as it was for its author's. Pakhom, a peasant promises that if given enough land he wouldn’t fear the devil himself. And the devil? Well, the devil listens hard: 


“The devil sat behind the stove and heard everything. He was glad the peasant woman led her husband to boasting that if he had land, the devil couldn’t take him. “All right,” he thought, “we’ll make a bet; I’ll give you lots of land. And it’s the land I’ll take you with.”


What we see, as a result of this premise is a situation that is not unlike the one we get to see on Wall Street on a daily basis, or what we see in our current environmental crisis when greed for oil destroys our very habitat.  It is a timeless tale

But why reprint in 2011 something that is old enough to be praised by James Joyce? What is marvelous and very necessary about this specific translation of the old story is that the piece is finally, a good translation. Tolstoy, like many Russian writers, has suffered a great deal from translators who bore his work into English devoid of the sensual experience of language. A poet is a professor of five bodily senses, Lorca used to claim. But the translators of Russian prose didn’t listen to him. In fact, many of us in English know not Tolstoy or Dostoevsky but some sort of Tostoevsky, and so it is rare and quite wonderful to hold in one’s hands a timeless parable that actually sings in English.

The translator, W.H. Auden claimed, should know at least one language well, preferably his own. And Boris Dralyuk, as well as his editors at the marvelous, new Calypso Editions press, know this, and deliver. The book includes a lively, and very smart, introduction by Brian Evenson, himself a highly sophisticated translator and one of our most elegant writers of English prose. This lovely edition of a moral fable will, no doubt, be appreciated by generations to come.


---Ilya Kaminsky & Kathryn Farris