This Israeli Found a Gaffe in 'Anna Karenina' and Gained International Fame

Did translators from different eras, including the great novelist’s time, spot the discrepancy but not correct it? If so, why not?

Keren Erna Svorai
Keren Erna Svorai
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Vivien Leigh and Ralph Richardson in the 1948 film 'Anna Karenina'
Vivien Leigh and Ralph Richardson in the 1948 film 'Anna Karenina'Credit: AP
Keren Erna Svorai
Keren Erna Svorai

Late last summer I read Yitzhak Shenhar’s 1957 Hebrew translation of Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina.” I had read the book before, but that first time, back in the ‘80s, I went through it quickly and without the eighth and final part.

By my own personal criteria, I couldn’t say I’d really read it the way I should have, because I believe that literary masterpieces in particular deserve to be read slowly and carefully, with time for reflection. Had I given the book this treatment in the first place, with my wholehearted attention, I might have discovered what I finally discovered last summer.

On the first day, I read the sixth chapter of Part One, the chapter that describes Count Levin’s relationship with the Shcherbatsky sisters. Three weeks later I began reading the second volume, Part Five, and I read the fifth chapter in which Kitty Shcherbatsky’s sisters are described on the evening of her marriage to Levin.

In Chapter 16 of Part Five, I stopped. I went back to Chapter 5 of Part Five and reread the following sentence (hereafter “Sentence I”): “In the little group nearest to the bride were her two sisters: Dolly, and the other one, the self-possessed beauty, Madame Lvova, who had just arrived from abroad.”

I remembered something else. I went back to Part One, Chapter 6, to the initial description of the Schcherbatsky sisters, and found this: “In his student days he had all but been in love with the eldest, Dolly, but she was soon married to Oblonsky. Then he began being in love with the second. He felt, as it were, that he had to be in love with one of the sisters, only he could not quite make out which. But Natalia, too, had hardly made her appearance in the world when she married the diplomat Lvov.”

So which one was the eldest, Dolly or Natalia Lvova? At first I presumed the blame for the mismatch lay with the translator and the editor, but to be sure I went on a book-lovers’ Facebook group and asked people to consider this question in Nili Mirsky’s translation. A quick check revealed that the same discrepancy appeared in that 1999 translation. I also checked the much-earlier first Hebrew translation by Y. E. Trivush, and the same discrepancy appeared there, too!

Two of my Russian-speaking Facebook friends, Anna K. and Ela G., checked the order of the Shcherbatsky sisters in the original Russian version. All three of us were surprised to see that the same problem existed in the original language as well.

Keren Erna Svorai

Now things began to get particularly interesting. In Constance Garnett’s 1901 English translation, published in Tolstoy’s lifetime, I found that the translator had omitted the word “eldest” from Sentence I so that it read as follows: “In the little group nearest to the bride were her two sisters: Dolly, and the other one, the self-possessed beauty Madame Lvova, who had just arrived from abroad.”

An anonymous French translation from 1885 also omitted the word “eldest,” and the order of the sisters’ ages isn’t mentioned. So at least two translators who lived in Tolstoy’s time noticed the discrepancy and found a way to address it.

All there in Russian

Meanwhile, Anna K. and her husband told me about the Tolstoy House Museum in Moscow. The museum has been in operation since 1920, a decade after the author’s death. It preserves and publishes original writings by Tolstoy and his family.

We sent the place a letter in Russian asking about the source of the discrepancy. A reply came the following week. Anna spoke with Lyudmila Kalyuzhnaya, the museum’s deputy director in charge of research. We learned that even though the museum staff occasionally receive comments about discrepancies in Tolstoy’s writings, they had never heard about this one and were surprised that a non-Russian-speaking Israeli discovered it.

She said that in the thank-you letter from the museum’s director, Sergei Arkhangelov, he apologized that there was no copy of the manuscript’s relevant page (Part Five, Chapter 5). Since Tolstoy wrote countless versions of the novel, not all the pages of the drafts were preserved and made it into the museum archives, so there was no way of knowing at which stage of the writing the discrepancy I discovered had come about.

Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana near Tula, Russia, May 1908. Credit: Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky / Wikimedia Commons

But then we had a stroke of luck. The day the letter was supposed to be mailed to me, one of the archive staff found the missing page. The discrepancy was right there in Tolstoy’s manuscript in one of the earliest versions of the novel! The original could be compared with the sentence as it appears in the printed version in Russian. It was clear the discrepancy appeared in both versions. Not only that, the sentence had been tweaked from one to the other, but the discrepancy remained unchanged.

In addition to the thank-you letter, the museum’s website featured a report about the phenomenon and I was invited to present the case at the 13th conference of Tolstoy scholars and translators, which will take place at the Tolstoy Estate Museum at Yasnaya Polyana in September.

Tolstoy’s work habits

This experience makes one wonder. “Anna Karenina” was published in 1877. (From 1875 to 1878 it was also published in installments in the Russian monthly Vestnik.) Since then it has been translated more than a thousand times into many different languages. According to Wikipedia, it has been translated into Hebrew five times and into English 11 times (the most recent English translation came out in 2015). It’s one of the most read and translated books of the past 150 years. In 2007, Time magazine ranked it among the top-10 books of all time.

Did translators from different eras, including Tolstoy’s time, spot the discrepancy that I found but not correct it? If so, none of them ever contacted Tolstoy or the guardians of his estate to shine a light on this contradiction and ask if it ought to be corrected. So why not?

Possible reasons for this discrepancy (one of many, says Kalyuzhnaya) can be traced, first of all, to the way the author went about his work. Tolstoy wrote two big novels – “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina” – that far exceeded the average size for his time. These are long novels with numerous characters and events spread over a long period, and of course this was many decades before the word processor.

Tolstoy was meticulous about going over every scene and every line, continually polishing so as to get as close as possible to the human truth he sought to portray. He wrote and erased countless versions and drafts and was ruthless with himself, as well as with his wife Sophia Andreyevna and his friend Nikolay Strakhov, who were entrusted with making repeated copies of the manuscripts. Perhaps this intensive rewriting and recopying helped give rise to the discrepancy.

Other reasons may have to do with events in Tolstoy’s life. During the writing of “Anna Karenina,” three of his young children died, as did his two beloved aunts who had raised him. There were stretches of months in which he despaired of the book and abandoned it. Also during that time, the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish War broke out.

Above all, his relations with his family soured amid his moral and religious turnabout. Very close to the publication of “Anna Karenina,” Tolstoy disavowed his earlier works. He developed a religious-socialist philosophy and wrote essays challenging the moral authority of the Czarist government and the Orthodox Church. As a result, he was ostracized by the Church and persecuted by the authorities for anarchism.

Because of all this and events after his death, including bitter court battles over the copyrights to his writings and the Bolshevik Revolution, it’s easy to see how a detail in a novel could be missed.

But is it important to correct this sort of discrepancy? If so, is this the responsibility of the translators and editors, or of literary scholars? One could expect they’d be the ones to discover such discrepancies – who else reads the book so closely? Couldn’t they be expected to report such discrepancies? Should no changes ever be made out of respect for the great author, as if his or her writings were sacred?

Or perhaps the opposite is true – the author’s honor requires that such corrections be made. Kalyuzhnaya of the Tolstoy House Museum says that even though the museum’s policy is not to change anything in Tolstoy’s Russian writings, it gives translators a free hand in correcting errors or discrepancies in their languages.

Also, according to biographies, Tolstoy was probably open to corrections of the who’s-the-eldest-sister variety, though not to corrections of style and wording.

As Henri Troyat’s biography “Tolstoy” put it, “‘With regard to my corrections, which almost always related to questions of language,’ wrote Strakhov, ‘I found that Leo Nikolayevich would defend his choice of words to the death and refused to make the slightest alteration. I could see from his remarks that he cared a great deal about what he had written and that in spite of the seeming carelessness and awkwardness of his style, he had weighed every word and phrase as careful as the most exacting poet.’”

Click the alert icon to follow topics:



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.
From $1 for the first month

Already signed up? LOG IN


The Orion nebula, photographed in 2009 by the Spitzer Telescope.

What if the Big Bang Never Actually Happened?

Relatives mourn during the funeral of four teenage Palestinians from the Nijm family killed by an errant rocket in Jabalya in the northern Gaza Strip, August 7.

Why Palestinian Islamic Jihad Rockets Kill So Many Palestinians

בן גוריון

'Strangers in My House': Letters Expelled Palestinian Sent Ben-Gurion in 1948, Revealed


AIPAC vs. American Jews: The Toxic Victories of the 'pro-Israel' Lobby

Bosnian Foreign Minister Bisera Turkovic speaks during a press conference in Sarajevo, Bosnia in May.

‘This Is Crazy’: Israeli Embassy Memo Stirs Political Storm in the Balkans

Hamas militants take part in a military parade in Gaza.

Israel Rewards Hamas for Its Restraint During Gaza Op