Thursday, September 15, 2011

War and Peace? Peace, Society or World?

While doing some research about War and Peace I encountered a very intriguing  forum talk about the possible translations of the title of Tolstoy's book. The original title of this novel is "Война и мир" ( read as Voina i Mir) and by doing a simple Google Translate exercise we can see why it is so controversial. Copy the Russian version of the novel's name into Google Translate, select from Russian to English and what you will get is "War and Peace", right? Now delete the first two words, that is "Война и" and just leave the "мир" in there. It's not peace, is it? Some people argue that the real title of War and Peace is "War and Society" or "War and the World" and that the translation into English is wrong and does not convey the actual meaning intended by Tolstoy. On the other hand though, Tolstoy himself translated the novel in French and he chose " La guerre et la paix" as the proper words to express his view on the title. When doing the same Google Translate exercise trying to translate from French to Russian, surprisingly enough, we see "Война и мир" on the screen. 
When looking up the word "миp" in a real dictionary ( see end of post for references) we see that "миp" means: and 2.peace. Also,the French "paix" phonetically resembles "pays" which means country, thus being relatively similar in meaning to the Russian word for "world". Was Tolstoy trying to make his readers wonder what's up with this ambiguous choice of words or is this just pure coincidence?
What was Tolstoy's real intention? Was he going to talk about war and about peace, strictly referring to fights and battles and the short periods of peace? Or was he trying to talk only about war and how it affected society during the Napoleonic wars? Was this the best title for his book? Is " War and Peace" the best translation or should it have been " War and Society"?
I believe that the author's choice of words and translation into French is supposed to make us see beneath the surface of these words. After all, everything that happens in the book can be considered a war : the contradictory feelings of  the characters and the disputes between the wealthy people, the sudden changes in their lives are also wars at a personal level. Sometimes they encounter peace on their way to growth, sometimes they are defeated and have to start over again and lead many other battles with themselves and the people surrounding them. "War and Peace" is, in my opinion, not the kind of book which reveals everything from the title, but rather allows the readers to form opinions on their own. Maybe for some people this is a historical novel about the battles between the Russian and the French, maybe others focus more on the romance and society-related chapters, maybe some try to understand the meaning of both of these intermingled sides of the book. Thus, it seems to me that the important thing is to try to find the proper meaning of the book and of the title for oneself. I might even dare to paraphrase the title as "Battles and love", because this is how I relate to the book right now. What is the meaning you find beneath the title? Now, does it really matter what "мир" means?

( for the dictionary definition of "мир" I used  The Oxford New Russian Dictionary, 2007, Berkeley Books, New York)


  1. Wow, Iulia! I really enjoyed this post... Very thought-provoking. I have always wondered about the title of the book. I can certainly see how War and Society might have been an even more fitting title. After all, a fair amount of time is spent showing the ways in which the war effected the day to day affairs of people. However, I totally agree that, for this particular book, the title itself is rather unimportant. The ambiguity of it can even add to it!

  2. I think that the "peace" of "War and Peace" is ironic, and intentionally so. Tolstoy lets us enter the private world of the Russian elite- a world that few were in at the time he wrote the novel. He shows us how, though it may seem peaceful on the surface, high society has its own set of problems that are under the mask of wealth. Although assumed peaceful, Tolstoy tried to show how elite society was its own war in itself.

  3. Thank you, Emily!
    Ellen, that's exactly what I was trying to emphasize, the fact that there are so many views on this topic (or book), that the title matters only when related to our own feelings about it. I also believe that the way you put things is very insightful,I agree that society created a war for itself, I just would have never found the words to say this like you did.

  4. I agree with Emily when she says "War and Society" might be a better title, after all, it isn't really about peace, is it? It is about how people deal with war (both the actual battles and the "war" of society like Ellen mentioned) and how war affects the everyday lives of the characters and their society. That's a very interesting insight, Iulia, and it makes you think about what Tolstoy intended the title to mean.