How Many Times Can a Tale Be Told?

How Many Times Can a Tale Be Told?
Each Translation of a Classic Has New Way With Words


Leo Tolstoy's novel "Anna Karenina" famously starts "All happy families are alike." But what readers may want to know is how alike are different translations of such foreign classics?

There are half-a-dozen English-language translations of the 1878 Russian novel available for sale online, including the 2001 version produced by celebrated translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. An endorsement by Oprah Winfrey turned that edition into a best-seller, with more than 1.3 million copies in print to date.

Yet next year, two new translations of the massive novel will hit the shelves. "Why two more now, and in the same year? I have no idea," says Mr. Pevear in an email.

It isn't only Tolstoy's works that get such treatment. For example, shoppers can choose from half-a-dozen versions of "The Decameron," Giovanni Boccaccio's sometimes bawdy 14th-century tale. This month, however, W.W. Norton & Co. will publish a new translation by Wayne A. Rebhorn priced at $40. New versions of "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" are also coming this fall.

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