Obituary: Rosemary Edmonds

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The Independent Culture
ROSEMARY EDMONDS was one of the doughty band of translators enlisted by Penguin Books after the Second World War to open foreign classics to the mass audience. Her huge version of War and Peace remains the standard English text of Tolstoy, still in print after 40 years.

The early history of Penguin, like the early history of the BBC, is a catalogue of high aspirations and shameless opportunism. The Penguin Classics, among the most successful and distinguished contributions to the Penguin marque, began as the brainchild of one man, E.V. Rieu, a classical scholar who had become stuck in a rut of educational publishing. To wile away his evenings, he would translate aloud to his wife, Nelly, who persuaded him to go one better and work up a new translation of the Odyssey. The project took eight years. When he offered it to Allen Lane, founder of the Penguin imprint in 1936, Lane, against the advice of his editors, jumped at it and gave Rieu the job of editor of a series of classics in translation. The Odyssey came out as no 1 of the Penguin Classics in 1946 and by the time of Rieu's retirement in 1964 some 150 titles were published or in commission, and the classics were selling nearly a million copies a year.

Rieu was down-to-earth, a good editor with a fine ear. "Write English," he said by way of advice. "Read it aloud." The lasting success of his own translations of Homer (The Iliad followed in 1950), not to mention The Four Gospels (1952), testifies to his strength as a purveyor of plain English. Not many translations wear for more than a generation, but the early Penguin Classics, from the Greek tragedians to The Epic of Gilgamesh, Cervantes to Flaubert, still (with gentle revision by Rieu's successor Betty Radice and her own successors) hold their own.

Rieu's recruits ranged from stalwarts like J.M. Cohen and Philip Vellacott to more generally celebrated figures such as Dorothy Sayers (Dante, The Divine Comedy, 1949-62; and The Song of Roland, 1957) and Robert Graves (Apuleius, The Golden Ass, 1950; Lucan, Pharsalia, 1956; Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, 1957). Rosemary Edmonds, a multilingual wartime translator for General de Gaulle, was an ideal workhorse for the Penguin cause, having the necessary stamina for Russian literature. She specialised in Tolstoy, producing five titles for Penguin, but also ran to Pushkin and Turgenev.

"To be confronted by a page of Tolstoy's MS is a daunting experience," she recorded.

He wrote a close, spidery hand, ballooned the margins with alternative ideas, deleted, re-drafted vertically across paragraphs already written, and made diagrams to remind him of what he wanted to develop.

Keeping up with Tolstoy scholarship - spotting the textual revisions of the spidery hand - was the proper duty of a translator. Edmonds's job never stopped with the delivery of her own MS.

Her translation of Anna Karenina, entitled with pedantic precision Anna Karenin, appeared in 1954. Tolstoy's magnum opus followed, in two volumes, in 1957. "War and Peace," she writes in her introduction,

is a hymn to life. It is the Iliad and Odyssey of Russia. Its message is that the only fundamental obligation of man is to be in touch with life . . . "Life is everything. Life is God . . . To love life is to love God."

Tolstoy was a pantheist, not a Christian, a moralist, not a mystic. His "private tragedy", she adds,

was that having got to the gates of the Optinsky monastery, in his final flight, he could go no further, and died.

It was in Paris, after the Liberation, that Edmonds met Archimandrite Sophrony, the Russian emigre monk who sowed her interest in Russian Orthodox spirituality. Sophrony had, as Sergei Zacharov, been an artist in Paris after the First World War before receiving his vocation and moving to Mount Athos. He became the disciple of Father Silouan (Silvanus) at the Russian monastery of Panteleimon and then, in 1938, after Silouan's death, a hermit. He was ordained during the Second World War, returned briefly to Mount Athos and then tried to set up a community in Paris. When that failed, he moved, partly through the agency of Rosemary Edmonds, to Essex, where in 1959 he started a monastery at Tolleshunt Knights, near Maldon.

Sophrony had published a book, in Russian, about his mentor Father Silouan. Edmonds translated this in 1958 as The Undistorted Image, which transmogrified into The Monk of Mount Athos: Staretz Silouan, 1866-1938 (1973) and Wisdom from Mount Athos (1974). She did much other work for Sophrony and also translated his 1977 book His Life is Mine. The Archimandrite died five years ago, aged 96. His monastery at Tolleshunt Knights continues.

Rosemary Edmonds lived a life that touched the events of this century at many points, writes Michael Edmonds.

She was educated at St Paul's Girls School in London and then attended the Sorbonne to study French. It was here that she met a daughter of the family of Fernand de Brinon; in 1932 she and I - her six-year old stepson - stayed at La Chassagne, their home in the country near Aubusson. In 1940 when General de Gaulle set up the Free French headquarters in London and Churchill felt the need to know exactly what he was saying to France, Rosemary joined de Gaulle to help with translation. She served through to the Liberation. The General wished her to continue to work for him in France. But in the event she decided instead to attend the Sorbonne a second time, to learn Russian; her fees were paid by the French government in recognition of her wartime service to France. At the same time, de Gaulle and his government dealt with the collaborators and Fernand de Brinon was shot.

Thus from the late Forties stemmed her career as a translator of Russian, first at the various conferences that took place post-war, then, when Penguin needed a linguist, skilled not only in descriptive work but also at dialogue, she was introduced by E.V. Rieu, and so began her long work on Tolstoy's War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

In 1982 the Oxford University Press published The Orthodox Liturgy, "primarily for the use for the Stavropegic Monastery of St John the Baptist at Tolleshunt Knights in Essex". This translation from Old Church Slavonic into English was for her another crowning endeavour involving another language, pioneering research and the compilation of a complete dictionary. In this she worked closely with Archimandrite Sophrony who had founded the community. (He must have been one of the last alive to have met Rasputin. "That is Rasputin - he is not one of us," said the abbot of the monastery where Sophrony was studying icons.)

In "Robin" Edmonds all this learned application was permeated throughout with wit and a tremendous sense of fun. She used to say that having gone through the London Blitz with a thin sheet of asbestos between her and the bombs and shrapnel nothing else could daunt her. In 1968 she, the Archimandrite in full regalia and I went to Spain on holiday and to buy artworks for the monastery in Essex. Her fun extended to outright daring when she drove into the courtyard of Franco's summer residence at El Pardo near Madrid to see what would happen. Her performance, her blend of Spanish (shaky), French and Russian (expert) extricated us from all the horses, the long trailing ceremonial swords and the scrambled egg - it being 1968, Madrid University was surrounded at intervals by armed men on horseback.

Later, in the Soviet Union, she liked to think she had discovered early glasnost when being taken round the tombs of the Bishops of Kiev. The Intourist guide regaled her following the impeccable atheist party line, but, as Robin spotted, then stayed behind to touch the embalmed toe of an ancient Patriarch.

Rosemary Lilian Dickie, translator: born London 20 October 1905; married 1927 James Edmonds (marriage dissolved); died London 26 July 1998.