Obituary: Rosemary Edmonds

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
arts + entsFor a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
booksNew book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past