These days I'm reading a lot of great literature that was not originally written in English, and as I really don't speak or read any other language other than English, choosing a good translation would seem to be a very important step if I'm to fully experience these novels, plays, or poems. Until a few years ago, I never really gave much thought to what translator or translation that I was reading. I just purchased a copy of the book and started reading. For the past few years I've maintained my on-line library on both Goodreads and Shelfari, and I've begun encountering a lot of information about literary translators and various translations of the books that I've read, I'm reading, or want to read. Intuitively, at least to me, it would seem to make sense that a translation that is well-done and presented in a such a fashion as to make the author's work relevant can only improve the overall experience we readers can then have with the author and his/her book. Consequently, I thought that it might be fun, and maybe even useful, to share with all of you my thoughts and observations about the various translations of some of the foreign language works I've read. I'd also like to hear from you about translators and translations that you've encountered and liked or disliked. So, let's get started--
here). I've since read the Pevear/Volokhonsky translations of Anna Karenina and War and Peace, and have their translation of The Brothers Karamazov sitting on my to-be-read shelf. I very highly recommend their translations of Tolstoy. Are Pevear/Volokhonsky translations better than the Garnett translations? Far be it from me to adequately critique or judge one versus the other, but I do know that having read both translations, I can say that I personally prefer the Pevear/Volokhonsky translations--they just felt a little 'earthier' and more Russian.
was incredible! First of all, the story was told in the spare, sparse,
and gritty language of Heaney's bilingual translation of the
Anglo-Saxon original that is something like 1,000 years old. Second, the plot of this elegiac poem was
absolutely epic. The horror of Grendel and his Dam was palpable; and
the heroism of Beowulf and his spear-fellows timeless. Finally, the
ability to carefully study Heaney's translation, alliteration, and
interpretation and then compare it to the Anglo-Saxon was almost
surrealistic. It was an amazing experience to have the ability to look
at and study the root language of modern English. As a side-note, when you finished reading the Heaney translation, go out and find yourself a copy of the late John Gardner's slim volume entitled, Grendel (1971). This existential little book tells the tale from the 'monster's' point of view, and is profoundly thought-provoking on many levels.
Now, let's go further back in time and look at the translations of the itinerant bard and poet, Homer, and two of the great literary works of humankind--The Iliad and The Odyssey. Apparently, these two Homeric epics may have been first transcribed in Greek in the 8th Century BCE. Prior to that I have to believe that traveling bards and storytellers around the Mediterranean region would have adapted and told elements of these tales in the villages and towns they visited (i.e., an oral form of translation). From the perspective of translation and adaptation into English it even gets crazier. Go on-line, or to your public library, and you'll see that these epic poems have been translated by just about anyone with a passing classical education. If you look at the Wikipedia entry for "English Translations of Homer" there are, from the 16th century on, nearly 120 different translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Some of the more prominent translations include those done by George Chapman (1611-15), Alexander Pope (1715), Richmond Lattimore (1951, and 1965), Robert Fitzgerald (1961, and 1974), and Robert Fagles (1990, and 1996) .
I have read the translations by both Lattimore and Fagles, and have the Fitzgerald translation coming to me even as I write this. I would have to say that my favorite, so far, is the Fagles translation. It was just magical and the poem seemed
alive with richness in a contemporary framework that I could readily
understand. Fagles' translation is quite lyrical and
loosely maintains a meter of five- and six-beats per line throughout.
I encourage you to read it aloud, it just rolls off of the tongue, and becomes even more enchanting. I also enjoyed the older translation by Richmond Lattimore. It is elegant and feels more classical. Again, I am certainly not qualified to judge the quality of one translation versus another, but I am able to judge my responses to each, and I would say that I related better to Fagles' translation. Finally, I have recently become aware of a brand new translation that is being released in early October 2011, by Stephen Mitchell. For more on the new Mitchell translation of The Iliad see my blog posting of September 21st. I guarantee that I will certainly review Mitchell's translation of The Iliad as soon as I am done reading it. [And doesn't it just have the coolest dust-cover artwork?]
I have quite a robust collection of ancient Greek tragedies. I think have at least one copy of all of the plays by the Greek classicists. I have several translations of my favorites. For example, I have four different translations of Aeschylus' trilogy The Oresteia (Thomson, Lattimore, Fagles, and Ted Hughes), with the Fagles and Hughes translations being my favorites. The Fagles translation is probably the most faithful to the original Greek (and the Introduction by W.B. Stanford is worth the 'price-of-admission' alone), but the Hughes translation and/or adaptation is even more poetic and emotionally powerful.
Another ancient Greek playwright that I adore is Sophocles, and I have several wonderful translations of his plays. For the three Theban plays (i.e., Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone) it is hard to beat the relatively recent translations by Robert Fagles. Although, I have to say that the translations of Antigone by Seamus Heaney (The Burial at Thebes, 2005) and Diane Rayor (Antigone, 2011) are beyond sublime. I also just finished reading a new translation of all seven of Sophocles' plays by Robert Bagg and James Scully, and their Antigone was hard-hitting as well. I very much enjoyed their translations of Aias (Ajax) and Women of Trakhis too. I have posted a more in-depth review of the Bagg/Scully translation collaboration here if you're interested.
Finally, I am in the midst of re-reading Victor Hugo's monumental novel, Les Miserables for the first time in some 20 years or so. I read the Fahnestock/MacAfee translation (1987) shortly after it came out and loved it. During the big Les Mis craze, I saw several musical adaptations on the stage and a television movie or two as well. I received a lovely gift certificate for Barnes and Noble for my birthday (or Christmas?) and decided to splurge and buy myself the hardcover Modern Library edition of Julie Rose's new translation of Les Miserables. I am only about one-quarter of the way through this massive tome, but I am loving and savoring every word. I had forgotten how much I love this story, and how Hugo lays bare the soul of his characters, and I think Julie Rose has very capably preserved this aspect. Again, I promise to post a comprehensive review of her translation when I am finished.
Well, have I definitively answered the question, "Which translation is the best?" Heck no! I am not even going down that road, as I'm sure that each of us has our own opinions and 'tried-and-true' favorites. All I've tried to do with this posting is convey the notion that for many of these great works that we read that, in some cases, the translation selected and read can mean the difference between a memorable experience, or one that ends up being just 'ho-hum.' Please, please take my recommendations with a grain of salt and recognize that these translations are ones that I personally enjoyed and appreciated. I'm sure that you may have your favorite translations, and for equally valid reasons at that. I'd love to hear from you about the translators and translations of books and poetry that you've encountered and that have made a positive impression on you.