September 23, 2011

The Challenge--What Translation to Choose and Read?

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--

I'm going to start in Russia with Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and War and Peace, and Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.  I first read Anna Karenina some 25+ years ago, about the time Masterpiece Theater was running a multi-part adaptation on television.  I was house-sitting for friends in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and I just got completely lost in the novel over several weeks.  The translation that I read was by Constance Garnett (1861-1946), and I loved the book.  I followed that up several years later with my first reading of Tolstoy's War and Peace, also a Garnett translation.  In 2005, I ran across an article in The New Yorker that opened up my eyes to the value of a solid translation and the enormous amount of work involved in translating a great work of literature.  This article was entitled "The Translation Wars" and tells the story of how the husband and wife team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have tackled the translation of many of the great Russian novels into English (if you're interested, I've provided a link to the article 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.

Okay, let's move on to Beowulf.  I had tried reading this epic, book-length, poem several times over the course of my life and failed miserably, usually only getting a few pages into it before chucking it.  Whilst visiting my younger brother a few years ago, I encountered a battered copy of Seamus Heaney's translation (2001) of this poem on his bookshelf.  My brother raved about it.  I bought a copy, and the rest is as they say, "History!"  This started my love affair with all things Heaney.  Beowulf 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.



  1. Oh, translations are so important! Try comparing the Lydia Davis Madame Bovary beside Mildred Marmur version; two different stories! I'm currently reading the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace. It's supposed to be good...

  2. I love this topic. I used to never give a second thought to translation, but now I have such angst over it, mostly because I feel so ill-equipped at making an informed choice.
    I read somewhere that Garnett would just skip things that she didn't understand so that has made me think twice about her, especially if there's a Pevear translation of the same book - who I've heard very good things about.
    I posted about this a couple of months ago and got some good feedback. Here's the link if you're interested:

  3. Jillian, you'll dig the P/V translation of War and Peace, it is amazingly grand! Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for the suggestion for Madame Bovary. Cheers! Chris

  4. Ooh, I love talking about translation. I always research different translations before I choose which one I want to read. Generally I've found that usually translations done in the past 10 years or so are better the much older ones, though of course not in every case. It seems that translators these days better recognize all the problems and implications of translations, as opposed to translators in the past who just did it quickly to be able to have the text available to wider audiences. Of course this isn't always the case, like I said, but in my experience generally the newer ones are better. Also, I LOVE ultra-scholarly translations, like Nabokov's translation of Eugene Onegin. I love when the translator explains exactly what they are doing in the footnotes - you get to know the text much better that way.
    Woo hoo! Translation!

  5. I read a translation of War and Peace by Rosemary Edmonds and loved it.

    My copy of The Oresteia is Thomson's translation, so we'll see how I feel about that... though, I have nothing to compare it to.

    I stand by my love of the Robert Fitzgerald translation, because I read a few in tandem and none seemed to compare... though, I did not try the Fagles translation which many people I know have enjoyed.

  6. Also, I see you're reading the Graves translation of the Greek Myths... I have a two volume set on my shelves and wonder what the scope of the work is and how you're enjoying it.

  7. Note to Eclectic Indulgence--

    I have Thomson's translation of The Oresteia (1938, as I recall) in the Everyman's Library edition. It is elegant and classical; and quite different in tone and tenor from the Lattimore translation (1951), and the superb much later translation by Fagles. As I mentioned above, the Fagles translation is worth acquiring if for nothing more than the Introduction by W.B. Stanford.

    I have a copy of Fitzgerald's translation of The Iliad on its way to me now. I have his The Odyssey, but realized I've not read his translation of The Iliad. I am going to read it before I read the new Mitchell translation which I should be receiving in mid-October.

    Regarding Robert Graves' two-volume set, The Greek Myths, all I can say is "Wow!" It is nothing short of amazingly brilliant, and ever so well done. It is very detail-oriented with loads of scholarly notes. I think one of the most fascinating aspects of the book is Graves' presentation of the etymological information associated with names, places, and even events recounted in the myths. So, not only does the reader get a superb retelling of all of the Greek myths, but one begins to understand the sources of the myths, the characters, and the meanings behind them from a historical perspective. It is interesting to see that the source of some of these myths arose from influences from Babylonia and the Near East, and then how these myths were transformed to suit other cultures' needs over time. I highly recommend having this excellent reference and resource on your bookshelf. It is a keeper!

    Thanks for your visit, and your excellent comments, my friend! Cheers! Chris