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Classics in Translation November 23, 2009

Posted by rebeccareid in Reading and Reviewing Classics.

A translation can make a big difference in how a story is portrayed. Older translations may have an older feel to it, and authors may have inserted their own insights into a text.

Most classics in translation have a note at the beginning before the text begins. I’d highly suggest you figure out what you are looking for in a translation before opening a classic work.

For example, consider the following questions:

  • Do you want a literal translation?
  • Does it matter to you if the text you read is exactly as the author wrote it (except in your language)?
  • Are you reading for the language, or for the story, or for both?
  • Which translation would be most accurate and yet readable for you?

Your needs in reading a really old classic might change. At one point, you may be reading for a story. At another point, you may be reading to get a feel for the author’s poetic intent. Below, I’ve compared a few translations of classic works so you can see just what a different a translation can make in reading really old classics.

The Iliad: A Test in Translation

When I went to read The Iliad last fall, I checked out four translations and compared them. Here are my notes, with quotes, so you can see just how much difference translation might make on your reading experience.

Samuel Butler, 1898

The Iliad that I own is the Dover Thrift Edition; it cost me $2.50 a few years ago, when I was proud of myself for finding the cheapest one. It was translated by Samuel Butler in 1898 and it’s all prose.

Butler expressed his opinion that “…a translation should depart hardly at all from the modes and speech current in the translator’s own times …” Since current speech for him was turn-of-the-last-century English, I wasn’t too eager to get started. Then I read his explanation that ” [p]rose differs from verse much as singing from speaking or dancing from walking.” That prompted the question in my mind as to why he then changed poetry into prose in this very book. I don’t think he ever answered that satisfactorily.

A Quote

In the first pages, Agamemnon refuses to release Chryses’ daughter:

“Old man,” said he, “let me not find you tarrying about our ships, nor yet coming hereafter. Your scepter of the god and your wreath shall profit you nothing. I will not free her. She shall grow old in my house at Argos far from her own home, busying herself with her loom and visiting my couch; so go, and do not provoke me or it shall be the worse for you.”

Now take that quote, add a few more sentences to it, and that’s the average paragraph length in this book. It is very text heavy. I’m intimidated.

Richmond Lattimore, 1950s

Next I reviewed Richmond Lattimore’s translation, a translation recommended by a LibraryThing group of which I’m a part (Geeks Who Love the Classics). But my copy is from Harvard’s Great Books series, published by Encyclopedia Britannica, and there is no translator’s note. My copy’s text is very tiny and there are no notes of any kind. It also is published in paperback form, and that might have notes; please let me know if you have it.

Enter Wikipedia (entry for Iliad, translations in English):

Richmond Lattimore’s version is “a free six-beat” line for line rendering that explicitly eschews “poetical dialect” for “the plain English of today”; it is more literal than older verse renderings.

So once again, the translator is trying for plain English.

A Quote

Again, Agamemnon refuses to release Chryses’ daughter:

“Never let me find you again, old sir, near our hollow
ships, neither lingering now nor coming again heareafter,
for fear your staff and the god’s ribbons help you no longer.
The girl I will not give back; sooner will old age come upon her
in my own house, in Argos, far from her own land, going
up and down by the loom and being in my bed as my companion.
So go now, do not make me angry; so you will be safer.”

Robert Fagles, 1992

The Robert Fagles translation came recommended in numerous sources; in addition to the LibraryThing group, Amazon reviewers seemed to love this one. It’s very approachable in a poetry format. It has an extensive introduction and a hundred pages of notes and other back matter. Fagles details his goals in capturing the meter and the feel of the Greek:

Not a line-for-line translation, my version of the Iliad is, I hope, neither so literal in rendering Home’s language as to cramp and distort my own – though I want to convey as much of what he says as possible – nor so literary as to brake his energy, his forward drive – though I want my work to be literate, with any luck.

A Quote

space  space space … ”Never again, old man,
let me catch sight of you by the hollow ships!
Not loitering now, not slinking back tomorrow.
The staff and the wreaths of god will never save you then.
The girl – I won’t give up the girl. Long before that,
old age will overtake her in my house, in Argos,
far from her fatherland, slaving back and forth
at the loom, forced to share my bed!
space  space space space space Now go,
don’t tempt my wrath – and you may depart alive.”

Stanley Lombardo, 1997

When I checked out Stanley Lombardo’s translation, the librarian commented on the cover picture: Into the Jaws of Death on D-Day.

“Why is that on the cover?” he asked.

I couldn’t answer. Now, having read a few dozen pages of the Iliad, I can tell you: the Iliad is a war story. Lombardo’s has a modern black and white photo of war because, I think, his translation is going to feel pretty modern.

Lombardo’s explanation of his translation:

… the real work of a Homeric translator is clear: to produce a version that is responsive not only to meaning and nuance but also to overall poetic effect, a version that has a much poetry as the original text, the translator’s talent, and the current literary situation will yield. … what we love is the poet’s voice, and finding its tone, rhythm, and power is the heart of Homeric translation.

Interestingly, he began his translation “… as scripts for solo performances I began giving ten years ago.”

In other words, Lombardo’s translation is going to be poetry, and it’s going to be modern, and it’s going to be meant for performance. I think it’s also going to be pretty beautiful and relatively easy to read. He also has a lengthy introduction, though not as many notes.

A Quote

“Don’t let me ever catch you, old man, by these ships again,
Skulking around now or sneaking back later.
The god’s staff and ribbons won’t save you next time.
The girl is mine, and she’ll be an old woman in Argos
Before I let her go, working the loom in my house
And coming to my bed, far from her homeland.
Now clear out of here before you make me angry!”

Which of these translations do you prefer? Why?

Aucassin and Nicolette: A Comparison of Translations

If you need further evidence that comparing translations makes a difference, here is a quote in three translations from a medieval story I read last week.

Andrew Lang translation via Project Gutenberg:

It may not be that thou shouldst love me even as I love thee.  Woman may not love man as man loves woman, for a woman’s love lies in the glance of her eye, and the bud of her breast, and her foot’s tip-toe, but the love of man is in his heart planted, whence it can never issue forth and pass away.

Francis William Bourdillon translation on Project Gutenberg:

That were not possible that you should love me so well as I do you.  Woman cannot love man so well as man loves woman.  For a woman’s love lies in her eye, in bud of bosom or tip of toe.  But a man’s love is within him, rooted in his heart, whence it cannot go forth.

Burgess translation (from The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, Volume 1, Sixth Edition):

It is not possible that you love me as much as I love you.  A woman cannot love a man as much as a man loves a woman. For a woman’s love is in her eye and in the nipple of her breast and in her big toe; but a man’s love is planted in his heart, whence it cannot escape.

Which translation do you prefer? Why?

Has a good or bad translation made a difference in your really old classics reading?



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