In the 1990s you probably attended at least one poetry slam. You did not intend to: you would be at a pub or coffeehouse when suddenly an emcee would announce the Boston Slam team vs. Hyannis. (It was fun.) In a recent essay at the NYR Daily, “Gained in Translation,” Tim Parks describes an event I never dreamed of: a translation slam. At this particular slam, two writers translated passages from Elsa Morante’s Arturo’s Island, and then discussed their very different word choices with a moderator.
Readers of translations do not have to be language buffs. Still, even if the last time you read a foreign language was in college, you will have noticed that the literature did not have an exact word-for-word match in English. I am a keen reader of Greek and Latin poetry (master’s in classics, former Latin teacher), but translations are imperfect. The cognate languages Greek and Latin are more economical than the English language, and the word order is more flexible: the order does not have to go Subject – verb – direct object, as it does in English, so the way you think actually changes.
Virgil’s Aeneid is in vogue because of the many reviews of the poet David Ferry’s new translation. I do not often read translations of Latin, so it was a strange experience to sit down with Ferry’s book. His version of the Aeneid reads very well: the language is beautiful, the translation is sometimes very precise, then goes astray, then returns. Robert Fagles’s translation is more exact, but less elegant. My inner Latin teacher chooses the Fagles. Would a poet prefer Ferry?
Yes, I read classics but depend on translators for other languages. And translators of 19th-century Russian and French literature transformed my life when I was a young woman. Can I express the joy I felt in discovering Louise and Aylmer Maude‘s graceful translations of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and War and Peace? (The Maudes really are the best! says she who does not know Russian.) And the English poet Kathleen Raine brought Balzac into my life, with her engrossing translations of Lost Illusions and Cousin Bette.
Translators are people who read books for us. Tolstoy wrote in Russian, so someone must read him for us and then write down that reading in our language. Since the book will be fuller and richer the more experience a reader brings to it, we would want our translator, as he or she reads, to be aware of as much as possible, aware of cultural references, aware of lexical patterns, aware of geographical setting and historical moment. Aware, too, of our own language and its many resources. Far from being “just subjective,” these differences will be a function of the different experiences these readers bring to the book, since none of us accumulates the same experience. Even then, of course, two expert translators will very likely produce two quite different versions. But if what we want is a translation of Tolstoy, rather than just something that sounds good enough sentence by sentence, it would seem preferable to have our reading done for us by people who can bring more, rather than less, to the work.
What a lovely essay!
Which translators have changed your life?