Which Translators Changed Your Life?

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.

In “Gained in Translation,” Parks brilliantly describes the gift of translators.  He writes,

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?

24 thoughts on “Which Translators Changed Your Life?

  1. thanks, off to read the essay. I was going back and forth between Maude and P&V versions of War and Peace this summer, and I ended up preferring P&V, though I can’t articulate why. I enjoyed reading passages in both and comparing though!

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  2. Along with the Maudes I’d like to put ina good word for Garnett, whose translations of the Russians are not always 100% accurate but sound so nice!

    I suppose a life-changing translation experience was not so much reading a translation as taking a seminar in it (I have an MA in Russian Translation, FYI) and having our professor tell us, “It’s fun to play gotcha. But can you do better?” For our midterm we had to discuss other translations and then provide our own of our chosen work. Extremely enlightening and humbling! And yes, you have to think about all kinds of things when translating, not just the literal meaning of the words. What are the structural qualities of the work, and what imagery and structure needs to be preserved? How do the characters sound in your head? It’s a really creative act.

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    • Elena, I didn’t read much Garnett until I found her translation of Virgin Soil–the only one in print (NYRB) when I looked for it. And I loved it to pieces, and realized I had underrated her. I had heard unkind things about her mistakes.
      Oh my God, a seminar in translation would be very tough. Writing is one thing, bringing a writer of another culture to life another! You are our Russian lit specialist and I always am grateful for your comments about translation.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s easy to point out Garnett’s mistakes, but she really manages to convey the voice of the authors she translates, which is quite difficult and requires something more than mere technical ability.

        I think I’ve mentioned before, but I’ll mention again that Pevear and Volokhonsky also get a lot of criticism, but in the opposite direction–their translations tend to be very literal. Which can sound quite clunky at times, but it does convey the experience of reading the book in the original and translating it in your head.

        Nabokov was an interesting translator in that at the beginning of his career he took a lot of liberties and put out some really nice-sounding translations, e.g., of Alice in Wonderland into Russian–I believe his translation of that is still considered the gold standard. As he progressed he became more and more literal, and, in my opinion, his translations suffered as a result. His translation of Eugene Onegin is a fascinating scholarly exercise, but almost unreadable.


        • Yes, that information about Garnett’s mistakes for the uninformed (like me) was simply wrong! Her writing is so graceful, and I have since read most of Turgenev in her translations.

          P&V are not my favorites, but I do love their Doctor Zhivago. During a bloggers’ readalong some years back, however, many found the P&V unreadable. People seem to be passionate on both sides.

          Oh my goodness, Nabokov’s lectures on Russian lit are great but I can see where he’d get a bit cranky.

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  3. I’ve never attended any poetry-slam to my knowledge. What is a poetry-slam? how does it differ from a poetry reading. I’m not being factitious; I honestly have never been able to pick up the concrete difference. I speculate reading in poetry-slams is vehement (emotionally violent). I’ve gone to few poetry readings apart from such performances at conferences. I once went to the AWP (American Women Poets) conference when it came to DC; even there I didn’t go to that many poetry readings.

    The fundamental problem for me is akin to going to operas where there are no subtitles. Only if the poetry is narrative and read genuinely slowly unless I’ve read it before I can'[t keep up. In lyrics and satires, utterances, unless the poetry is of the plainest, simplest kind I get lost. This happened before my hearing became weaker. Poetry is meant to be read slowly. I have gone to readings — one decades ago by William Empson (no less) where he explained the lines as he went along and then reread the poem. That was wonderful. I loved the explanations.

    I’ve read Elsa Morante only in Italian — her Storia. Recently her novels have begun to come out in translation but I don’t have any yet. I love a book of poetry by her on cats where there is the original Italian on one side and French translations on the other. Sometimes I love the French better.

    In Tolstoy: last year I read W&P and found the Maude translation so much more satisfying. P&V appeared to omit subtleties. I also had a French translation by a mid-20th century French woman under the English as I read. I thought at times she was better than either Maud or P&V: more concise and at the time suggestive.

    This year I read W&P using the P&V. I found the Maude muddled, overdone, losing the elemental passion. I didn’t have time to look at any French. Alas.

    I love translation reading.

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    • Ellen, the poetry slam seems to emphasize performance. And the poetry often seems simpler, perhaps written to be performed? I’m no expert! Here is a link to the Wikipedia article, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poetry_slam
      It is fascinating to compare translations, and though I love the Maude, P&V are the great champions of Russian lit in the last couple of decades and I do love their versions.
      Where would we be without translations?


  4. After I read the first two volumes of Sigrid Undset’s brilliant trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter, and did not really like volume two, Tiina Nunnally’s translations began to be published. I reread the first two (and then read the third), and somehow the second volume had become wonderful! She has won awards for translation, and a google search turned up lots of interesting bits by her about the art of translation.
    I’m about to finish the last of the seven-volume In Search of Lost Time (Proust), each translated by a different person. I had gotten bogged down in the C.K. Scott Moncrieff translations years ago in volume 3, so had to go back and start again with these new translations, because I’d forgotten everything. Although I find nearly all of the characters almost unbearably vapid, the writing is gorgeous and flows more smoothly than the Moncrieff.
    I’d be miserable without translators, because I only speak English yet I love world literature more than any other!

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    • Kristin Lavransdatter is one of my favorite books! I am so glad you mentioned it, because I don’t think enough people read it. (By that, I mean that none of my friends read it: they don’t care for the idea of the story of the life of a medieval woman.) I did enjoy the 1920s translation, but my old edition got very brittle, so I treated myself recently to Tina Nunnally’s translation. It looks VERY good, and I am happy to have nice paper again.
      What would we do without our translation?

      I’ve never finished Proust and am always meaning to do so. Bizarrely, I once skipped a couple of the volumes to read the last so I could SAY I’d finished. Not the best approach, so maybe I’d better check out those multi-translator Penguins.
      Yes, all these cultures are so rich and we need our translations.


  5. A few years ago Penguin Classics published a series of “[Writer}in English”. They included extracts from various translations of poets so you could compare and contrast – Homer, Virgil, Ovid, assorted Greeks and Romans and some moderns – Baudelaire was one. They’re o.o.p., but there should be second-hand copies around.

    My own favourite “translation” is Christopher Logue’s War Music – a long way after The Iliad. Logue was undeterred by his ignorance of Greek.


  6. I agree with you that the Maudes did a great job with Tolstoy, and they actually knew him, so there’s no doubt that they knew their subject very well. Garnett has her merits too, I think she has a particular feeling for Turgenev.
    As you say it’s a difficult and complex job, especially when it comes to poetry!

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