Books in Translation

February 19, 2007

Stefanie made some interesting points regarding books in translation in her review of Every Book Its Reader. I started to comment on her site, but it got kind of lengthy so I thought it best to use up my own space. Plus it gives me something to post tonight. 🙂

Like Stefanie, I too get concerned with what I am missing when something is translated from the original text into another language. In the past, I used to search for learned comments about various translations, to make sure that I was purchasing “the best” translation. I felt I was missing out because I had read Kilmartin’s translation of Proust’s Swann’s Way, and then Lydia Davis came out with a more recent translation that received rave reviews. I sat at the bookstore and read a few pages and actually, I preferred the translation that I had read. So, for me, assuming that translations chosen for publication are at least accurate, I have learned that the “best” translation is the one that I enjoy the most.

Having said that, the accuracy becomes a question. I just pulled out 2 versions of Don Quixote that I have on the bookshelf. The first is an earlier translation done by P.A. Motteux, and the second, which I will be reading next summer, is the recent translation by Edith Grossman. Here are the first lines from each (no plot spoilers in the first two lines).


At a certain village in La Mancha, which I shall not name, there liv’d not long ago one of those old-fashion’d gentlemen who are never without a Lance upon a Rack, an old Target, a lean Horse, and a Greyhound. His diet consisted more of Beef than Mutton; and with minc’d meat on most nights, Lentils on Fridays, Eggs and Bacon on Saturdays, and a Pigeon extraordinary on Sundays, he consumed three Quarters of his Revenue:


Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing. A occassional stew, beef more often than lamb, hash most nights, eggs and abstinence on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays,, sometimes squab as a treat on Sundays- these consumed three-fourths of his income.

The primary difference seems to be in readability rather than content, although I don’t get “eggs and bacon” as opposed to “eggs and abstinence”. Not a big deal and I would just move on and assume that I missed something in school about either eggs or abstinence. In the case of Don Quixote, I would choose the Grossman translation, although I think the language of the Motteux adds something to the “feeling” of the novel, much as the King James version of a biblical story seems more poetic than most of the more recent translations.

Whenever possible, I will try to find copies of various translations and choose the one that suits me, trusting that the publisher has ensured that the content is true to the original. I assume that those that know would warn the readers that don’t when a translation is significantly inaccurate.


7 Responses to “Books in Translation”

  1. Stefanie Says:

    Interesting that you like the Kilmartin version of Swann’s Way better than Davis’. I’ve read both all the way through and like Davis’ much better, it seems more solid to me somehow. But it is, as you mentin, also a matter of preference. I loved the Grossman translation of DQ and I’ve read several interviews in which she talks about her work on it and I get the feeling that she is quite true to the original while also being modern. I’m reading the Iliad right now and listening to the Fitzgerald translation and reading the Fagles. I am enjoying both equally as well. Turns out Fitzgerald is great to listen to, very flowery and epic, and Fagles is perfect for reading, very straightforward and brutally compelling. The difference is fascinating really.

  2. Lore Says:

    Hi Brad, wonderful post! I always wonder when reading a book in translation whether I’m missing something or not. I can’t help it.

    As regards the “egg and bacon” part, you’ve got me wondering so I checked the original and it was still more puzzling (Sp is mother tongue and I didn’t understand what Cervantes wanted to say. Go figure!)
    I did a little research and I found out that both translations are quite right(to a certain degree). Motteux’s “Eggs and Bacon” is pretty clear since this is what Cervantes was talking about, except he didn’t write like that. Grossman’s “eggs and abstinence” seems to capture Cervantes’ words more closely though. You see, you weren’t supposed to eat meat on Saturdays and that’s what the abstinence part means.

  3. Dorothy W. Says:

    I haven’t been very aware of the translations I’ve chosen — I guess I just pick randomly, or go for the most recent one. I should think about it a little more, probably!

  4. Brad Says:

    Stefanie – I think sometimes I prefer one translation over another if it makes me “feel” more like I am in the time and place that the novel took place. The exception is when the text becomes a burden because the dialect makes the reading slower.

    Lore – Thanks! And thank you for the research. Now that you have explained the bacon, it makes sense. I would not have thought of that.

    Dorothy – I will be looking for your suggestions for future books in translation. 🙂

  5. Ted Says:

    Thanks for the encouragement! I’ve subscribed to your feed, so I’ll be looking forward to reading more…

  6. imani Says:

    When I picked up Grossman’s translation the book store seller expressed his admiration for it, stating that when Cervantes wrote it he meant it to be a tale for the common man but most English translations have gone for a high-falutin’ tone instead. So Grossman’s is apparently more true to its spirit. Something like that.

  7. Cipriano Says:

    Interesting to run across this topic tonight, here on your site. I just started reading The Last Temptation of Christ today, [Nikos Kazantzakis] and it is translated from the Greek.
    Several times I have wondered if some things were amiss, for instance, the use of the word “drivel” [twice] when I am sure what is meant is “dribble”.
    But of course, I am not sure.

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