Thoughts on Translations

Until very recently, I hadn’t given book translations much thought. I’ve read a few translated books over the years – from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to Anna Karenina and The Little Prince to The Alchemist. They’re very different books, translated to English from a variety of foreign or extinct languages, but they have one thing in common: there’s usually only one translation.

Over Christmas, I acquired a book I’ve had my eye on for a while: J. R. R. Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf. (In case you were unaware, Tolkien was actually a renowned medievalist, and a professor of medieval literature.) Since I finally read Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf this past year – it only took being assigned it three times between high school, college, and grad school – I thought it might be interesting to read Tolkien’s version. And, while I haven’t read Tolkien’s translation in its entirety, I have to say, it’s a lot more interesting, engaging, and lively than Heaney’s.

IMG_2506Then, a week or so ago, I went to Barnes & Noble to kill some time. As I was browsing, I came across a brand-new translation of War and Peace. If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know I’ve been slogging through War and Peace for a couple of months. (Ok, fine, I’ve read fifteen pages.) I swear, something in my brain shuts off when I start reading Tolstoy, even though I actually like what I’ve read so far. It’s weird. Anyway, I’ve been reading the Pevar and Volokhonsky translation. Mostly because it has a pretty cover, but also because I read their translation of Anna Karenina and really enjoyed it. So in BN, I picked up the new Anthony Briggs-translated version and started reading. And guess what? That little part of my brain that can’t process Tolstoy didn’t turn off! I actually knew what was going on in the book! And I read three whole chapters in the aisle. Naturally, the book came home with me (if War and Peace is as amazing and life-changing as everyone says it is, I’m fine with having two different copies). And while I haven’t gotten really into it yet – my brain needed a break from finals – I am now excited to give it another shot.

But these two books got be thinking about translations. Because as much as I wish I could read all the books in their original language, that’s just never going to happen. (I am learning Latin, but that’s just one language, and a dead one at that.) So I will have to settle for occasionally reading translated books. I was just surprised at the difference between the two editions of each book. I know language has it’s intricacies, and there are many different ways to translate the same thing. But, somehow, I think Tolkien and Briggs managed to capture the essence of the books better than their counterparts.

Let’s take the first stanza of Beowulf for example. In Heaney’s version, it reads: “So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by / and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness. / We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.” Not bad, right? Now read Tolkien’s version: “Lo! the glory of the kings of the people of the Spear-Danes in days of old we have heard tell, how those princes did deeds of valour.” It says pretty much the same thing – remaining true to the original (which, in case you were wondering is: “Hwæet wē Gār-Dena in geār-dagum / þēod-cyninga þrym gefrūnon, / hū ðā æþelingas ellen fremedon”), but reads completely differently. Which one would you rather read? I’m going with Tolkien here. No offense to Heaney; I actually did enjoy his translation.

Moving on to War and Peace, I have a bit of the same issue: the phrasing is just, somehow, less interesting in Pevar and Volokhonsky’s translation. I can feel myself getting bored while I read. But that’s nothing compared to my biggest complaint that version: they didn’t translate the passages in French. My French might be better than my Russian, but that’s not saying much. And having to check the footnotes every time Tolstoy’s characters speak in French – which is a lot – is annoying and slows me down a lot. So I get impatient with reading more quickly. Just… if you’re going to do an English translation, why not translate everything into English? Briggs’s translation mentions that they’re speaking French, but (mercifully) keeps everything in English. So it’s easy to pick one over the other here, at least for me.

I should reiterate that these are just my first impressions, since I haven’t finished any of these books, save Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. But I was a bit shocked by how much of a difference the different translations make. I am definitely going to be reading Tolkien’s Beowulf and Briggs’s translation of War and Peace very soon!

I hope I didn’t completely bore you all with this post. If you stuck around, congratulations! You’re probably just as much of a literature geek as I am! I’ve been trying to come up with some more original posts, since I feel like I’ve fallen into just posting book reviews and tags, and I want to do more things like this. I’m interested to know what you’re thoughts are on this topic, and if you have any ideas for future posts you’d like to see. I’d also love to hear if you have any experience with book translations, so let me know in the comments!

4 thoughts on “Thoughts on Translations

  1. I think, a big think Candide is a translated book. At least the copy I loaned from my family shelf (several years ago, erhem :P) is in English. I find it cool reading translated books but I always hope that whoever did the translation did not stray from the original. The bible is another example of translated works.
    Side note: the use of translated/translation in this comment is plenty.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m reading the Pevar/Volokhonsky W&P translation at the moment and I agree with you re: the non-translated French passages. But aside from that I’m really enjoying it. I’ve said before that I’m enjoying the book a lot more than the first time I read it years ago, but now I’m wondering if it was because I’m older and can appreciate it more, or if it’s because this translation is better for me (I can’t remember the first edition I read) – maybe a combination of the two. I’d be interested in comparing the Briggs version, mostly because that cover is beautiful and I need it in my life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed! I’ve never read it, but I definitely would not have enjoyed it as much if I’d read it when I was younger. The Briggs translation is totally worth it! And only partly because of the cover (the Pevar/Volokhonsky cover is beautiful, too). I initially tried to read the public domain translation on iBooks, and it was definitely not as good as either of these.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Lost in translation?
    It is excruciatingly difficult to get a translation “right”. After having translated/interpreted between English and several other languages, I have discovered a tension in translation between staying as true as possible to the original on one hand, i.e. using a “narrow” form of translation, and describing the intent in a way easier to comprehend in English on the other hand, i.e. using a “broad” or “loose” form of translation. Narrow translations tend to be harder for Anglophones to follow and dramatically more boring, because the entire mentality of a foreign language is different from English–narrow translations sound like they weren’t meant for and English audience. Imagine translating american idioms into foreign language. Impossible! And the reverse is true as well. Staying true to the text, while conveying the idea well (and correctly) in English is a monumental task, at which the vast majority of translators fall short.
    That is likely what you are experiencing in Tolkien vs. Heaney with Beowulf, or Pevar/Volokhonskiy v. Briggs. It is also easier to translate into your mother tongue than into a foreign language; usually the translator will better understand his or her own cultural context, idioms, etc. far better than the foreign one, no matter how long he or she lives among the foreign culture.
    Translation can also be political and convey specific undertones, depending on the translator (or the commissioner of the translation). In a nutshell, radically different translations can stem from the same original text.The easiest illustration of the notion is to pick up several versions of the Bible and compare verses. Or Beowulf, or War and Peace.
    I received War and Peace as a gift while in Moscow and started to read it but never could get into it. It is the Louise and Aylmer Maude (British) translation. Maybe I should try the Briggs translation based on your thoughts. the Maude version left French in the original. Whereas that’s not an issue for me, it raises a debate of translation–translating the French reduces some of the flair intended by Tolstoy (he intended it to reflect the multilingual society of Russia at the time), but increases comprehensibility for non-Francophones. Those who read Tolstoy’s original version in Russian have to suffer through French as well. Of course, there is no right answer…

    Liked by 2 people

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