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.
Then, 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!