Gained in translation

Tom Griffith considers the merits of a classic translation for a classic text.

What makes a good translation? How do we decide, given our ignorance of the original language? Occasionally, the answer can be surprising. German students of philosophy are said to buy Norman Kemp Smith’s English translation of The Critique of Pure Reason because they can understand Kemp Smith’s English in places where they can’t understand Kant’s German. More generally, deciding what makes a good translation is a question of some importance to anyone offering, or for that matter buying, the world’s literature in translation.

Most people would probably say a good translation needs to be accurate, both in verbal fidelity to the original and in its feeling and spirit. Another requirement might be to be contemporary in its vocabulary and sentence structure so that readers do not have to struggle with old-fashioned or unfamiliar idioms. On these principles, as the English language develops and as scholarship advances, the great works of foreign literature should be translated afresh every thirty years or so. These are the principles acted upon by publishers like Penguin and Oxford University Press. They do it very well, and we should be grateful to them.

Where does that leave Wordsworth? If your aim is to offer world literature at a price well below the price you would pay with any other publisher, what is the best approach then? Well, the first and major consideration is that the text is reproduced has to be out of copyright because producing books at Wordsworth prices does not allow for paying royalties to translators. And out of copyright means 70 years after the death of the author and translator. So the translation used cannot be contemporary, which means it may be less accurate than a more modern translation, and will almost certainly be written in a more old-fashioned idiom. How much does that matter? Does using out-of-copyright translations necessarily mean you have to settle for what is second-best and out-of-date?

Not necessarily, in my view. The King James Bible (and William Tyndale’s work on which it is based) is anything but contemporary, and in some places not entirely accurate, yet many people regard it as the finest prose work in the English language. Today’s Church of England prefers recent translations of the bible, leaden and deaf to the rhythm as they often are, on the grounds that they are clearer and easier to understand, as you might prefer clear glass to the stained-glass windows of Bourges or Chartres because it is easier to see through. Is a plain window ‘better’ than stained glass? That depends. If you want the window to transmit light, then plain is better. If you want it to inspire, you may prefer Bourges or Chartres.

Of course, simply being older does not in itself make a translation more inspiring than a newer one, but a well-established translation does have the merits of being tried and tested, and of having already appealed to a wide range of discerning readers. For example, if you take up Rawlinson’s Herodotus (published 1858-60) or Whiston’s Josephus (published 1737), both highly regarded translations, you feel on safe ground, because you know you are reading something which generations before you have read and enjoyed and relied on.

Herodotus is a delight to read in himself, and of enormous value to ancient historians, because he makes it his business to record the stories he hears. He does not feel obliged, he says, to believe everything he records, but is prompted to record it out of a desire to preserve the stories people tell. So he gives us our familiar stories: Leonidas and his 300 Spartans; the Athenians at the battle of Marathon; best of all, Pheidippides, who ran 150 miles to Sparta to ask the Spartans for their help, then 150 miles back to deliver the Spartan response, and then fought in the battle. But he gives us so much more besides. He tells us of the man-eating ants in the deserts of India: ants larger than a fox but not as large as a dog, which spends their time digging out gold dust (except when they are eating the people who try to steal the gold dust). You can steal it, but it is not entirely straightforward – you need a female camel which has recently given birth, for starters.

Herodotus also describes the first circumnavigation of Africa. As he tells it, the king of Egypt sent ships manned by Phoenicians to sail clockwise around Libya [Africa], starting from the Red Sea, and returning through the Mediterranean. This they did, taking two or three years over it. Then the interesting part: ‘On their return, they declared – I for my part do not believe them, but perhaps others may – that in sailing round Libya they had the sun upon their right hand.’ If you sail clockwise around Africa, you do indeed have the sun on your right-hand side, and it is hard to see how anyone would be likely to know that other than by actually doing it. So the detail which Herodotus faithfully but sceptically records is the detail which suggests there is a good chance that the story is true.

Josephus is a writer who gets paid less attention than he deserves. He was a contemporary (more or less) of the gospel writers. He fought in the Jewish revolt against the Romans (66−73 CE), and wrote an account of that war. Later he wrote a more general history of the Jews (written for a non-Jewish audience), a history which runs from Adam and Eve down to the revolt of 66−73. So he has a Jewish, non-Christian perspective on Christ and Christianity.

Another attraction of well-established translations is that they were often the first, or most influential, the introduction of a foreign author to the English-reading public. When you read Constance Garnett’s Dostoevsky, or Louise and Aylmer Maude’s Tolstoy, you are joining a continuum of readers going back a century and a half. Not a club for people who want to feel smug about being members of it, but one which addresses questions which are too often left unaddressed. Dostoevsky, for example, speaks directly to us in a way no established church can ever do. His Ivan Karamazov gives us the wonderful story of the Grand Inquisitor and protests unanswerably against the sufferings of those who will never be able to understand why they are suffering.

For people whose first language is English, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are the two titans of nineteenth-century Russian literature. Pushkin, on the other hand, though equally revered in Russia, is much less known to us, largely because of the difficulty or impossibility of translating his work satisfactorily into English.

This brings us (abruptly and opaquely) to Proust. Another author who is difficult to translate, and therefore heavily indebted to his first English translator for his acceptance outside his own country. Proust was wary of Scott Moncrieff’s efforts. He thought that Remembrance of Things Past misrepresented (as indeed it does) the title of the whole work (À la recherche du temps perdu), and was not even happy with ‘Swann’s Way’ as the title of the first part. Yet he seems on balance to have welcomed those efforts. As well he might since the Scott Moncrieff translation has come to be accepted as a masterpiece in its own right. It has its faults, yet has been described as the finest translation ever produced, of any work; and Joseph Conrad could say after reading it that he thought Scott Moncrieff was a better translator than Proust was a writer. It is perhaps truer of Proust than of any other writer that the esteem in which he is held outside his native country is due to his translator.

To sum up, the world’s great literature is at the same time both unchanging and ever-changing. Unchanging because when you read it you join generations who have read it before you, sharing their perceptions and reactions. Ever-changing in that each generation inevitably reinterprets what it reads (as we see in the theatre, in screen adaptations, and to some extent in translations). It is a matter of taste and temperament whether we prefer to dwell on the continuity or the novelty. And if our preference is for continuity, then where the established translations are good, they have a great deal to recommend them.