A note on translation

I’m usually very picky about translations of books that I read, especially when I find a translator or translation that I really love. For example I rarely read any other translations if Pevear and Volokhonsky have done one (though I do own two editions of War and Peace but that’s mostly because I had my first one before theirs was published). I hadn’t even thought about another translation of Grass’ The Tin Drum because I was perfectly satisfied with Manheim’s. Even went so far, when I picked up Breon Mitchell’s new translation, to think: do I really need to read this? So far, though, I’ve been really pleasantly surprised. It’s almost like reading a totally new book. A team of translators of all different languages worked closely with Grass to try and restore his voice (I hadn’t even known that Manheim had left out a lot of things and done a more “literal” rendering.) Also, this section in Mitchell’s afterword really made me rethink branching out into other translators of different works that I love:

It is precisely the mark of a great work of art that it demands to be retranslated. What impels us toward new versions is not the weakness of the existing translations, but the strength and richness of certain works of literature. The works that are never retranslated are those we only care to read once.

We translate great works because they deserve it–becuase the power and depth of the text can never be fully revealed by a single translation, however inspired. A translation is a reading, and every reading is necessarily personal, perhaps even idiosyncratic. Each new version offers, not a better reading, but a different one, one that foregrounds new aspects of the text, that sees it through new eyes, that makes it new.

It’s always a good thing to widen your horizons, especially when you haven’t even realized how close-minded you’d been.


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