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Since our Russian Roulette book salon, I’ve been thinking a lot about the art of translation. More than one person said they loved to read Russian authors because of the language. But whose language? Having taken on a few freelance translating jobs in my time, I know that it is an extremely difficult task even in its most basic form. And, when it comes to literature, there can be vast differences in language between different translators.




I had done some investigating into translation when I read Don Quixote earlier this year, settling on Edith Grossman’s version primarily because of library availability. It had an introduction by Harold Bloom, so it had to be decent right?


Translating from one language to another, unless it is from Greek and Latin, the queens of all languages, is like looking at Flemish tapestries from the wrong side, for although the figures are visible, they are covered by threads that obscure them, and cannot be seen with the smoothness and color of the right side.

Don Quixote (Cervantes, trans. Grossman)

When I decided to tackle War and Peace, I had a few more options. Although I had to wait for it, and despite the controversy surrounded their methods (apparently they break the cardinal rule of translation, which is to translate into your native language), I selected the Pevear/Volokhonsky version. Normally, based on what I had read about it, I wouldn’t have, but their edition is the only one I found that left the French portions intact—most English editions leave only a few French phrases strewn about, like an English mystery novel, when in fact there are large chunks of discourse in French as well as entire letters. Since I had to wait a bit for the actual book, I decided to experiment with another translation, the classic version that most people have read, by the Victorian-era translator Constance Garnett, which the library had on audio. Admittedly, I also thought listening to it first would make the reading go more quickly, which it did. It also highlighted how different two versions can be. If you don’t care about the French issue, I’d recommend Garnett.

If you are wondering just how different translations can be, consider what I read earlier this week while attending a performance of Carmina Burana. The San Francisco symphony thoughtfully provided the Latin text and English translation in their program. Not knowing if they would do this, and wanting to follow along, I had brought the booklet from my CD, which used both English and French.

Here is an example from the “Swaz hie gat umbe” chorus at the end of the “Spring” section.

San Francisco Symphony translation:

They who here go dancing round
Are young maidens all
Who will go without a man
This whole summer long.



Mehta English translation:

Those who go round and round,
are all maidens
they want to do without a man
all summer long.



Mehta French translation (translation mine):

Those who go round and round there
are young maidens
They think they can go the whole summer
without a lover.



Call me crazy, but there’s a whole world of difference between going without a man, wanting to do without a man, and thinking you can go without a man for an extended period of time. But maybe that’s just me.

By the way, I love Carmina Burana in all its cheesy, overused glory and this was a very fun performance, particularly the “roasted swan” song, which was sung with more passion and personality than I have ever heard before.

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