Discussion: In Translation

When it comes to reading classics by Russian, French, and Spanish authors, I hum and haw a lot over translations. I ask fans of a work, particularly those who have read more than one translation, what they think. I read reviews, I try to compare passages and construct pro-con lists. I am the Queen of Translation Indecisiveness, anxious that I’ll make the wrong choice and it will take away from the experience of reading the book. I’m in the midst of one of these decisions right now, after committing to read Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace as part of a group led by Rachel and Hadeer on Goodreads (join us if you’re interested, it’ll be fun!) and thought I would share a little bit about what I look for in a translation and how I go about choosing one, and open it up to the book blogging community to share how they select a translation.

Admittedly I haven’t read many translated classics yet, but I’ve read a few and there are others on my near-future tbr. There are three criteria that go into my selection process:

1. It must be unabridged
Abridged versions of books don’t appeal to me at all. I understand the reasoning behind them, and for someone who may have difficulty, or not be interested in, making it through a thousand page book, or for introducing a younger audience to the classics, I can see the appeal, but abridged books are not for me. Period. Personally, I want to experience the novel close to the way in which an author intended it to be read, and with abridgments I worry that I would miss something vital or enjoyable about the text.

2. Too much modernity is a turn-off
My first attempt to read a translation didn’t go so well. I picked up the new Julie Rose translation of Les Miserables mostly for its shelf appeal. It was a hardcover edition of Les Mis, big and beautiful, but when I tried to actually read it, I found the use of modern language jarring. After fifty pages I gave up and switched to the Signet Classics edition, translated by Fahnestock/MacAfee. I’ve never looked back! As a lover of history, and as someone who isn’t put off by dense prose, the older translations were a better fit for me. I learned that, for me, modern prose doesn’t make the text easier to read, it just serves to jerk me out of the story.

3. Remains true to the spirit of the original novel
It doesn’t have to be a literal word for word translation, but the intent and the original spirit of the work must be kept intact. For example, a work that removed or made massive changes to a scene or to dialogue because the translator thought they knew better than the author would not appeal to me. This is definitely a tough one since I can’t read the original language to tell how faithful the translation is to the author’s style, plot, and characters. Generally I read reviews of a translation to see how readers and critics think it compares, both to other translations of the work and to the original text.

Of course, there are also practical considerations. I don’t currently have an eReader, or device that I can comfortably read on, so I’m limited to translations that are still in print. If it’s a massive physical book (over 1,000 pages) will I be reading it at home where the size/weight doesn’t matter? Or does it have to be portable, so I can read on the subway?

How about you? When you read classics or work by foreign authors in translation, how do you go about deciding which translation to choose? Do you compare versions directly before making a decision? Do you rely on reading reviews or comparisons of translations? Do you reach out to friends/the book blogging community to ask their opinions and suggestions on translated works? What are your criteria for selecting a translation?

And since there are a few French and Russian classics I’d like to read in the next few years, do you have a favourite translation of either War and Peace, The Count of Monte Cristo, and/or Eugene Onegin that you would recommend?

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7 thoughts on “Discussion: In Translation

  1. I completely understand your struggle! Finding a good translation can be difficult.
    I’m from Croatia, but I never read Croatian translations of books that were originally written in English. I’m always afraid something will be lost in translation. Other languages, that I don’t speak, are more of a problem. When it comes to Russian authors, I read Croatian and not English translations since Croatian is much closer to Russian, so I think less changes had to be made.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s definitely tough. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts! It’s really interesting to hear about the unique struggles of being a bilingual reader and worrying that something will be lost in translation. I hadn’t even considered how in some ways that opens doors, so you can read a translation that might be more accurate since Croatian is closer to Russian than English is! I love hearing about other people’s processes!

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  2. GOOD POST!!!

    My criteria are the exact same as yours. I’m not interested in abridged editions, and I don’t want the prose to be too modern. (I don’t want it to be too archaic, either – looking at you, Charles Wilbour.)

    I really want to read The Count of Monte Cristo too!!! Maybe that can be our next epic length novel buddy read.

    I forget if you’ve seen this article, but it’s about Deborah Smith’s translation of The Vegetarian: https://koreaexpose.com/deborah-smith-translation-han-kang-novel-vegetarian/ I know you haven’t read that, but it’s a really fascinating article to anyone interested in the nuance and art of translation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!!

      The Count of Monte Cristo has been on my TBR for so long! I honestly think the reason I haven’t read it sooner is largely because I’ve been so indecisive about picking a translation. It was a lot easier with Les Mis when I had my foot in the door of a fandom and people had very concrete and well-reasoned justifications for their translation choice! Anyway, I am definitely up for making it our next buddy read.

      For War & Peace I’m leaning towards Briggs at the moment, partially because untranslated French puts me off (but the logical part of my brain is going why?? you read *Lymond* with all of its thrown in untranslated medieval poetry and latin and French) and partly because the side-by-side paragraph comparison I really liked the prose of Briggs and found it less clunky, but I keep going back and forth (and it’s harder to obtain a copy of). We’ll see what I end up with.

      Looks like an interesting article, I’ll definitely check it out, thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I already own the Penguin classics translation – Robin Buss, I guess? My mom is actually reading it right now and loves it, so I may have to stick with that translation… but knowing me I’ll agonize over it anyway.

        I decided to pull the trigger and order the Briggs edition from Book Depository, since the only translation my local bookstore has is Pevear and I never get up to Barnes & Noble. Who knows, maybe I’ll love it enough that I’ll want to reread it again one day, and I can read the Pevear translation then.

        Liked by 1 person

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