Thursday, July 17, 2008

50 Best Translations

The Translators Association of the Society of Authors (good to know that something like this exists) has shortlisted what it considers 50 best English translations published in the last 50 years. The list is here and it definitely looks very interesting.

Some gripes: First it makes absolutely no sense to club poetry, fiction and non-fiction together. Second, it is not clear what exact criteria they chose. Was it the quality of the original or the excellence of translation itself? Also, no idea what Proust or Tolstoy are doing on the list. It isn't as if the new translations have radically altered the way English readers saw either of these two writers. And in Proust's case it is not even the new Penguin translation (done by a group of writers and translators including Lydia Davis), it is the old version by Terence Kilmartin who built up on the work done by CK Scott Moncrieff. Also, Thomas Bernhard's Woodcutters has a newer version by David McClintock. I wonder if the earlier version (Cutting Timber) was better, as the list seems to indicate, and if it was then why did they bother to translate it again? The newer title definitely sounds much better and the book is a complete riot. As for Sebald, I like the translations by Michael Hulse of his earlier novels more than Austerlitz but that may be more to do with original works rather than translations.

One translator that I feel should get more recognition is George Szirtes for his work on Laszlo Krasznahorkai's The Melancholy of Resistance (and also War and War). Hungarian is already a difficult language to translate from and if one combines that with Krasznahorkai's baroque sentences which go on and on for many pages, it makes his achievement all the more incredible. I don't think he has done many translations though. He is known primarily as an English poet so that might be one reason for his exclusion. I have heard he is working on Satantango, which I am eagerly looking forward to read. Hope it comes out soon.

link via complete-review


Cheshire Cat said...

Interesting list, but I'm skeptical of its value, as you are. Some of my favorite translations are not on there, including Manheim's translations of Handke, Grossman's translation of "Don Quixote", and Danuta Borchardt's translations of Gombrowicz.

There should be separate awards for Courage in Translation. Candidates would include those hardy (foolhardy) souls who have tried to translate Arno Schmidt, Robert Pinget, Pierre Guyotat, Julian Rios, Juan Benet, and Ludwig Harig, among others...

Falstaff said...

I have to disagree about the Tolstoy. Pevear & Volokhonsky deserve to be on this list (though I would have picked their work with Dostoyevsky over War and Peace) if only because their work represents such an important departure from the Garnett translations that we've all been lulled into reading.

Agree about clubbing poetry and fiction being strange. I also can't help feeling that it would have been a good idea to distinguish between 'new' translations of books already translated and translations of books that are new to English readers, since it's harder, in the latter case, to distinguish the value of the translation from the value of just having an English version.

Still, a list that puts Barbara Wright at number 1 can't be all bad. Though again, I'm not sure why they pick Exercises in Style over the rest of her Queneau translations.

Alok said...

Falstaff: It is actually a chronological list.. I was a little confused before too.

As for the P/V translations, I haven't read any of them. I have read that their Dostoevsky translations reads very differently from the Garnett version. I have to start on my Dostoevsky re-reading project, I will pick-up these when I do that. I agree that they shouldn't have included re-translations in this list. At best they can only be seen as improvements over the previous version.

Cat: the complete-review guys think that Manheim bungled the translations of both Gunter Grass and Celine. The latter I can confirm too, having been disappointed by Journey to the End of the Night. IMO Szirtes should also be on that foolhardy list but he really pulls it off in case of Melancholy.

Falstaff said...

alok: Actually, to be honest, I'd prefer a re-translation list to a new translation list. My logic is - if there's only one translation of a text in English then I don't really have a choice, do I? With re-translations, on the other hand, it would be genuinely useful to have a list of good ones, since chances are that I'm not going to read multiple translations of a book and I'd rather read a good one the first time around. Take Proust for example - I can barely find the stamina to read the man through once, I categorically refuse to read multiple versions. So the burning question for me is - which translation should I pick?

Alok said...

You are asking too much :) Remember we live in a world where getting a work translated itself takes some kind of leap of faith on the part of publishers. It is rarely commercially viable, specially for contemporary works and writers which have not become part of the "canon"... there are quite a few versions of kafka for example and same with the great Russian masters. But if I want a list of some, say, good contemporary Swedish works in translation it would be so hard to find.

But yes I agree it can be frustrating not knowing the original language and relying on the translations completely and if there are multiple versions one can decide on one's own. Reading different translations also makes you more aware of different choices that authors have to make and techniques they use. Specially true for poetry as you must know already.

In an ideal world one would just trust the publishers and translators to make the right decisions, but again in our world I have seen Polish, Czech and Hungarian books translated not from their original language but from French and German and they hide this information somewhere in the corner of the flap. Often the translations are not even credited...It is all quite disgraceful, that's why i was surprised that they have some kind of association or an official group just for the translators.

Madhuri said...

It is very difficult to comment on the quality of translations if you have not read the original versions. But I really like some of the books there, which seem quite from the heart and therefore must be good translations. Soul Mountain is one, Austerlitz too, along with Kundera's and Calvino's books. However, I missed seeing Saramago's 'Gospel according to Jesus Christ'(Pontiero)and also some of his other works translated by Costa.
And agree about the clubbing of different genres - esp poetry.

Alok said...

I think they have limited the list to one book per author. For Saramago they selected his Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. I think he is one of the more difficult authors to translate too since he has a very distinctive and peculiar style. I have only read his Blindness so far... will get to his other books soon. Specially The Double and the Ricardo Reis both of which I have.

About the Italians they missed Svevo and Moravia both of whom I like much more than Calvino. I am not sure, may be their translations came before 1960 though I doubt that.