Sunday, July 12, 2009

Book Rambling: Translations

This post is inspired by the reading I'm doing for The Pre-Printing Press Challenge.

How important is the translation to your reading, when you're reading an ancient work?

For example, I've had people tell me that the Neville Coghill translation of The Canterbury Tales isn't a good one and that I should find a different translation. I have no idea if this is just scholarly snobbery though (ie the "Newer is Better" way of thinking) or if there is something to it. I keep the translation for a different reason (besides the fact that I like it): Neville Coghill was a member of the Inklings, the group that Tolkien belonged to.

On the other hand, clearly, that's not always the case. In classes over the last year, we were assigned Herodotus, and it was the same translation my mother used when she was taking Classical History, the Aubrey De Selincourt one. I know very well that there are other, newer translations out there (I have a couple of them). Still, this was the one I was the most familiar with, having read parts of it previously.

Right now I'm reading Beowulf (along with all of the other books I have on the go), and I'm really finding that the translation makes a big difference.

I have both the Seamus Heaney translation, which is the one which I believe is most often found in bookstores these days, and the Howell Chickering one. Both are facing page translations, and you wouldn't think there was too much of a difference between them, seeing as it's the same text.

However, there really is a difference. Seamus Heaney has tried, more or less, to hold to the alliteration of the original Beowulf, but has, as far as I can see, chosen to not reproduce some of the rest of the structure of the poem. There is also, in my opinion, a more casual feel to his translation. Most of the book is the poem, which is probably a plus for the causal reader. I know I liked it, being able to jump right into the poem, when I first got the book back in 2004.

Nowadays though, I prefer the style of the Chickering translation. He hasn't followed the alliteration scheme of the original, but the stress patterns seem to be there, as is the caesura of the lines. Also, more than half of the book is made up of the introduction and commentary about the poem. For me, this is a plus as he's included a pronunciation guide, poetic structure analysis (including examples) and other helpful information in the introduction. The pages of the poem include footnotes of emendations and disagreements over word corrections in the Old English as well.

I haven't made it as far as the commentary yet, being just over 1200 lines into the poem, but on a quick skim, I noted that it includes a detailed history of the manuscript history.

What I'd like to find for Beowulf is a translation that does what Tolkien did for the poem Sir Gawain And The Green Knight: His translation includes both the alliteration and the poem structure. Of the translations I've read, this has become my favorite (and not simply because it is one of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien this time).

So, what makes a good translation for you?


J.T. Oldfield said...

I think that the thing that makes translations different from each other is the original text the author is working with. So many medieval scholars glossed differently from each other, and many times things were added or left out. Regarding something like Chaucer, a lot of different region would spell the same words differently, so someone who is not really well versed in the nuances of OE might not be aware of all of the different spellings. This is especially important when dealing with religious texts, but can have the same effect on secular works. You'd be surprised how many scribes imposed their own viewpoints in works they copied. And of course, copying was the only way to reproduce works.

I guess what I'm saying is the older the source the translator is working with, the better.

I quite liked Heaney's version of Beowulf, though as that's the only one I'm familiar with, I guess I'm not a very good judge!

I like to read the Middle English version of Chaucer. I'm O.K. with Old English, but not great by any means. Translating as I go is part of the fun!

Unknown said...

It certainly is. I'm finding that I can figure out the occasional line in Beowulf, and it's been almost two years since I took that introductory course in Old English.

Shanra said...

*nods up at what J.T. said* This. Although I think a lot of (the good) translations actually work to take all the various forms in mind and then pick the ones that make the most sense in the context. I know that analysing, comparing and compiling various sources was a huge part of my cousin's PhD.

Beyond that and what J.T. said, a good translation is partially what it is you're looking for in the first place. I think I'd prefer more literal translations over the ones that adhere to the structure more clearly. A literal translation may read less easily, but it'll keep as much of a word or a line's nuances as the target language can. With translations that further adapt the story into the same or a similar structure, it's no longer a translation. It's an adaptation of that translation and nuances and words will be lost, even when you've got a terrific translation that takes that into account and offers scads of footnotes and linguistic information on said nuances.

Ideally, I'd be able to read the stories in their original source-language, but I'm not good enough a language-buff to do that. (I still don't know how on earth I passed my Ancient Greek and Old English exams. O_O No, scratch that. Old English is so close to Dutch that I know how I passed that one - sheer luck.)

Also, with translations you have to keep in mind it's not just the various sources you're dealing with: it's also the translator in question. Everything J.T. said about scribing copying a text is done by a translator/editor too. If only because that's the person making the call on whether illegible word #7 is most likely to be A or B and whether word #9 means C or D in the given context.

I don't think I've ever encountered anyone who recommended me translations because of snobbery, though. Everytime I've asked people about a translation of an older piece of literature, I've always been given solid reasons why I should read one over the other - even if those reasons amount to "I prefer my translations done like this and that is what this editor does." That's a valid reason.

To come back to your question, though, it depends on what I want the translation for. On the one hand, I prefer the translation as literal as I can get it. On the other, I like them to be legible too. I'm annoying, I know. ^-^

Am I reading the text purely for enjoyment/broadening literary horizons? I'll settle for a good, legible translation that focuses on getting me the story and literary devices. Am I reading it for a study of some kind? Give me the more literal version, please, so I can catch more of the nuances. (And, please, please, give me the original on the opposite page, so I can compare and learn!)

Everything else are wonderful bonuses in their own right and might also be reasons to buy that particular edition/translation. It's not all about the text itself. Sometimes it's the introduction and the notes that make academics recommend one version above another rather than the text itself.

Shanra said...

Uhm. I'm sorry to ramble so much... I didn't realise it'd gotten so long...

Unknown said...

Rambling isn't a problem (Notice the title for these posts? LOL)

The different points of view are interesting to say the least, and I'm finding I'm learning from reading the answers I get to the questions I pose.

Thanks for your answer Shanra. It's very appreciated.

J.G. said...

Adding to the question of older texts is the possibility that scholarship has advanced since a particular translation was done. If a better copy of the original text has been found, or a new dictionary-type text has come to light, or linguistic scholarship has advanced . . . this can all make "newer" equal "better."

But it's still a matter of taste, eventually. I enjoy having on hand a couple different versions of works I really love, just for this reason. Comparison can be fun and enlightening.

And oh yeah, I agree that Tolkein wrote the book on SGGK, for sure! The sound and the sense, in one beautiful package.

P.S. All these comments are a joy to read, by the way. Smart, insightful, educational, literary, awesome.

Unknown said...

Not to mention technology. Using different types of scanning/lights can bring to light different emendations, and in some texts, even a whole different text underneath.

The prime example of the latter that I can think of is that Archimedes codex that was rediscovered a few years ago.


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