The Importance of Choosing a Translation and Why You Should Care

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One of the most beautiful things about reading classics is that many of them are originally written in languages other than our own, allowing us to experience the voices and traditions of places we've never called home.

For all us non-polyglots, it also necessitates a translator.

A translator can sincerely make or break your experience with a classic, so choosing wisely for yourself is an essential step, and time well invested. Yet how many of us even consider who the translator is before purchasing a book? Generally, we pick up whatever pretty edition we come across and don't give it a second thought...but we should.

Basically, the issue is that all translations are going to vary from the original text. Full stop. No way around it. Words are not simply exchanged 1:1 from language to language, and this necessary shifting can really mess with your understanding of even a simple sentence. A good translator must endeavor to stay true to the style and feel of the original author, while communicating to the reader the message and intent as seamlessly and as accurately as possible. Things like idioms, cultural subtext, sentence structure, humor, the need to capture nuance and more, make this task even more complex and fraught.

On top of all that it has to read naturally. This is especially true with novels; so much of why we love classics is because they are so beautifully written, and a translator really has to preserve that. Things like tone, mood, and atmosphere...it has to feel right. So, as much as I love to choose the prettiest edition of a book possible, sometimes I have to forgo the gorgeous cover for what's in between.

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I recently decided to finally read War and Peace this year. I'm following the "a chapter a day" model, and decided that if I was going to spend A YEAR of my life reading this book, I wanted it to be a good experience. This meant taking the time to do my research and choose a translation that would give me just that. 

First, I had to decide what I personally wanted out of a translation. If I were studying this for academic purposes, I would have placed emphasis on technical accuracy and close adherence to the original text above all else...but I'm reading this for pleasure. Of course, I wanted a translation that stays faithful to the original text, but I also decided to prioritize clarity and style for a smoother reading experience. I mean, have you seen War and Peace?! There was no way I wanted to fight a rocky translation for 1,400 pages.

So how did I choose?

Like any self-respecting-avocado-toast-loving millennial, I started out with some basic googling. I took a look at what the popular translations of War and Peace were, the ages of the translations, their critical reviews, etc, etc,.. and narrowed it down to three: Pevear and Volokhonsky, Maude, and Briggs.

Once I had settled on diving deeper into these three, the logical next step for me was to simply read some of each text side-by-side. I chose to physically hunt down all three copies at the library, but belatedly realized using Amazon's nifty preview function probably would have worked just as well. I checked, and yeah, you can definitely read the first few chapters with the preview function, which will save you the trouble of going to 3 different library branches. Juuuuust so you know. Anyway

I got home, plopped down on the couch with my three tomes, and read the first chapter of each, one right after the other, without pause. Reading them back to back like that really made me notice the differences in language and style choices, and gave me a solid feel for each translation. Again, because I was placing value on smoothness and clarity above anything else, the choice was clear to me after just a couple of pages. 

Just take a look at this one sentence, and note how it varies in each translation:

  1. 'Set my mind at ease,' said he without altering his tone, beneath the politeness and affected sympathy of which indifference and even irony could be discerned.
  2. "Set me at ease," he said, without changing his voice and in a tone which, through propriety and sympathy, one could discern indifference and even mockery.
  3. 'Put my mind at rest.' His voice remained steady, and his tone, for all its courtesy and sympathy, implied indifference and even gentle mockery.

Do you see what I mean? The same sentence can be interpreted and laid out in so many ways. Which is clearest and smoothest for you personally? Which style do you prefer? Even from this snippet it's obvious to me which one I like the most.

In my reading of the first chapter I found the Maude translation (#1) to be a bit wordy and clunky (partly due to it's age), Pevear and Volonkhonksy (#2) tended to use jarringly out of place words and some odd syntax, and Briggs (#3) was by far the clearest and easiest to read, while still seeming to maintain fidelity to the text. Plus, it gets bonus points for being quite lovely. Here are some more comparisons of the translations if you're interested!

Once I was leaning toward choosing Briggs, I hopped back on the internet to poke around at potential drawbacks of the translation. Generally, it seems the consensus of the critics is that he took some stylistic liberties with the slang in the novel. I decided that was absolutely not a big deal for me, and quickly purchased my own copy. 

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I'm now several chapters in, and since I still have my library copies, I keep cross-referencing the different translations just to be 100% sure I want to stick with Briggs, but so far he keeps nailing it. I'm enjoying the book so much, I almost can't put it down (I know, I'm surprised too!), and I know so much of my enjoyment is owed to the fact that I chose the translation best suited to me.

I do have one caveat: just because it's a good fit for me, doesn't mean it will be for you. Thank goodness for multiple translations, and the freedom to choose which suits our needs best! I can't encourage you enough to do your own research and readings of any translated novel before deciding which version you'd like to read. That time invested into choosing the best translation of a novel for yourself is so worth it.

Ultimately, we have to realize that a translation profoundly affects our relationship with a text; it defines our experience with it. You get to choose, so choose well, my friends. 

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Another note about the importance of translation. Our friend Rachel is a translation student who lives in Brazil and pointed out that politics really controlled literary translation in her country before and during their dictatorship government was in control, so even in a post-dictatorship society, it's important for her to thoroughly research the translator and the publishing company before deciding which translation she wants to read. I had never even considered this before she said something about it, and it lent even more weight to the idea that researching and choosing a translation is truly important.