Hey guys. So this is going to be a new little thingy I try to do every Thursday on my blog, called Thinking on Thursday, which is just basically my excuse to write a random post about whatever bookish thoughts are floating around in my head. Please, feel free to comment and lets make a whole discussion-thing out of it okay? It’ll be fun. Maybe it could even turn in a meme, who knows.
Sooooo… As some of you may have heard, I’ve started reading Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes for the first time. I’ve read books that were originally written in other languages and translated to English, but some reason the idea of the translation, and what makes a good one, has never crossed my mind until now.
I originally went and bought the Barnes and Noble Classics edition of Don Quixote, because I tend to like their classics. They put all these handy-dandy footnotes at the bottom to define archaic words or tell you what some reference means. However, upon reading the first chapter it seemed a little… off. I had flipped through a copy of Don Quixote at the library recently and the writing in the B&N version seemed really stiff and formal and unnecessary complicated.
For example, here’s the library copy’s version of the first couple sentences (this translation is by J.M. Cohen):
“In a certain village in La Mancha, which I do not wish to name, there lived not long ago a gentleman – one of those who have always a lance in the rack, an ancient shield, a lean hack and a greyhound for coursing. His habitual diet consisted of stew, more beef than mutton, of hash most nights, boiled bones on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays and a young pigeon as a Sunday treat; and on this he spent three-quarters of his income.”
So, not so bad. I have no clue what the hell a hack is in this sense, or what coursing is, but I get the gist of it. Here’s the same thing but from the B&N version (translation by Tobias Smollett):
“In a certain corner of La Mancha*, the name of which I do not choose to remember, there lately lived one of those country gentlemen, who adorn their halls with a rusty lance and worm-eaten shield*, and ride forth on the skeleton of a horse, to course with a sort of starved greyhound. Three fourths of his income were scarce sufficient to afford a dish of hodge-podge,* in which the mutton bore no proportion to the beef, for dinner; a slate of salmagundy,* commonly at supper; gripes and grumblings* on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays, and the addition of a pigeon or some such thing on the Lord’s-day.”
The *’s are where those handy footnotes I was talking about were. But yeah… it’s different. So apparently a hack is a horse? Still not quite sure what the starved greyhound thing is about. And I have no idea what the hell salmagundy, gripes and grumblings, or hodge-podge are, at least not until looking at said footnotes.
Anyways, so after I bought the B&N version and realized it seemed odd, I went back and found a translation by Edith Grossman, which is apparently one of the newest translations. I bought it (hadn’t borrowed the library copy yet), and here are those same sentences in her version:
“Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing. An occasional stew, beef more often than lamb, hash most nights, eggs and abstinence on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays, sometimes squab as a treat on Sundays – these consumed three-fourths of his income.*”
Grossman’s translations seems clearest – there is no confusion over the animals kept for racing, and she descibes what DQ (Don Quixote) eats most nights. Her footnote then explains that Cervantes is explaining the typical aspects of life for the rural gentry, and that he’s pointing out that DQ is kind of broke by describing the food – beef was cheaper than lamb. It all just seems simpler.
So, I’ve been reading Grossman’s version and I’m really enjoying it so far. Every now and then she mentions something that really should have a footnote but it doesn’t, so then I go open the B&N version and look it up. For example, a character says in the 4th chapter that if let go, this bad guy will “skin me alive, just like St. Bartholomew”. Maybe it’s glaringly obvious to some, but I wasn’t sure if he meant that St. B was the one skinning people, or if St. B got skinned himself. I looked in the B&N edition, and apparently St. B was flayed alive with a knife – ouch.
I mentioned the confusion I was having on finding the “best” translation to a friend, but said I was really enjoying Grossman’s version. The friend compared the B&N and the Grossman, and said that she thought Grossman took too many “liberties” with the text. Of course, neither of us can read in Spanish so we have no idea what translation in the world gets closest to the real thing. But Grossman’s version definitely has a more modern, easy flow to it. I read Grossman’s “Translator’s Note to the Reader” in the beginning of the book, and she does say this:
“When Cervantes wrote Don Quixote, his language was not archaic or quaint. He wrote in a crackling, up-to-date Spanish that was an intrinsic part of his time (this is instantly apparent when he has Don Quixote, in transports of knightly madness, speak in the old-fashioned idiom of the novels of chivalry), a modern language that both reflected and helped to shape the way people experienced the world.”
To me, that means that she tried to use a more modern tone because Cervantes wrote in a modern tone for his time. That seems logical. I mean, it’s not like she’s throwing in the use of cell phones or anything. The language in the book is just easier to digest, at least for me. And overall, all three of those translations that I quoted from said basically the same thing – just in three different ways. I wish we could ask Cervantes HIS opinion on which English translation is thinks is best for the book, but unfortuntely he died in 1616.
So, what do you guys think about translations?
Should these translated books be as closely and literally translated as possible, or is it the translator’s job to remain true to the story but write it in a way that makes it most enjoyable to the reader?
Do you just avoid books that have been translated from another language at all costs?
Have you ever compared translated editions and just picked the one you felt most comfortable with? How do you choose your translations?
I’d love it if you guys would give me your thoughts on this!