Famous translators?
May 27, 2010 3:18 PM   Subscribe

Who were the most famous and interesting modern-day translators of ancient texts? Are there any interesting articles or books about the personalities who translated the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 60's, the Mayan codices, etc?

I'm less interested in the stories behind HOW these things got translated, than about the actual people behind the translating. What their background was, why they were chosen to take a stab at it, etc.

I'm also primarily interested in translators who lived within the last 100 years.

posted by egeanin to Society & Culture (11 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure if this is what you want, but I'll give it a shot. Seamus Heaney translated Beowulf, but I'm not sure the circumstances behind his translation. He was already well-known for his poetry before that, though.
posted by pised at 3:42 PM on May 27, 2010

One of the most interesting stories can be found in researching Joseph Smith. Whether he actually did in fact translate an ancient record.

The most recent biography Rough Stone Rolling is getting acclaim from members of the church and from nonmembers.

I am aware that it is up for much debate whether he did in fact translate anything, but in terms of interesting stories and background info, I don't think you are going to find anything better.
posted by lakerk at 3:43 PM on May 27, 2010

It's not a book, but there's a Nova episode (here on Hulu) about some pioneers in understanding Mayan writing, including both some biographical stuff about the code-crackers and some linguistics stuff. I usually only watch Nova when I can't fall asleep, but I remember it being interesting enough.
posted by oinopaponton at 3:49 PM on May 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

"Breaking the Maya Code" by Michael D. Coe
"The Keys to Egypt: The obsession to decipher egyptian hieroglyphs" by Lesley and Roy Adkins are two books I that might fit the bill.
posted by smcameron at 3:52 PM on May 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Many ancient Greek texts became more readable in their original version because of a breakthrough in deciphering a common Greek / Crete written language called Linear B. It was translated by a guy who deciphered coded Nazi messages during WWII and had a deep fascination of the classics, e.g. Homer, Plato, etc. His name was Michael Ventris. I learned about this from a podcast by Professor Marsh McCall at Stanford.
posted by glaucon at 4:00 PM on May 27, 2010

Kenneth Rexroth translated ancient Chinese, Japanese, and Greek poems as a brilliant autodidact. His An Autobiographical Novel is possibly the most interesting life story I know after Casanova's.
posted by Joe Beese at 5:10 PM on May 27, 2010

Sir Richard Burton translated One Thousand and One Nights. If Burton isn't famous and interesting, I don't know who is.
posted by gwint at 8:06 PM on May 27, 2010

The Linguist and the Emperor is the story of Jean Francois Champollion, Napoleon, and the translation of the Rosetta Stone. It may possibly be up your alley. I very much enjoyed it, but then I'm a linguistics student who thrives on this kind of thing.
posted by Gordafarin at 8:56 PM on May 27, 2010

As well as the aforementioned Keys of Egypt, which is a very good read, I can also recommend the Adkins' Empires of the Plain.
posted by rodgerd at 1:28 AM on May 28, 2010

These are great answers so far-- but just to be clear I'm mostly interested in modern translators who have lived at least within the past century.
posted by egeanin at 8:52 AM on May 28, 2010

I'd just like to second glaucon's suggestion that you explore Michael Ventris's work - his biography is a pretty good read. He really was a rather extraordinary person.
posted by HandfulOfDust at 11:43 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

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