Readable public domain books translated to English
March 17, 2011 7:44 PM   Subscribe

Can you recommend any books in translation I might want to read that are public domain?

I've recently been given a Kindle and am smitten by it, and particularly love the access it has given me to older books in the public domain.

But so far I've stuck to books written originally in English. I find that sometimes you'll read a book in translation and never give a moment's thought to the fact that the book wasn't originally written in English, but sometimes the translation seems to get between you and the book. Generally I seem to prefer more recent translations, but that poses a problem with my aim to get as much out of Project Gutenberg and similar as I possibly can.

The question is more about the readability of the translation than either the quality of the translated work or the accuracy of the translation. I'll take it on trust long enough to read it that Kurt Hamsun's Hunger is as good as people say it is, and I'm in no position to judge any translation's strength against 99.99% of other languages. So, have you read any free books in translation and enjoyed them as a read?
posted by calico to Writing & Language (7 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
This is a good question; old translations that are still decent are hard to find.

The one real suggestion I have is Constance Garnett, whose translations of Russian novels are popular (though I can't say how they compare to newer ones).

Unfortunately the only other books I can think of are nonfiction, and really boring (unless you're into that kind of thing). Norman Kemp Smith's translation of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason is almost as good as recent ones (and way better than the other public domain version, by Meiklejohn). And there are some who swear by Thomas Hobbes' translation of Thucydides' Peloponnesian War, but I haven't read it.
posted by Chicken Boolean at 8:46 PM on March 17, 2011

Garnett's Russian translations are readable, but the quality is definitely weak in terms of fidelity as well as completeness (e.g., there are stories where she just skipped whole scenes because they were too difficult to translate). Nonetheless, if its her version of Brothers Karamazov or nothing, the book is definitely still worth it (and same for most of the Dostoevsky/Tolstoy).

Jowett's translations of Plato are a little bit archaic sounding, but definitely readable. If you're comfortable with 19th century British lit, you'll find the style tolerable.
posted by philosophygeek at 9:27 PM on March 17, 2011

I have less to say on quality than on quantity, so long as you're looking for free...

Keep in mind that the works under American copyright law available on are a different selection than you can find under the slightly more liberal copyright laws of the Australian gutenberg -- for example, while has only the first volume of Proust in English translation, Swann's Way, has all of the volumes in C.K. Scott Moncrieff's translation from the 1920s.

I still haven't cracked Proust yet, but I did like Moncrieff's translation of Stendhal's The Red and the Black. I can't vouch for it authoritatively, but I suspect that Moncrieff cheated less on accuracy than Garnett did.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 9:31 PM on March 17, 2011

I've read very little of Jowett's Plato and I don't remember it well, but this is how Tom Stoppard portrayed him in The Invention of Love:

Jowett: A Platonic enthusiasm as far as Plato was concerned meant an enthusiasm of the kind that would empty the public schools and fill the prisons were it not nipped in the bud. In my translation of the Phaedrus it required all my ingenuity to rephrase his description of paederastia into the affectionate regard as exists between an Englishman and his wife. Plato would have made a transposition himself if he had the good fortune to be a Balliol man.
posted by Chicken Boolean at 9:38 PM on March 17, 2011

I see Project Gutenberg has this, from the Chinese, by the great Arthur Waley.
posted by Abiezer at 2:52 AM on March 18, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks very much for the answers!

Chicken Boolean & philosophygeek: I think Ernest Hemingway recommends Garrett's versions in A Movable Feast - anyway, I remember reading about her somewhere when I was 19 - and tried to read her version of Crime and Punishment but lost interest somewhere in the first 4 chapters or so. I've always blamed the translation but perhaps I will give her another go. There are quite a few things I couldn't read then that I can now.

ivan ivanych samovar: Sounds interesting, and I've never read any Proust at all or any Stendhal. I will look into this.

Abiezer: Wonderful! I was sure I'd searched for Waley on Gutenberg but perhaps I only looked for him on I love my copy of his 170 Chinese Poems so I'm really pleased you've pointed me to this.
posted by calico at 1:56 PM on March 18, 2011

I've read some Project Gutenberg Jules Verne where the faint hint of period language lends authenticity rather than creates a barrier, and those quirks also mean that the translation is invisible.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:26 AM on March 19, 2011

« Older Who makes this toy dog?   |   Aged coffee syrup, anyone? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.