Good translations of Cervantes and Tolsoy?
April 29, 2011 6:11 PM   Subscribe

I'm up for tackling some big all-time classics, especially Don Quixote and War and Peace, and I'm wondering which translations to get.

Both of these novels have been translated into english a dozen times, and I'm wondering which translations are supposed to be the best. "Best" is a vague word, but I'm looking for translations that are accessible to a general audience, but also is a good representation of the original text.

These novels keep being translated – should I go with the newest versions, or are there older "classic" translations that still hold up?

Those two are at the top of my list, but I'd also be interested in hearing about translations of Proust, as well as any other classic novels you felt have particularly excellent translations.
posted by Rinku to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky pretty much own anything they've translated from the Russian, including Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. I don't believe you can go wrong with them.
posted by mykescipark at 6:18 PM on April 29, 2011

The translation of Quixote by Peter Motteux done in the very early 18th Century (Everyman's Library) is supposed to be a really awful translation, but it reads *great*.
posted by facetious at 6:26 PM on April 29, 2011

I second Pevear and Volokhonsky.
posted by AlexanderPetros at 6:36 PM on April 29, 2011

Best answer: The Edith Grossman version of the Quixote is great, and it's relatively recent so getting your hands on it should be easy.
posted by Kosh at 6:56 PM on April 29, 2011

It's quite untrendy of me, but sometimes I prefer the older translations because I feel the Victorian/Edwardian/etc language they're translated into is more like the Victorian/Edwardian/etc language the characters were speaking at the time. For example, I think Rosemary Edmonds' translation of Anna Karenin is great.

FYI Pevear and Volokhonksy are quite controversial - some people seem to really love or hate them.
posted by smoke at 7:39 PM on April 29, 2011

Do not get Pevear and Volokhonsky. They're a hype machine powered by people who don't know the language and can't tell a bad translation from a good one. (That's not an insult to their readers--obviously you won't be reading the translation if you know the language, and there are precious few reliable sources for comparing translations.) I say this as an Imperial Russian historian and native speaker. The older translations are generally better and almost always more elegant.
posted by nasreddin at 8:18 PM on April 29, 2011 [4 favorites]

(I guess my credentials aren't really all that relevant, so I probably should've left them out. Sorry. For what it's worth, Orlando Figes seems to like P&V, but the man has remarkably poor judgment in other areas.)
posted by nasreddin at 8:24 PM on April 29, 2011

I read John Rutherford's translation of Don Quixote (Penguin Classics) and enjoyed it immensely. I think Grossman's translation came out around then and I don't think you'd go wrong with either. Hers got lots of excellent reviews.

If you read Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo (which is astounding and I highly recommend), Penguin Classics did a fresh translation ten or fifteen years ago by Robin Buss and it's wonderful. Earlier English editions were all, I think, based on a Victorian translation that reads now as stilted and wasn't the best in the first place.

I've found as a general rule with translations that if they're from Penguin or Oxford and they're recent, they'll be good.
posted by wdenton at 8:44 PM on April 29, 2011

To repeat what others have said: Pevear and Volokhonsky aren't as good as everyone wants to think. They create sentences that feel like translations and their fealty to the original text burdens the prose. Rosemary Edmonds's prose is far better, smoother, elegant, evocative, and natural. She'll take liberties, but not to the extent Constance Garnett would, and her liberties are more towards retaining voice and relaying intent than convenience.
posted by incessant at 8:47 PM on April 29, 2011

Regarding Proust, there was a good discussion of the recent Penguin translation of In Search of Lost Time a few years ago in the New York Review of Books. Most of the initial review is behind a paywall, but the responses from the translator and others are freely accessible and informative. (I've read the first 120 or so pages of the Moncrieff-Kilmartin translation and I really liked it, but I have no real basis for comparison.)

When I get around to Dante's Divine Comedy in the year 2300 or so, I will be reading the translation by Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander. It's much more lucid, readable, and beautiful than any of the other versions I've sampled.
posted by twirlip at 8:58 PM on April 29, 2011

I don't know Russian, but when I read Pevear and Volokhonsky's Anna Karenina two years ago it was a revelation. Flow, voice, unexpected humor. I've since bought their War & Peace and Doctor Zhivago without yet getting the chance to read either. My reading buddies seem less uniformly enthusiastic about the P-V Pasternak translation, but in my circles we are all wild about their Tolstoy.
posted by Rain Man at 9:47 PM on April 29, 2011

I love Don Quixote with all my heart, and I read the Penguin Classics version translated by John Rutherford.
posted by rabbitbookworm at 1:49 AM on April 30, 2011

I have War and Peace - Constance Garnett. I could send it to you. The catch, ship date would be two weeks away. What's the phrase? Memail me?
posted by notned at 6:42 AM on April 30, 2011

for Proust, Lydia Davis's new translation of Swann's Way was remarkable; she's also just done Madame Bovary and, generally speaking, I would highly recommend anything she's translated.
posted by spindle at 8:21 AM on April 30, 2011

When he taught at Cornell, Vladimir Nabokov (who felt very strongly about translation) used the Samuel Putnam translation of Don Quixote for his students. (He thought it was a cruel book.) (Also, his Lectures on Literature includes notes on Don Quixote; Lectures on Russian Literature includes lots of discussion about translation. They are both entertaining and useful.)
posted by Francolin at 8:40 AM on April 30, 2011

Best answer: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky pretty much own anything they've translated from the Russian

This is not in the least true. Their hype machine irritates the hell out of me, but I wouldn't say they're the worst available choice; they are certainly not the best, however. Lots of people like them (some of them may even like them because of their prose, rather than because they've bought the hype), and if you try them and they make you enjoy the novel, then fine, read them, but my advice is always to read a chunk of as many different translations as you can find and pick the one that most makes you want to keep reading (this is particularly important for long novels like W&P, of course). All translators make mistakes (I've just found some doozies in the work of a translator I generally respect a lot), and it's silly to highlight an error or two and use it to discredit the whole translation, but yeah, P&V have an odd and probably unhelpful way of working together and the result is (to me and others like nasreddin) off-putting and unrepresentative of the Russian. But chacun à son gout—the important thing is to find a translation you personally enjoy. (And don't ignore Constance Garnett; a lot of people thoughtlessly put her down as "Victorian" or whatever, but her versions are usually quite good if you don't find the prose too old-fashioned.)
posted by languagehat at 11:23 AM on April 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

I seem to remember, from reading about 4 different translations of W&P in college, that Constance Garnett left out whole paragraphs and descriptions she thought weren't necessary. That's more liberty than I prefer a translator take.

I hated the Pevear & Volokhonsky translation I read (might have been Anna Karenina) but YMMV.

I would guess there are half a dozen new translations since I was reading so much Tolstoy, but I remember feeling fairly trusting of the Norton editions of Russian novels. Their edition of W&P was translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude.
posted by small_ruminant at 5:07 PM on April 30, 2011

Wow, I'm shocked by the P-V hate in this thread. I remember reading a New Yorker article about how much the shit they were and so I picked up their translation of Anna Karenina. I thought it was fantastic, but I don't know how much to credit their translation and how much to credit Tolstoy.

After Anna Karenina, I picked up Anthony Briggs' translation of War and Peace. The reviews on Amazon seemed to harp on his Britishisms ("Hello there, mate!") but I didn't notice them at all. The one annoying thing was that Denisov's speech was translated into Elmer Fudd-style English ("Hewwo you wascally wabbit") since I guess Tolstoy wrote that character's speech in broken Russian. Again, I really loved this novel as well, but I wouldn't know how much to credit Tolstoy or the translators. I don't think you could go wrong with the Briggs translation.
posted by alidarbac at 7:55 PM on May 1, 2011

I'm a little late, I know, but for posterity's sake I'd like to recommend Tom Lathrop's translation as an alternative to Grossman's. His "Fourth-Centenary" Quixote is available in a charming trade edition and as a cheap Signet mass market paperback; you can also find the complete text online at the Cervantes project, sans the terrific footnotes.

Lathrop, unlike Grossman, is a Cervantine scholar, with an almost maniacal devotion to the purity of the text; his review of her translation (favorable, but he can't forbear from listing 12 pages of errata) should give you some idea of his preoccupations and critical concerns. For all his obsessiveness, his translation is fresh and fluid, salted with well over a thousand footnotes on everything from the proper dress of an hildago to his own experience with Manchegan bread ("heavy, hard crusted, and with jagged points on the top, a weapon to be feared in close combat.") Grossman has the edge on prose, I think, but Lathrop is more accurate and better conveys the historical context. In his eccentricity and learning, he's also a perfect match for the Don himself.

Also: yeah, P&V are infuriatingly overrated.
posted by Iridic at 8:32 AM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

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