Which is the best version of the book?
August 18, 2011 10:38 AM   Subscribe

Which is the definitive (original/best) version/edition to read of your favourite books?

I have a sudden interest in reading a whole lot of fables - Aesop/ Thousand and One Nights/ Panchatantra etc.

But one problem I encountered was which version to start reading with. E.g. One Thousand and One Nights has several versions like Richard Burton, John Payne, Edward Lane etc. I have heard that Burton provided a lot of his own story elements which might not have existed in the actual texts.

The problem also exists in books like Elements of Style which is in the 4 edition but I have come across in earlier posts that the 2nd edition (1972) is better.

So if I were to pick up THE book which one should it be? Can help with the ones below.

- Aesops Fables
- Thousand and One Nights
- Panchatantra
posted by manny_calavera to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I'm confused. Do you want the best editions of any book, or just fables, or just those specific books?
posted by John Cohen at 10:55 AM on August 18, 2011

Best answer: I think each book you're interested in needs a separate question.

For the 1001 Nights, Ithe issue with Burton is style, not content--he made up his own bizarre English which he thought captured something exotic he saw in the Arabic--which I guess some people might enjoy. Edward Lane is more straightforward, but the sexy parts are left out and the Victorian English will still seem stilted to a contemporary reader. The Mathers/Mardrus translation (Mathers translated into English from Mardrus's French) is in elegant English and definitely includes the sex, but in terms of content, Mardrus just made things up, inserting his own stories or changing the original stories at will. Dawood (the commonly-available Penguin paperback edition) is a good, readable presentation, of a small selection of the work. Haddawy's recent edition is an accurate translation of a specially-edited version of the Arabic made by the scholar Muhsin Mahdi, which was an attempt to present an "original" version of the Nights, uncontaminated by later editing and interpolations. And there are several more English translations...

Behind the question of translations, there's the question of versions of the original, of which there are at least three major ones: Mahdi's recent edition (mentioned above), Bulaq (the first to be printed in the Arab world, in the 1800s in Cairo), and Calcutta (printed by a British institution in colonial India). Most currently-available editions in Arabic are re-issues of the Bulaq edition or of a bowdlerized version of it (made I think by a Jesuit priest and first printed in Beirut in the early 20th century).
posted by Paquda at 11:14 AM on August 18, 2011 [4 favorites]

The Joy of Cooking has been revised many times in its publication history. Until recently, many were of the opinion that the 5th edition was the one to look for, both the easiest to find second-hand and the cheapest, while still having the "teaching text" that was removed from later editions in the late 1990s.

Apparently, this has been improved and some of the more "modernizations" removed in the present editions, but I don't know this from personal experience.

The early editions from the thrities are less useful perhaps from the perspective of a modern cook, but are still facinating reading about the domestic trials of the time. Squirrel pie. Leftovers. Canning and pickling.
posted by bonehead at 11:33 AM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Going further afield, the best translation of Beowulf is Seamus Heaney's. Recent and already legendary. All translations should be written by poets.

It has the Anglo-Saxon on the left, and it's fun to try to sound it out. English on the right. The translation is somehow both rigorous and straightforward enough to read to a child as a bedtime story. (an awesome bedtime story)

Well, friend Unferth, you have had your say
about Breca and me. But it was mostly beer
that was doing the talking...

posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:35 AM on August 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

All translations should be written by poets.

In that vein, Robert Pinsky's translation of Inferno is gorgeous.
posted by in a dark glassly at 11:43 AM on August 18, 2011

For the Bible, the King James version is considered the most beautiful.
posted by bq at 11:50 AM on August 18, 2011

Bible - New International Version, or for readability New Living Translation.

People that act like the King James Version is the original version really bug me.
posted by notned at 11:51 AM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Shakespeare's plays are best read and studied from the Arden Shakespeare line. At least half of every page are footnotes pointing out discrepancies in spelling, punctuation, and word choice between all the different 'originals'. I only recommend it for people who nerd out over authenticity of the text, though.

Robert Fagles's translation of the Odyssey is absolutely lovely and extremely readable. He's also done one for the Iliad, but I haven't read it yet.

Agreeing with others that King James version of the Bible should be read for its literary value (and its influence on literature), and the New International version for its authenticity/accuracy, depending on what you're looking for.

I'd like to second, third, and thousandth the recommendation for Seamus Heaney's Beowulf.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 12:14 PM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Mathers/Mardrus translation (Mathers translated into English from Mardrus's French) is in elegant English and definitely includes the sex, but in terms of content, Mardrus just made things up, inserting his own stories or changing the original stories at will.

There's a lot to be said for putting stuff in though. We famously have no Arabic sources for the tales of Aladdin and Ali Baba earlier than the translation by Antoine Galland in the early 18C. The wikipedia article on Galland has this rather neat quote by Borges:
Another fact is undeniable. The most famous and eloquent encomiums of The Thousand and One Nights - by Coleridge, Thomas de Quincey, Stendhal, Tennyson, Edgar Allan Poe, Newman - are from readers of Galland's translation. Two hundred years and ten better translations have passed, but the man in Europe or the Americas who thinks of the Thousand and One Nights thinks, invariably, of this first translation. The Spanish adjective milyunanochesco [thousand-and-one-nights-esque] ... has nothing to do with the erudite obscenities of Burton or Mardrus, and everything to do with Antoine Galland's bijoux and sorceries.
I'm rather partial to the Burton translation because I was obsessed with him as a boy, but it's not exactly mellifluous prose. A pretty good resource for questions like this is the Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation. It'll give you the translation history and brief critical appraisals of works from at least a couple dozen major languages. For the Panchatantra, a work I'd never heard of, it says it's been translated by Franklin Edgerton "in a style that by now is slightly antiquated but clear." They don't have that one, but any other Sanskrit text I'd recommend seeing if the Clay Sanskrit Library publishes it, because those books sound enticing.
posted by villanelles at dawn at 12:20 PM on August 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

People that act like the King James Version is the original version really bug me.

Agreed, and it's not the most accurate English translation, but it is by far the most poetic. The KJV is definitive for a reason.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:40 PM on August 18, 2011

For my money, Burton's The Thousand and Nights is the most enjoyable, with an arch scholarly tone that gleefully digresses into various topics only loosely related to the narrative. It's also considered the dirtiest version. It's not the translation that reflects the source material most accurately, so it depends whether you're reading as a scholar of 14-century Syrian, or 19th-century English literature. I'm more interested in the latter, so Burton's the guy for me. (Borges liked him too.)

Nthing the Heaney Beowulf.

The FitzGerald Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is the most widely-read and quoted, so probably the most useful to read, and certainly beautiful.

I also really love Robert Graves translation of The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius. In addition to being really captivating and scandalous (again: the most explicit translation available, to my knowledge), the tone of the writing reminded me so strongly of what I love about Latin: the more straightforwardly you say something, the funnier it is. I don't know how Graves managed that with English, but it's amazing and this book is very funny. And horrifying.
posted by milk white peacock at 12:44 PM on August 18, 2011

The Landmark Thucydides is incredible. There are tons of maps, a great introduction, excellent commentaries, a well respected translation and explanatory footnotes instead of endnotes, thus saving you much page flipping.
posted by Jahaza at 2:35 PM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm happy villanelles at dawn has mentioned Galland and Borges in a discussion of the Nights: Galland for creating the phenomenon, Borges for perfecting it.

The book's status among Arab readers before Galland was non-existent. His French version's popularity led to worldwide interest and to things like British travelers in Egypt ardently seeking to buy manuscripts of the 'complete' Nights--the manuscript that Galland worked from (which is the one that Mahdi ascertained to be the 'most authentic') covered 270 nights--but the title was '1001 Nights'--so rich Brits in Egypt sought to pay big bucks for manuscripts covering the 'lost' nights--which probably led to to the on-the-spot generation of those 'lost' stories by Egyptian scribes with good business sense. That was the beginning of the history of sketchiness and hoaxes that Mardrus continued with his pornographic and racist additions to his French 'translation'. See Robert Irwin for wonderfully-written learned overviews of the subject..

Borges: the feeling of stories branching out like vines into other stories, the losing yourself in the multiplicity of stories, the way the stories often eerily mirror each other, the feeling of infinity...he got these things, probably, from absorbing the wondrous effects of the Nights, but he perfected them.

All of which has absolutely zero to do with choosing which edition of Strunk & White to buy....
posted by Paquda at 6:56 PM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

This review by Geert Jan van Gelder is a good guide to the different versions of the Thousand and One Nights. (It also introduced me to my favourite euphemism for sex, 'putting the imam into the prayer niche'.) Van Gelder doesn't like the Burton translation, which he satirises as 'The Shroff who Futtered his Cadette with the Two Coyntes', but he recommends the Penguin Classics edition, translated by Malcolm C. Lyons, 'which ought to become the standard one for the present century'.
posted by verstegan at 12:05 PM on August 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

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