Classic Literature and translation recommendations?
October 12, 2005 6:22 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking to start a collection of classic literature... Machiavelli's The Prince, Sun Tzu's The Art of War... I need recommendations on books, and specific translations of those books.

Some other things I'd be interested in would be religious or political texts (I have Mao's little red book [If you've been to China, you know what I mean]), such as a Bible (which I've never read), the Koran, Buddhist and other Asian scriptures, etc.

I'd prefer copies which are as complete as possible and as true to the original text as possible. Thus, the King James version of the bible is probably out.

Fictional literature such as Beowulf, the Odyssey and Illiad would also be appriciated, just nothing like Shakespeare...
posted by mhuckaba to Society & Culture (33 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Benjamin Jowett's translation of Plato's The Republic.
William Wordsworth's translation of Dante's Inferno.
posted by grabbingsand at 6:34 AM on October 12, 2005

Since these works are in the public domain, many publishing companies have imprints that deal in such classics. Penguin Classics is a very reputable series, and the translations are usually pretty good. The editions are not adbriged. The website is a nice resource for getting a sense of what's out there, and what you might want to read. Spending time researching individual translations can really pay off, but it's best to know what you're asking about first.

Oxford World Classics has a similar brief, and is also a good series.

Signet books (widely available in the US) are often abridged.

[I was going to stop there, but JRUN allows me to write more.]

The best translation of the Hebrew Bible is the Tanakh put out by the Jewish Publications Society. Not only is the translation excellent, but the separation from Christian influences is very welcome for anyone who wants to get a history of either Judiasm or Xianity.

You might reconsider your dismissal of the KJV for the New Testament. While not great in the fidelity department, it's a cannonical text in its own right, from which the most familiar New Testament quotations take their shape. In other words, the KJV is quoted so much that it's the literary bible, and thus probably the version for a non-believer interested in general culture to read. Other's will disagree.

I really like Fagles' Illiad and Odyssey, although some find them too colloquial. In my opinion, every generation should have their own Homer and Fagels is ours.

I think Mandelbaum's translation of Ovid's Metamorphosis is one of the best out there, and a joy to read.

Allan Bloom's translation of The Republic is not as good as some, but as he was part of the UChicago group that produced the neo-cons, and the neo-cons seem to think that Plato was right about what a good state required, I think it's more than worth a read. [As this comment and the one about the KJV should indicate, there are often political and theoretical issues at play in choosing a translation, and so you really will have to do some of your own research.]
posted by OmieWise at 7:11 AM on October 12, 2005

Walden - Henry David Thoreau
Civil Disobedience - Henry David Thoreau
... in fact, anything by Thoreau.

and Leo Tolstoy. War and Peace would be a good addition.

and The Cairo trilogy (Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, & Sugar Street) by Naguib Mahfouz too...
posted by tnai at 7:21 AM on October 12, 2005

It's probably worth looking at Bloom's Western Canon for a list of books, though it's huge, the sort of thing that might require a whole lifetime to get through.
posted by Jeanne at 7:22 AM on October 12, 2005

Hmm, let's see...

You'll definitely want a Tao Te Ching (or three). I keep the Waley translation (for semi-literal) and the Feng-English and Le Guin translations/versions for poetics.

I like the Lattimore translation of the Iliad - clear, lucid.

Since you'll probably get a lot of good recommendations that'll go into more detail than mine (I'm not a classicist), let me just list my favorite texts.

Meditations - Marcus Aurelius
De Rerum Natura - Lucretius
The Book of Job
Lives - Plutarch (I recommend the Loeb translations)
Annals - Tacitus
and pretty much everything by Plato

These are easy as they require no translation:
Age of Reason - Thomas Paine
Milton - Paradise Lost
posted by selfnoise at 7:22 AM on October 12, 2005

Clausewitz, On War. (I read the Howard and Paret translation and have no basis for comparison, but it worked for me).

CS Lewis, Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity are excellent.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:49 AM on October 12, 2005

Though by no means "as true to the original text as possible" (that is, it's by no means a literal translation), I really love Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf. In fact, I suspect that it's more true to the spirit (if not the words) of the original than a more "accurate" translation ever could be.
posted by pullayup at 7:54 AM on October 12, 2005

For the medieval period in extremis (650AD to 1530AD or so), I would recommend as the three core texts:

'Beowulf', either in Heaney or Alexander's translation (the former is more poetic, the latter truer to the original text)

'The Complete Works of Chaucer' in the Riverside edition

'Piers Plowman' (B-text), ed. AVC Schmidt (Oxford)

There is so much else, so maybe a Middle English reader, for example the Blackwell reader ed. by Trehearne might be good, contains lots of different stuff.

For languages other than English:

Marie de France's lays, 'Parzival' and 'Das Niebelungenleid' in Middle High German, Boccaccio's 'Decameron' and anything by Dante in Italian and 'El Libro de Buen Amor' by Juan Ruiz in Medieval Spanish.
posted by Hermit at 8:00 AM on October 12, 2005

I agree with the Penguin Classics recommendation. Also, as far as Western philosophy goes, I've found that most professors I've had use Hackett Publishing Co.'s translations. As for the Illiad and Odyssey I would agree with selfnoise on the Lattimore translations. Although they may be a bit more 'dry' than others, they are also apparently more true to the original greek.

Also, a good way to find reading lists for the classics or any other field is to go to a university website such as UC Berkeley's and begin browsing through departmental websites looking for basic syllabi. This should give you good indications of the different canons out there, and they usually have the translations on the syllabus as well. You could also use Google's advanced search ( or Google Scholar and type in "classics syllabus" or "political theory syllabus." I have built up my book collection largely by doing this.
posted by slow, man at 8:07 AM on October 12, 2005

The Coghill "translation" of the Canterbury Tales is an excellent intro to Chaucer, if the middle English gets in the way of your enjoyment of the text.
posted by Pericles at 8:27 AM on October 12, 2005

I highly recommend Rufus Fears' Course The Books that have Made History as an additional resource. It's outstanding!
posted by vega5960 at 8:37 AM on October 12, 2005

If you have $8000 to spare, you can get all your Penguin classics right here.
posted by driveler at 8:38 AM on October 12, 2005

Yes, Penguin classics would be a great way to build up a sweet library. With Penguin, you're getting books designed for students, mostly, so very good texts at very good prices. What they are not is fancy, so if you're looking for a beautiful bookshelf, you should probably look elsewhere.

Apart from Penguin: I second the Riverside Chaucer. Also, my personal favorites for Homer are Fagles' Iliad and Fitzgerald's Odyssey.
posted by Hildago at 8:49 AM on October 12, 2005

Driveler -- I looked forever for that link, but I looked in the wrong places, I guess.
posted by Hildago at 8:50 AM on October 12, 2005

You say you want to start a collection, but you don't mention that you want to read the books (which I think shows more admirable honesty in intent than most questions like this). I have the perfect solution for you. In addition to the classics (YAWN!), you can look like you're interested in badminton or snobby nineteenth century British humor.
posted by MarkAnd at 8:58 AM on October 12, 2005

What's your definition of classical? Some of these might be rather late for your taste, but thought they should be mentioned.
Christine de Pizan The Book of the City of Ladies and The Book of the Three Virtues
Mary Wollstonecraft A Vindication of the Rights of Women
A second on the Decameron. The description of the collapse of society during the plague is simply one of the best things I have ever read.
Pope's The Rape of the Lock.
Daniel DeFoe, especially Moll Flanders and the Journal of the Plague Year
Moby Dick
Frederick Douglass Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
posted by Sara Anne at 9:11 AM on October 12, 2005

Another vote for Lattimore's Iliad.

Mine are all packed away, so I don't have specific translations to note, but check out the Bhagavad Gita and the Tao Te Ching.
posted by mkultra at 9:24 AM on October 12, 2005

I don't understand the admonition against Shakespeare. I see nothing in the question that would preclude it, and it's certainly among any count of "classic literature." An explanation might help weed out whatever you'd consider to be similar.

Anyway. You need to browse the Loeb Classical Library. I recommend Thomas Cleary's translations of The Art of War and The Book of Five Rings. Finish the military vein with Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: From Marathon to Waterloo, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, Gibbon's complete Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Volumes 1-3, Volumes 4-6), and Churchill's six-volume The Second World War.
posted by cribcage at 10:02 AM on October 12, 2005

Nth on the Tao Te Ching. I like the Feng-English translation, but I'm hardly an expert, having only read that and one other translation (and I don't even remember who the other translation was by, only that I hated it).

Les Miserables. Don't remember which translation I read, though.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:05 AM on October 12, 2005

Benjamin Jowett's translation of Plato's The Republic.

Respectfully disagree. Jowett is Victorian and of his time. Rouse is probably not your first choice either. Try Grube for literalism (though I find his lack of " " irritating). Or Robin Waterfield. (I'm not even going to get into the Allen Bloom debate.)

William Wordsworth's translation of Dante's Inferno.

Longfellow, surely? No matter. For Dante- Singleton and his commentary are more useful.

You need to browse the Loeb Classical Library

Browse is exactly right. Loebs vary widely in quality of translation. Older editions, however, are fun when dealing with poets' addressing Adult Themes, wherein translators either kept the orginal or put the good parts into an acceptably lubricious Italian or French. (No smut for you!)

Others can and will disagree on all of the above.
posted by IndigoJones at 10:17 AM on October 12, 2005

IndigoJones writes "(I'm not even going to get into the Allen Bloom debate.) "

Just to be clear, I would never recommend Bloom for an only reading of The Republic. But since the tree of democracy needs to be watered with the reminders of what an elitist fuck Plato was every couple of years, reading Bloom once around now seems like a decent option.
posted by OmieWise at 10:30 AM on October 12, 2005

the King James version of the bible is probably out.

How did I let this comment slip by? The King James Bible is part of the foundation of English language and literature, it must be in every serious library. Literal, no, but absolutely key for all that comes after. Tyndale as well, if you have the shelf space.

But to your question- for a sober modern bible translation that passeth not understanding, try the Oxford Annotated

(For more on the King James and Tyndale, Adam Nicolson and Brian Moynahan are very good)
posted by IndigoJones at 10:33 AM on October 12, 2005

(What Omiewise said.)
posted by IndigoJones at 10:35 AM on October 12, 2005

Response by poster: Ah. Yes, I intend to read the books, not put them on a shelf so I look like I'm hot shit.

Books that I am particularly interested in would be about belief systems, philosophy, and strategy.

Fictional books would probably have some of those elements, and less concentration on being complex or abstract in a literary sense (Examples of a few novels that I didn't like [maybe because we had to overanalyze them in classes]: The Heart of Darkness, The Stranger, Turn of the Screw, The Awakening).

On the other hand, I'm interested in culturally immersive fiction such as Things Fall Apart and The Good Earth.

Hope this provides some clarification.
posted by mhuckaba at 10:51 AM on October 12, 2005

Another endorsement for the Robert Fagles translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey, which are very lucid and incredibly engaging. Great read aloud, too.

And another vote for the King James, just for the incredible beauty of its language. But if you'd like an odd, remarkable, and extremely faithful version of the first five books of the Bible (a.k.a. the Torah), Everett Fox's The Five Books of Moses is fantastic--you have to get used to its rhythms, but he really captures its force and style beautifully.
posted by 88robots at 11:32 AM on October 12, 2005

Any member of western culture must read St. Augustine's Confessions if he would like to be well read.
posted by oddman at 12:11 PM on October 12, 2005

Tale of Genji
posted by nimsey lou at 12:45 PM on October 12, 2005

Books that I am particularly interested in would be about belief systems, philosophy, and strategy.

The twin roots of modern politics: Hobbes' Leviathan; Locke's Two Treatises of Government. I own and recommend the Cambridge editions.
posted by holgate at 1:01 PM on October 12, 2005

Yes, Hobbes and Locke! Can't believe I forgot about them.
posted by selfnoise at 1:06 PM on October 12, 2005

Here are a couple more items that will be happy on any thinker's bookshelf:

The Federalist Papers - Hamilton, Madison, Jay
Discourses on Livy - Machiavelli
Pensees - Pascal
Letters from a Stoic - Seneca
posted by selfnoise at 7:47 PM on October 12, 2005

As valuable to me as any piece of philosophy or history is Proust's elegiac "Remembrance of Things Past". I love it. And I particularly love the oft-maligned Moncrieff translation which, while reportedly not literally accurate, possesses a wonderful feel that other translations I've seen lack. It's just more aesthetically pleasing (to me).

I particularly recommend the Modern Library editions of approx. fifty years ago. They're compact and cheap and a joy to read. They can be found at most good used book stores, though you may have to spend some time collecting them. (I don't care for the contemporary Modern Library editions; they feel cheap.)
posted by jdroth at 9:38 AM on October 13, 2005

An excellent book for this that's been around for years -- continually revised -- is Good Reading: A Guide for Serious Readers. It has sections on subject matter and its listings are recommendations, not so much on dry and dusty you-must-read-this-to-know-this, but what remains enjoyable and relevant today.
posted by dhartung at 1:29 AM on October 15, 2005

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