Finding a great translation of a foreign book
August 24, 2014 7:28 PM   Subscribe

When there are a lot of editions of a foreign book available, how do you go about finding and choosing a good translation?

i realize this can be super-subjective and that there are lots of ways a translation can be "good", but I'm interested in how you like to do it.

It seems daunting, for instance, to go the reviews for all of the editions I can find on amazon, especially when the reviews rarely make comparisons to other editions, if they discuss the translation quality at all (and even then it's usually compared just to one other one).
posted by spbmp to Media & Arts (5 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I usually google for reviews by experts, using Google Scholar--though I guess that might not work for fiction unless it's the kind that draws academic attention.
posted by wintersweet at 9:29 PM on August 24, 2014

The name of the translator should be on the cover or one of the first pages of the book. Most of those people are google-able. With the google results, you can either read a sample of their writing or see commentary on their work or comparisons with others (using the translator names) or see their qualifications. This is not necessarily a book-by-book solution, but can give you an overall feel, especially if the translator is responsible for a number of books by the same author.
posted by whatzit at 1:23 AM on August 25, 2014

Generally, the more recent the translation, the more palatable the language. For example, a lot of Russian works were translated by Constance Garnet, who liked to write phrases like, 'Raskalnikov ejaculated" to describe him blurting something out, verbally. Her translations are common because they are old and thus free.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:24 AM on August 25, 2014

My advice is always to just read a few pages of all the translations you can find and choose the one that you like best, that makes you want to keep reading. Don't bother about reviews (just because a reviewer likes it doesn't mean you will) or errors (all translations have errors, and they pretty much balance out except for egregiously terrible translations, which you're generally not going to run into these days). Lots of people love Pevear/Volokhonsky; I can't stand 'em myself, but if that's what you like, by all means read 'em. Conversely, Constance Garnett gets a lot of lazy criticism, often by people who never read her, but she is in fact a fine translator; her language can sometimes seem a bit archaic, but after all that's true of the works she was translating as well. If you try her and like her, read some more of her; if you try her and are put off, try somebody else. It's that simple!
posted by languagehat at 7:55 AM on August 25, 2014

Response by poster: Interestingly, the book that sparked my question is The Kingdom of God Is Within You by Tolstoy — which was one of the first to be translated by Constance Garnet, according to this New Yorker article.

Hmm, it sounds like what I was hoping for may not exist — some sort of well-populated site where people write comparisons of the major available translations of a work, describing the character of each. I.e., where someone did what languagehat (yay!) suggested and recorded it for us to share.

The last time I had this problem was when I wanted to read the Bhagavad Gita, which has many translations that I found differed a lot. I formed some opinions eventually, and the process involved buying several, but I never really found a source of information like this so I could learn a little at the get-go from someone who knew a lot more than me.
posted by spbmp at 4:11 PM on August 25, 2014

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