Good translations of ancient classics
October 7, 2017 8:33 PM   Subscribe

A couple of years ago a professor introduced me to incredible translations of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid. Even though I had always found legends, epics, and mythology boring, I was completely hooked by them. Now, I'm wanting more- but instead of sticking to the Greco-Roman classics, I want to expand to the equivalent in other cultures. But I'm not sure what they are, or where to find good translations for them.

To be more specific, I want to read foundational classics that are a mix of history and legend, such as The Romance of the Three Kingdoms or Beowulf or the Arthurian legends. I especially want to read works that aren't European. I'm not picky about the form- epic poetry, novels, throw it all at me.

When I say "foundational" I mean that if I were born in a specific era in a specific culture that work would have been as core to my experience of that culture as, say, the Bible or even Hamlet is right now as an American- where even if you grow up an atheist or don't like literature it's impossible to not be aware of either because they've so deeply infiltrated our cultural consciousness.

That being said, the work absolutely needs to have a historical component to it- no pure fiction, unless the culture at the time believed it to be historical.

When it comes to translation, I definitely lean more towards the "capture the essence instead of the literal meaning" school of thought, well, within reason, please don't recommend anything like this. I liked Stanley Lombardo's translations (the ones assigned by my professor) because they felt natural to read to my modern ear but still captured the beauty and cadence of the metaphors and language used in the original. By contrast, David Hawkes' translation of the Story of the Stone just felt... mechanical. Maybe it's mechanical even in the original, but I'd like to give it a second shot.

One last snowflake- I'm not the biggest fan of Aesop's fables, the Metamorphoses, or basically any set of short, relatively disconnected stories. I know they're foundational and all that, but I prefer longer, cohesive works.

Thanks so much!
posted by perplexion to Media & Arts (29 answers total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
You might enjoy Egil's Saga.
posted by metaseeker at 8:37 PM on October 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

Yes, the Icelandic sagas are definitely worth a look. This is a good collection I can recommend from experience.
posted by Alensin at 9:38 PM on October 7, 2017 [4 favorites]

I've read and enjoyed the unabridged Davis translation of the Shahnameh, which was originally intended to be quasi-historical and which remains a cultural touchstone in Iran. I definitely wouldn't recommend the much older verse translation I once encountered, but I do think this abridged translation has something to offer: it's easily one of the most amazing illustrated books I can think of. It's not a children's book. Here's a side-by-side comparison of a paragraph from one famous incident:
(Davis): "When those in the fortress realized that their leader had been captured, both men and women wailed aloud with grief, crying out, 'Hejir is taken from us.' But one of those within the fortress was a woman, daughter of the warrior Gazhdaham, named Gordafarid. When she learned that their leader had allowed himself to be taken, she found his behavior so shameful that her rosy cheeks became as black as pitch with rage. With not a moment's delay she dressed herself in a knight's armor, gathered her hair beneath a Rumi helmet, and rode out from the fortress, a lion eager for battle. She roared at the enemy's ranks, 'Where are your heroes, your warriors, your tried and tested chieftains?'"
(Sadri): "Those who watched from the ramparts of the White Fortress were appalled by the quick and rather shameful course of the duel. But none was more dismayed by the scandal of Hojir's easy defeat and captivity than Gordafarid, the daughter of the lord of the fortress, Gazhdaham. She was a formidable equestrian and worthy warrior in her own right. Enraged by the insult meted out to Hojir, she hastily donned a coat of chain mail, hid her long, flowing hair under a helmet, and rode out of the castle like a prowling lioness. When she reached the ranks of the enemy, Gordafarid called on the warriors of Turan to come forth and defend their honor."
So in cases like this where both translations cover the same episode, I think the Davis translation feels a little more fluid and engaging, but the other translation is fine and you get a fantastic image to go with it, as you can see at the website for it. I think the ideal might be to have them side by side.
posted by Wobbuffet at 9:48 PM on October 7, 2017 [5 favorites]

"The Folio Society" has had exactly this as a notable stock for some time and I have read a bunch of what you are looking for solely because I found it in a "Folio Society" edition; I enjoy their taste so much that I will buy anything they have printed and read it, confident that I am going to have a good time with a well-selected book, and that that book, if translated or illustrated, will have first-rate translations and illustrations. I'd dig through their site and 2nd-hand book sites where you can search by publisher, not because you necessarily need an expensive copy in a slipcover, but because the selections and translations will all be reliable. You can't, I assume, last long doing reprints of often public domain works and selling them at big prices unless there is a substantial value add, and, to me, that is a big part of it, that I don't have to question the quality of the choices made before getting stuck in to something that might not be the shortest of reads.

I have no specific titles to suggest because I am wilting under duvets with a bad flu and the books I am thinking of -- I know there are a couple of Icelandic volumes, Indian, and ? -- my brain is pudding -- are two flights of stairs away, and my internet connection is awful and I can't Google effectively -- apologies! They also do a first-rate job with fairy tales, which is not what you are asking for, but a thing I think you might enjoy given what you already like.
posted by kmennie at 9:50 PM on October 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

Good, how?

There are popular translations and/or reworkings that scholars absolutely despise.

For instance, An Iliad.

While well reviewed, the verdict is still out on Gaiman's Norse Mythology.

(no, I don't know why it's appearing in Catalan, but I hope Amazon got hacked)

Similarly, other 'non-traditional' translations.
posted by snuffleupagus at 10:03 PM on October 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

You might be interested in the Murty Classical Library of India, which is modeled on the Loeb Classical Library. The works that they've translated so far include a mix of poetry, historical texts, and epics, and they've chosen ones that are central to the literary traditions of a range of Indian vernacular languages and which haven't been translated frequently elsewhere.

For longer, cohesive works that are foundational in the way that you describe, you might try the Epic of Ram (Ramayana), translated by Philip Lutgendorf, or the History of Akbar (Akbarnama), translated by Wheeler Thackston. (I'd also recommend Wheeler Thackston's translations of the Jahangirnama and the Baburnama, if you can get your hands on the illustrated versions of them.)
posted by Anita Bath at 11:22 PM on October 7, 2017 [4 favorites]

You ought to read Royall Tyler's translation of the Tale of the Heike.
posted by No-sword at 1:54 AM on October 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Epic of Gilgamesh is really interesting and you could fall down a fun rabbit hole learning more about connections between the Epic and the Hebrew Bible. There's debate over whether Gilgamesh was a real king- his name does appear in the king's list but the list also says he lived for 126 years *shrug*. Here's a website with some recommended translations. I think you should consider getting one of the tighter translations with notes and the more poetic Mitchell version so you can compare the two.
posted by Mouse Army at 4:57 AM on October 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

The Popol Wuj (a.k.a. Popol Vuh) is the closest thing we've got to a pre-Christianization New World epic.

It's more like the Old Testament than it is like the Iliad, if that makes sense — it starts at the creation of the world, and includes songs of praise, genealogy, and the history of the K'ichee' nation as well as legendary feats of heroism — but I bet you'll still like it. There are some damn good stories in there, and the poetry is gorgeous. (Another way that it's more like the Old Testament than like the Iliad is that the poetic form was governed by repetition and parallelism, not by syllable count or meter, so translations have an easier time keeping the structure and shape of it intact.)

I like Dennis Tedlock's translation, both for accuracy and for beauty.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:28 AM on October 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

C Rajagopalachari's Mahabharata. It is abridged.
posted by redlines at 6:35 AM on October 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

I loved Seamus Heaney's Beowulf translation.
posted by angiep at 7:17 AM on October 8, 2017 [6 favorites]

I've struggled through Beowulf in Old English, and no translation really does it justice. For poetry, as angiep suggests, Seamus Heaney's translation is a decent version. I would probably read Heaney along side of another translation though, probably Frederick Rebsamen's and maybe also Michael Swanton's.

I would also add that you can find video online of people reading passages from Beowulf in the original Old English, which are worth checking out. Also Benjamin Bagby tries to perform it in Old English the way a bard would have done, with harp accompaniment. You can see a video of him doing a bit here on his site.
posted by gudrun at 7:39 AM on October 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

Royall Tyler's translation of Genji -- though you may want to read Ivan Morris' The World of the Shining Prince beforehand. Also either Morris' or Meredith McKinney's translation of Sei Shonagon's The Pillow Book -- maybe read those side by side because translating Heian Japanese is really fraught.

Christopher Logue's reworking of The Iliad is not really a translation but it's so amazing I think everyone should read it anyway. It's in War Music, All Day Permanent Red, Cold Calls -- you may have to hunt around to find the right volumes.

For the Icelandic Sagas Hermann Palsson's translations are generally pretty good.
posted by Hypatia at 10:30 AM on October 8, 2017 [3 favorites]

I want to expand to the equivalent in other cultures. But I'm not sure what they are

Just adding a few possibilities based on your examples, I'd speculate these texts not mentioned so far in this thread could meet your criteria, though some may be not significant enough or not historical enough: Argonautica, Digenes Akritas, Epic of King Gesar, Epic of Sundiata, Hamzanama, Nibelungenlied, Orlando Furioso, Pharsalia, Punica, Táin Bó Cúailnge, The Lusiads, The Song of Roland, The Wallace, Waltharius, and Water Margin. I expect the Book of Dede Korkut, Mabinogion, and Tales of the Ten Princes are too fragmented. For Water Margin, I think I slightly prefer Shapiro [PDF].
posted by Wobbuffet at 10:41 AM on October 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

Lombardo is pretty far down the not-very-accurate-at-all school of translation, so if you were a fan of his Homer I can't imagine you will enjoy some of the suggestions people have been naming.

E.g. instead of Lutgendorf's translation of the Ramcaritmanas (I love Lutgendorf but it's tough going) I'd recommend R. K. Narayan's 'shortened modern prose version' of the Rama story, The Ramayana.
posted by dd42 at 10:50 AM on October 8, 2017 [3 favorites]

I wouldn't have mentioned it before other folks weighed in, but regarding easier versions of the Ramayana, my experience was that simply reading the version that leads into each chapter in Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God (which you can check out of the Open Library for free) was actually fine. At least, it read quickly, it lined up OK with the extremely long TV version I watched around the same time, and it also presented a significant variant ending that's worth knowing about. The problems with Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God aren't in its brief re-telling of the epic but with the clichés in the main body of the text, the topic of which is the Ramayana as "literature it's impossible to not be aware of" in India. So in principle it checks two of your boxes pretty well.
posted by Wobbuffet at 11:38 AM on October 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

My understanding is that Monkey trans. by Waley is the most-read English edition of Journey to the West, and is one of China's Four Great Classical Novels -- along with Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

If the Mahabharata is a bit much to approach, there are standalone editions of the Bhagavad Gita. (I read Easwaran's.)

I'm not sure about translations of the other two, Outlaws of the Marsh or Dream of the Red Chamber. My understanding is that all four are historically based and in some way about the history or politics of the periods they portray.

The Slavic tradition includes The Tale of Igor's Campaign. If memory serves, the Russian epics are more myth-cycles of shorter tales about individual heroes, not sure if that qualifies. If it does, there are probably more like that. The Hawaiian cycle comes immediately to mind.

Following the Epic of Gesar in a linguistic direction, the Finns have the Kalevala. Here's a short article that gives an overview of the Hungarian historical epics. And Turkish literature has had a lot of important pre-Ottoman epic and later historical novels well.

I don't know how much a day to day cultural touchstone any of these are, though.

Not directly on topic, but once you've read Beowulf, it's fun to read Grendel, by John Gardner. Similarly, there's The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, for the Homeric works.
posted by snuffleupagus at 3:17 PM on October 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

OK, just found this wikipedia list, which seems to speak to the desired qualities, although doesn't include later-written literaure:

List of Word Folk Epics
World folk-epics are those epics which are not just literary masterpieces but also an integral part of the weltanschauung of a people. They were originally oral literatures, which were later written down by either single author or several writers.

I'd like to thank you for the question, btw. Lots of these look like incredible fun.
posted by snuffleupagus at 3:19 PM on October 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

The only one I've personally enjoyed and not seen mentioned yet is Gods and Fighting Men (a selection of Irish epic cycles). You've got a fantastic list of reading material here, OP!
posted by givennamesurname at 3:47 PM on October 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

I really enjoyed Stephen Mitchell's translation of Gilgamesh.
posted by ALeaflikeStructure at 3:47 PM on October 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Whoa, I've got my reading list sorted for at least the next few months it seems- and I love how many different countries/regions are represented here. But please do keep the suggestions coming!
posted by perplexion at 5:32 PM on October 8, 2017

Have to recommend Edward Seidensticker's translation of the Tale of Genji along with Royall Tyler's as mentioned above (caveat that these are not mythical/legendary, more like the super-popular contemporary romance novel of their day; I guess the Japanese equivalent would be something like the Kojiki, but I am not familiar with what good translations there are. The Tale of Genji is, however, definitely the everybody-knows-about-it literary classic of Japan now).
(Bonus, though probably not what you are looking for: if you do happen to read and enjoy the Seidensticker translation, you can also read his diary written during the translation process, which is INTENSELY entertaining.)
posted by huimangm at 8:07 PM on October 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

For Journey to the West, I think the go-to version is now Anthony C. Yu's complete translation.

I enjoyed Clement Egerton's translation of Golden Lotus (Jin Ping Mei). Get the 2011 version (which restores omitted bits, and uses pinyin names).

I liked Ramesh Manon's retelling of the Ramayana. He's also done the Mahabharata, but I haven't finished those. (Even his retelling is LOTR-sized, and the original is about ten times longer.)

Dandin's Tales of the Ten Princes (my translation was by A.N.D. Haksar) and Somadeva's Tales from the Kathasaritsagara [The Ocean of Story] (tr. Arshia Sattar) are not epics, but that's a selling point... these are delightfully roguish stories that are a counterpart to the far more pious and high-minded epics.
posted by zompist at 11:30 PM on October 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Inferno of Dante, verse translation by poet laureate Robert Pinsky.
posted by progosk at 7:35 AM on October 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

I would take issue with Lombardo's translations of Homer being called not-very-accurate-at-all: in many ways he strips the translation back to the actual words written, in a way that more formal translations struggle to do. I studied Greek for years and Lombardo was the first translator I came across who was able to capture the punchiness and rawness of Homer, often just by going back to the words themselves rather than trying to compose stately and formal English.

I have been informed by someone who Knows About These Things that his translation of the Tao Te Ching is also extremely good.
posted by Acheman at 8:12 AM on October 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

The Táin Bó Cúailnge ("Cattle Raid of Cooley") is an Irish classic from the Ulster Cycle about the teenage hero Cú Chulainn defending Ulster in the north against Queen Maeve from the south. She attacks when the Men of Ulster are feeling the pseudo menstrual pains they're cursed with for being dicks to a fairy, and they're all laid low with cramps. Only Cú Chulain, who is still a boy, is left to defend Ulster.

While maybe not a "translation" strictly, this webcomic will definitely give you a feel for the culture of pre-Christian Ireland.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:26 AM on October 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

I just want to say I really appreciate the links people have provided. Definitely favoriting this.

And thinking about those vanished civilizations, most of them lost except for their fragmentory writings, and thinking that is the fate of all civilizations. Which is why I have to offer this:
The Rabbit Saga, by the possibly apocryphal Franzen Upearthenwalltoholdbackwater. The Agnihotri translation truly brings out the poetic nature of this classic of the ancient əmerəkəns.
posted by happyroach at 1:31 AM on October 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Rabbit Saga, by the possibly apocryphal Franzen Upearthenwalltoholdbackwater.

There is also the Ür-Vyng myth cycle on əmerəkən adolescence, aging and the changes in public and domestic society during times of great upheaval.

Scholars remain divided on the lasting importance of the "Eternal Mirth/Adoptive Barriercloth" cryptotext, to the point its single authorship is disputed, for want of subsequent major works.
posted by snuffleupagus at 6:11 AM on October 16, 2017

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