Great foreign books?
May 2, 2006 8:16 PM   Subscribe

How can I truly judge the quality of a book originally written in a foreign language?

I'm fishing for opinions, I guess, and not really a factual answer. I've been reading some foreign writers recently--Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum and Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Beach. Is it accurate for me to say "Eco (or Murakami) is one of the best writers alive!" when I haven't read the books in the original Italian or Japanese? I'm not bilingual in any language, so I wonder if any bilingual Mefiers have ever read the same book in two languages. Is there a big difference? With regard to idioms and expressions that only work in one language, doesn't this change once that word or phrase or expression is changed to another language? And in turn can this change the "artistic merit" of a work? I guess it depends writer to writer and translator to translator. Any thoughts on this?:
posted by zardoz to Media & Arts (31 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
FWIW: Gabriel Garcia Marquez says he likes 100 Años de Soledad better in English.
posted by signal at 8:32 PM on May 2, 2006

I've never seen a translation that was better than the original. Such a thing isn't impossible, but it's not very likely; a really fantastic writer is more likely to be writing original works than translating, and a bad novel isn't likely to be translated. If you really love a translation, yes, it's accurate to say that you love the original work.

On the other hand, many translations are bad to awful, so I would be hesitant to criticise a foreign book based on a translation; translations are much more likely to make literature worse, rather than better.

It really depends on a lot of things.
-How culturally specific is the original, in both content and style? Murakami reads almost the same in Japanese and in English. The Tale of Genji is so culturally specific that it requires the translators to do some gymnastics, and the Seidenstecker, Waley, and Tyler translations handle those issues very, differently.

-How skilled is the translator?

-How free is the translator? A very skilled translator can feel compelled to stick very closely to the original text, or can shamelessly twist around puns and idioms to read more smoothly in the translated language. In (rare) cases, what you're getting is a very good book that doesn't have as close a relationship as one might like to the original.

Yes, idioms and expressions do get changed. Sometimes it's a big difference. Sometimes the book depends very, very heavily on specific tricks of style and language, but those books don't get translated that often.

If you care to learn more about the significance of different translations without learning another language, you could compare different English translations of the same book; it can be quite instructive.
posted by Jeanne at 8:43 PM on May 2, 2006

To add to signal's comment, one of my favorite books is by Miguel Angel Asturias - an unknown Nobel prize winner. From an article on him:

No one was more aware of his undeserved obscurity than Asturias himself, and he did not take the neglect with good grace. When One Hundred Years of Solitude was released to worldwide acclaim, Asturias bitterly accused García Márquez of having stolen the plot of One Hundred Years of Solitude from Balzac's Le Père Goriot. It incensed Asturias that García Márquez's novels had been translated beautifully by Gregory Rabassa--so beautifully that García Márquez paid Rabassa the ultimate compliment by crediting him with "improving" on the original.

By contrast, Rabassa's translation of Asturias' Mulata, a dense Faustian exercise laced with Mayan myth, was a confessed failure, and Rabassa rued the day he was persuaded to translate Asturias' overwrought United Fruit Trilogy, made up of three polemical, rabidly anti-American novels

posted by vacapinta at 8:44 PM on May 2, 2006

My girlfriend is a big fan of Murakami. She speaks a little Japanese, has been there a few times.

To answer your question, if you consider Murakami-san to be 'one of the best writers alive' after reading a novel translated from Japanese to English, surely you don't need that validated. If anything, the translation has in some way impaired the novel. And if you're considering the impaired version brilliant, surely the original version is really, really brilliant?
posted by toby\flat2 at 8:48 PM on May 2, 2006

Ah sorry. The "favorite" book i was referring to is Men of Maize.
posted by vacapinta at 8:53 PM on May 2, 2006

The extreme usage of vocabulary in the English version of Foucault's Pendulum makes it hard for me to conceive of it being originally written in another language. What a translation job that must have been!
posted by Mr. Gunn at 8:54 PM on May 2, 2006

After re-reading the question I have more to add.

Watching old movies with my gf is an interesting experience... she's seen these movies dubbed in French (her native language) as a kid, and watching them in England, in English, for the first time is often amusing. Jokes and wordplay does not get translated unless it directly translates. In many cases something totally unrelated will be inserted instead.

Every time she'll say how the English version is better than the French version. But that doesn't diminish the French version - she still found them great. It's just that the English version was better.

I think the same applies to you. The translation may make the novel not as great as it was originally, but if it's loved then that's irrelevant. The original is even better than what you've read and considered great.

(I know a ton of people that do translation work for videogames, done it for a few years and know lots of specific game terms. Not one of them really cares about what they do -- it's all for the cash. I'd imagine 99% of people who translate novels feel the same, it's only the big authors (of which Murakami is one) that get special attention. Funniest translation: 'fireball' to 'bowl of fire')
posted by toby\flat2 at 9:16 PM on May 2, 2006

An interesting example is Samuel Beckett, who could be described as the English translator of his own works. Beckett switched to writing in French, he said, 'to impoverish myself.' Tens of thousands of English and French literature students write essays on Beckett every year, and it's rare that they take more than a passing glance at the corresponding texts. It also punctures some of the 'oh, did you read it in the original?' snobbishness that can be associated with translation.

I think it's fair to say that it usually takes a good source text to make a good translation, and that a very good text can survive a bad translation. (The Bible's done pretty well in that regard.) But honestly, don't fuss over it. You can get a sense of whether you're responding to Eco or William Weaver by reading the other author's Weaver has translated.
posted by holgate at 9:21 PM on May 2, 2006

Sometime literary translator here; nobody just does it for the cash and saves their best for the big books. It isn't hack work, it's an extreme privilege; and for a certain class of person (me!) it is absolutely the best work there is.

a really fantastic writer is more likely to be writing original works than translating

Two entirely different skills. Two different mentalities, two different worlds.
posted by Wolof at 9:31 PM on May 2, 2006

Such a thing isn't impossible, but it's not very likely; a really fantastic writer is more likely to be writing original works than translating, and a bad novel isn't likely to be translated.

I have to take exception to this; it seems eminently reasonable to me that one could possess an aptitude for, and facility with, language X, without possessing the ability to create a memorable character, plot, theme, mood, or idea. Many excellent stylists are poor novelists, and many poor novelists are excellent stylists.

I am, alas, monolingual; however, my uninformed inclination is to think that certain writers — Fitzgerald, say, who was certainly not a bad stylist but who at the same time was not particularly clever, subtle, or adventurous in his use of language — would hold up well in translation, where as others — Nabokov comes to mind — would fare poorly. On the other hand, one might not expect Borges to translate well, and yet his writing seems very well done in English translation; perhaps it's so brilliant in the original that it works even in diminished form?
posted by IshmaelGraves at 10:30 PM on May 2, 2006

Yukio Mishima talks about Kanji, translation, mistakes, and lost double meanings.

For Murakami the use of translator becomes really apparent in The Elephant Vanishes. I don't remember exactly, but I remember that two translators are used for this book of short stories and one translator (I think it was Rubin?) is quite good, and the other is given to hackneyed American phrases.
posted by birdie birdington at 11:26 PM on May 2, 2006

Anything translated by William Weaver is going to be good. He's a great translator, and I can't imagine he'd waste his time on dreck.
posted by flabdablet at 11:46 PM on May 2, 2006

I wonder if any bilingual Mefiers have ever read the same book in two languages. Is there a big difference?

Yes, which is not to say anything about the quality of eather version.
posted by semmi at 11:59 PM on May 2, 2006

Obviously, either...
posted by semmi at 12:00 AM on May 3, 2006

This is apocryphal, but according to a lit prof of mine, when Eco wants to understand his own work he reads it in English.

On a more practical note, I managed to take a class that discussed The Brothers Karamazov while reading a different translation than everyone else (the bookstore ran out of Garnett but had Pevear/Volokhonsky, and I wasn't very hip to Project Gutenberg yet). At no time did I feel we were discussing different works, in even the slightest degree.

OTOH, I've been enjoying a parallel-text collection of poems by Alexander Shurbanov, Bulgarian poet laureate. (The translations are not his own, but he uses them at readings.) There are a few points where I disagree sharply with the translator's choices—this despite the fact that I don't really know Bulgarian. (I know Ukrainian and Russian, and can see how the Bulgarian works very clearly once the English has given me the gist.) Translated, Shurbanov is an interesting thinker; in the original, he is also a master of directing attention and shading emphasis through choices of phrasing. To me, it's this latter craftsmanship that justifies his reputation; but it hardly comes across in the translation at all.

(There's a fascinating irony in play here: Without the translation, the original is nearly opaque to me, but with it, it becomes absolutely transparent—so much so that I immediately turn around and critique the translation. Anyone recall Hofstadter's 'I Cannot Be Played on Record Player X'? I'm sure Eco would have something to say about this too. Dunno what.)
posted by eritain at 12:15 AM on May 3, 2006

(I know a ton of people that do translation work for videogames, done it for a few years and know lots of specific game terms. Not one of them really cares about what they do -- it's all for the cash. I'd imagine 99% of people who translate novels feel the same, it's only the big authors (of which Murakami is one) that get special attention. Funniest translation: 'fireball' to 'bowl of fire')

Sigh.... yes there are some dreadful translators out there. But I don't think you're right to extend your example to literary translators - I don't know many, but it's so hard to make a living at translating books into English (because English-language publishers commission so few translations) that those who do it (Wolof!) tend to be utterly passionate and committed to it. There is much more translation work around in the commercial world, hence the indifference that you have (sadly) come across.
posted by altolinguistic at 1:28 AM on May 3, 2006

I'm not bilingual, so I guess that technically disqualifies me, but I can give you some monolingual suggestions that could help you feel more qualified to assess a work you've only read once removed.

Ideally, you should learn the language of whatever works you wish to read. Unfortunately, learning a language can be cumbersome and time-consuming for a guy or gal on the march. What I prefer doing instead is researching a little bit about the author and the original work, the author's writing style, and the translator's writing style and approach.

A personal example (which I have included because I'm bored; self-indulgence alert). I recently wanted to read some French poetry by Villon. I am ill-equipped to read modern French, let alone grasp any linguistic beauty particular to medieval French. According to poet Norman Cameron, medieval French corresponds to 17th century English in maturity and richness. An excerpt from his translation of one of my favorite Villon poems, the Ballade of Fat Margot, reads as such:

"Then peace is made and she lets flee a fart,
Like an envenom'd beetle all a-bloat,
And lays her hand upon my privy part.
'Go, go!' she cries, and smites my tender spot."

Compare this with Victorian poet A.C. Swinburne's translation of the same passage:

"When all's up she drops me a windy word,
Bloat like a beetle puffed and poisonous:
Grins, thumps my pate, and calls me dickey-bird,
And cuffs me with a fist that's ponderous."

I like both of these translations, but I can't help but think that neither captures, in modern parlance, the manner of speech and description that befits the sordid world of Villon. Villon was a perpetual vagabond whose first recorded brush with the law was when he killed a priest in a brawl. His poetry reflects a side of Paris life that could charitably be called colorful. I don't speak French, but I don't think "drops a windy word" is what Villon had in mind.

My favorite translation, by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Louis Simpson, eschews archaic speech in favor of a more candid approach, retaining the frankness that Villon's works would have had on people at the time:

"Then we make peace, and she, inflated
More than a poisonous dung beetle,
Farts. She puts a fist to my forehead.
'Gogo,' she says."

I realize this has gone on a bit long. But realistically, unless you give up on reading foreign writing altogether, knowing that yes, you can lose a lot in the translation -- as posts have already made clear -- isn't the issue to worry about when deciding literary merit as much as is, what practical steps can be taken to minimize your language handicap? Background info and comparison shopping are your best bets for making informed judgments about artisitc merit as a bicurious monolinguist.
posted by freetshirt at 1:30 AM on May 3, 2006

There's some interesting reads on the topic from the British Council web site on literary translation - this in particular seems to be rather relevant to your question: Should the translator attempt to "improve" on the original?.

Umberto Eco has said that William Weaver’s English translations of his works are better than the original Italian. The same has been said of Nicholas de Lange’s translations of Amos Oz. Rather than being pleased at the compliment, Nicholas’s response was that the implication is that he hasn’t done his job as translator properly. He believes that the translator should not attempt to 'edit' the author, but should remain scrupulously faithful to the original – warts and all ... Nicholas stresses the importance of not smoothing over the bumps which publishers are all too keen to do in the interests of commercial viability. A cautionary tale is the work of Dostoievsky – new translations are now appearing in English and French that show how his earlier translators 'improved' his somewhat frenetic prose style to make him sound a good deal more 'literary'.
posted by funambulist at 3:18 AM on May 3, 2006

I've read both the translated Dutch version (my first language) and the original English version of the Lord of the Rings and of the Discworld series by Pratchet. In both cases, English > translation. Tolkien's specific style of English is basically gone in the Dutch translation, and what's more annoying, nearly every name related to the Hobbits was changed (to my knowledge, this actually caused some trouble between Tolkien and the translator).

The translations of Discworld were still very funny, but the style of Dutch was very cramped and unnatural, to the point that it actually became difficult to read. I found the original was much easier to read.

I've read Dune only in the Dutch version, but I must admit I really quite liked it (well, up until book 5, but that's because of the story, not of the translation).

Nowadays, I tend to read the original English books. In fact, this seems to be a trend in the Netherlands, as some translations are quite hard to get (the Dutch version of A Song of Ice and Fire seems to be harder to find than the UK edition). Although on the other hand, when I do sometimes pick up a book in my first language, I realize it actually reads much faster, and I pick up more small details. Furthermore, reading English takes a bit more concentration, and is impossible to do late at night.
posted by Harry at 3:25 AM on May 3, 2006

if any bilingual Mefiers have ever read the same book in two languages. Is there a big difference?

Depends on the book and the translator. I remember reading Tim Parks' Italiani in Italian. I then found English excerpts of the book on his website - totally different tone between the two. I actually preferred the Italian version.

Excerpts of Dante I haven't found the difference in tone, but I read the English version back in high school, so that might just be my memory. definitely don't remember who the translator was.

Since the Parks episode, though, I've tried to read the authors in the original version first. On that theme, Foucault's Pendulum is a right bitch in Italian - I think I've struggled through maybe 2 chapters so far. Il Nome della Rosa I found slightly easier going and have almost finished. I haven't read any Eco in English as of yet.

I ditto what Harry says above, though - reading in 'my second language' is much more fatiguing. I will end up reading all night if the book is in English and riveting, but if it's in Italian I always conk out, no matter how fascinating the plot. English books I can read in a day; Italian books will take me months because I keep falling asleep mid chapter.

With regard to idioms and expressions that only work in one language, doesn't this change once that word or phrase or expression is changed to another language?

Yes and no. There's few [Italian/English] idioms & expressions that do not have an equivalent in [English/Italian]. That said, connotations certainly differ, but I find that happening more often with just single words than with idioms or expressions.
posted by romakimmy at 4:49 AM on May 3, 2006

a very good text can survive a bad translation. (The Bible's done pretty well in that regard.)

Well.... New Testament Greek can be pretty poor. King James translation is poetry. Modern translations are worse than the Greek.

How about this? Consider it different medium sort of kind of. Like books to movies. Crap books can make first rate movies, good books on screen can make you cringe. That is to say, some aspects of a work can, in skilled hands, be made to work, some cannot.

Getting back to pure writing, plenty of writers have better reps outside their own language than they do at home. I've heard that Turgenev is widely dislike in Russia (no quibbles please, I only heard that- my Russian stops just a little after "How Are You?"). And I think it was concerning Chechov that Tolstoy said was "worse even than Shakespeare". (Trivia note, speaking of Russians and Shakespeare, Paternak translated Hamlet into Russian. Always wondered how he managed to be or not to be)

Nabokov did Alice in Wonderland- talk about a tough assignment! But then Nabokov, like Beckett, also translated his own work, so there you go.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:29 AM on May 3, 2006

How can I truly judge the quality of a book originally written in a foreign language?

You can't. But the same goes for books written before you were born. The past is a foreign country as well, were people did things differently. In the end the only one to judge the quality of what you're reading is you.

However, more on topic. I was raised bilingually, and am the active user of four languages nowadays. And if I judge the English translations of books I happen to know in other languages, a lot strike me as being poorer in language but clearer in meaning.

A friend, who happens to be an official translator for the EU, often refers to the English translators of literature as people 'doing a job for Reader's Digest'. I wouldn;t go so far, but see her point.

Part of this has to do with English being such a dominant language, so translation is not a developed art form is it is in smaller languages, but part of this has to do with the way English works as a language as well.

If you take Strunk & White as your guide for the correct use of the English language, you'd encounter lots of no nos that happen to be totally correct in other tongues, and may even be the preferred way of puttng things. Take the way English treats passive forms oppose to the active use of verbs.

And that's only one of many differences.
posted by ijsbrand at 6:11 AM on May 3, 2006

I second ludwig_van's recommendation. That essay changed the way I think about a lot. (Admittedly, that was in college, when it's easy to be changed.)
posted by dame at 6:15 AM on May 3, 2006

There are definitely lots of shades of meaning that can be lost on translation into English, compromising the nuances of the book but not the meaning of a given passage. There are a couple books that I've read both in English and in French where I've felt this to be the case.

For example, you lose the distinction between "tu" (informal) and "vous" (formal/polite) as pronouns. I remember this being important at the beginning of Camus' Etranger, which I thought was a lot better and funnier in French, where Mersault is sulking about the funeral director's addressing him as "tu".

There's also the problem of French being gendered where English isn't. An example off the top of my head where this is problematic in translation is Arthur Rimbaud's Vierge folle in Une saison en enfer. In the French, you can tell that he's writing from a female persona because the adjectives the narrator uses to describe herself are in the feminine form. But most translations I've read of Une saison en enfer don't indicate this in any way, making it seem as though Rimbaud's writing as himself.

Hope those were useful examples. Like the others here, I certainly wouldn't go so far as to say you can't appreciate a book that you've read only in translation, but I usually feel like I'm really missing out when I can't read something in its original language.
posted by ITheCosmos at 6:38 AM on May 3, 2006

It's quite hard if there is only one translation. I think it gets a bit easier when there are multiple translations and you can compare them, the translators introductions, the implied and explicit criticisms of the work that came before. Translation is as timebound as it is language bound, as ijsbrand alludes to, and in order to see this you should sit down with several different version of The Illiad to get a sense of what was considered important and lyrical in different (English) periods.

You might also look to see if you can get your hands on a copy of Rending the Veil, which is a book of 'translations' of Rumi which presents a word by word literal translation alongside a more nuanced real translation. The interplay between the two versions is quite interesting, and it's abundantly clear that literal does not mean good in the realm of translation. William Gass does something similar to great effect, if you can read through his sometimes overwritten prose, in Reading Rilke, which you can search inside.
posted by OmieWise at 6:39 AM on May 3, 2006

This is an excellent question with no good answer. The ideal solution, obviously, is to learn the original language so you don't have to depend on translations, but in the real world that's not much of a help. I think you should be very cautious when judging an author from a translation; aside from the general "translator—traitor" thing, translators vary widely in ability and honesty. If a (prose) writer is truly great, it will almost certainly come through in translation, but how much comes through depends on how dependent the writer is on prose style. A Flaubert or Nabokov, who polished each sentence until it gleamed, is not going to translate as well as a Dickens or a Tolstoy, whose prose is basically in the service of plot and character. There's a fascinating exploration of some of these issues in this article by Wendy Lesser, who (among other things) compares two translations of Haruki Murakami. And here's an interesting quote from Coetzee; a snippet:
For the translator, however, Svevo's Italian raises a substantial question of principle. Should its defects, which run the gamut from wrong prepositions to archaic or bookish turns of phrase to a general laboredness of style, be reproduced or silently improved? Or, to put the question in converse form, how, without writing a deliberately clotted prose, does the translator get across what Montale called the sclerosis of Svevo's world, seeping up from his very language?
Here's a discussion that focuses on the problems of translating Sophocles' Antigone:
From the first line, the translator confronts the abyss separating Sophocles' Greek from English. Our translation, "O common one of the same womb, dear head of Ismene" uses eleven words for five of the original. An endearment like "dear heart, Ismene" would be more readily understood than "head of Ismene" but with a false familiarity: the Greeks spoke of the head, not the heart, as the center of love and affection... Each version of line 1 promises a faithful translation, but they are not the same English, since the translator cannot escape imposing his or her layer of meaning upon Antigone of the written page.
And here Alice Kaplan discusses in detail the horrors of the failed French translation of her "autobiographical essay" French Lessons, a couple of French court cases involving translations of Wuthering Heights and of Kafka, and her own experience translating Roger Grenier, along the way describing the writer/translator relationships of Marguerite Yourcenar and her lover Grace Frick and of Louis-Ferdinand Céline and his drinking buddy John Marks; she gives this amazing Nabokov anecdote:
Vladimir Nabokov was famous for his vigilance concerning every word of his translations — and when this polyglot spotted an error, he could be unreasonable. His wife Véra, as vigilant as he, pored over the Swedish translations of his Pnin with the help of a dictionary and determined that entire passages were missing, and that the anti-communist slant of the original had been muted. She ordered the entire Swedish stock of both Pnin and Lolita destroyed. In July 1959, the Nabokovs' lawyer served as witness to an enormous book burning on the outskirts of Stockholm. It's a rare event in literary history when a writer burns his own books!
More discussion here and (focusing on philosophy) here, and there's a site "Translation: What Difference Does It Make?" that gives a lot of examples. Oh, and here's James Atlas on the subject, and here's Harry Mathews ("Translation and the Oulipo: The Case of the Persevering Maltese"), and here's an interview with Rabassa, and here's Lawrence Venuti on "How to Read a Translation." And a poem by Maurice Leiter: "Lacking languages I stumble/ in the darkness of translation/ finding satisfaction second-hand..."

Sorry, I get carried away by my love for this subject!

a really fantastic writer is more likely to be writing original works than translating, and a bad novel isn't likely to be translated.

This is wrong in both its parts. As has been pointed out, good translators are not drawn from the same well as good writers; furthermore, bad novels are translated all the time. People like bad novels, in case you hadn't noticed.
posted by languagehat at 7:33 AM on May 3, 2006

I'm a commercial translator, not a literary translator (the twain rarely meet), and I must take exception to most of what Jeanne said. Without tooting my own horn, a lot of my work gives me an opportunity to improve on the original. This may say more about the quality of the original than my translation, but there you go. And citing Genji as a source that results in outcomes is kind of...odd. Genji needs to be translated into modern Japanese for most native Japanese speakers to read it.

I'm kind of surprised nobody's mentioned the book Le Ton Beau de Marot, which I recommend highly. Hofstadter looks at exactly the problem of appreciating the original through translations when you can't read the source text. His solution: read multiple translations. He uses Eugene Onegin as an example: he read four different versions, and cites parallel passages from each, showing what trade-offs each translator made. It lets you triangulate on what the original must have been like.

I've read a little of Murakami's Norwegian Wood in both Japanese and English (translated by Alfred Birnbaum). I didn't get very far with either, because neither really set my imagination on fire; I wasn't reading them especially closely, but I'd say the translation is a good one. Murakami is also an interesting case, because he has translated Raymond Carver into Japanese, and his style clearly has been influenced by Carver's. So when you ask if the English translation of a Japanese work by an author influenced by an American writer is as good as the original...well, who knows? Maybe it's truer to the author's intent than the Japanese could be (I kid, sort of).

I will say this: a translator analyzes the text at a depth that the author probably does not. Some authors obviously work in a more intuitive manner, and some map things out meticulously, but the translator may be looking at every sentence and asking him/herself what the significance of every word choice might be, how to reproduce the rhythm, how to reflect the broader social setting that may have been influencing the author's writing, etc. And the translator may not know which of these factors are really important in conveying the author's intent. So the translator himself, after multiple readings, analysis, discussion with the author (if possible), etc, will be painfully aware of all the trade-offs and the thousands of possibilities for tiny failures along the way. But that level of analysis and awareness should result in something that's pretty darn good.

Videogame and movie translations are completely different animals, and generally fall into the short-deadline world of commercial translation.
posted by adamrice at 8:27 AM on May 3, 2006

Obviously, you would judge this book by its cover.

sorry, I couldn't resist.
posted by tadellin at 9:14 AM on May 3, 2006

Lots of good links above, esp. the Benjamin essay.

I am a (more or less) tri-lingual former comparative literature student and this question came up all the time. I actually took a class just on this topic.

Personally, I will say that my "working" opinion is that you must not forget that you are working with a translation, but there is no harm in reading a good translation. You definitely see this with writers such as Kafka - there are some incredibly nuanced meaning to his word choice that translators sometimes gloss right over. For example, if Gregor Samsa has been turned into a cockroach, bad translation. Something like a horrible vermin (actually meaning something like unbeholden in the eyes of god), then you have a good translation.

I had the same experience working with Dante's Divine Comedy - a good english translation with lots of footnotes refering to tough translations helps tons. Parallel texts are always great so you can get a sense of the sound of the language and pick up more if you can. This is obviously easier in romance languages that a language like japanese, though.

Some of my favorite works are originally in German and I don't speak any German. In some other languages where I've improved, I've reread text in the original language which I originally read in English. Sure, there are some nuances that come through, but all in all, it's essentially the same book.

By the way, as a cute anecdote, some German philosophy students read Kant in English because the translation is actually easier to comprehend than the original German.
posted by BigBrownBear at 7:34 AM on May 4, 2006

I am fully English-Russian bilingual, and can read a bit of Polish. I read Stanislaw Lem's Cyberiad in all three of these languages. It is hard for me to say this - and I imagine it will be even harder for you to believe me - but I found the three versions to be dang near equivalent. Now, the Polish/Russian translation could be expected to be very good, because the languages belong to the same family and are generally similar grammatically, as well as sharing much of the vocabulary. The Polish/English translation was, in and out of itself, a work of art by Michael Kandel, an incredibly gifted translator. Here is an excerpt.

In the example above, it should be noted that the translation is not a good representation of the original. It is a work of art, it is Michael Kandel writing a poem of his own, constrained by the same rules as machine in the story. As a bonus, he uses the same verse structure and recycles some terms from original. But a direct translation it is not. One can argue whether that is the right thing to do or not, but as a reader in both languages, I assert that it works very well.
posted by blindcarboncopy at 4:13 PM on May 4, 2006

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