James Marcus (who recently contributed to our PEN World Voices Festival coverage) asked members of the Book Critics Circle “Which work in translation has had the most effect on your reading and writing?” He found some great responses, including Mann’s Dr. Faustus, works by Camus, Kundera, as well as one my personal favorites Zbigniew Herbert (whom, incidentally, James also led a discussion about here last year). Rilke, Proust, and jumping to the contemporary, Murakami, were on the list, and a few more that you might not expect.
For me, something relatively recent comes to mind: Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote. I had read the Quixote years before and it didn’t resonate, but then read Grossman’s translation quite closely, writing about it all the while on my “400 Windmills” blog. Grossman’s translation really opened up the book. I think partly because she was invisible her translation let me get past the surface reading of a book that can be silly to the point of slapstick, grotesque even, and see its layers of meaning and gamesmanship. With this reading I was thoroughly absorbed by all the stories within the story instead of feeling they were a nuisance as I did the first time around. As a reader and a writer I learned that a book doesn’t have to be difficult to be difficult, or said differently, the greatest books work on many different levels and allow readers to make their own meaning out of them. That simple truth is nowhere more present than in the Quixote.
I plan to read the Quixote again soon (Faulkner said he read it every year) in the Smollett translation for the opposite reason, to enjoy his 18th-century language and a glimpse of a more contemporary version to Cervantes’; Smollett’s version was published only 140 years after the original.
Pick nearly any sentence and you’ll see the difference between the two:
“All this preamble was uttered in a breath by the beautiful apparition, with such volubility of tongue, and sweetness of voice, that they admired her good sense as much as her beauty…”
“The one who seemed so beautiful a woman said this without hesitating, and with so fluent a tongue and so gentle a voice that they were astounded as much by her intelligence as her beauty.”
So I think it’s clear that it’s not just the book but the translation, if we’re lucky enough to have more than one. In writing this post I found my copy with Ms. Grossman’s signature from April, 2005. I think that next reading is overdue. Keep checking in at the NBCC blog through the month of May for the rest of their members’ responses.