As part of the first blog for my seminar on translation, I ask students to look at the London Review of Books and The New York Times Book Reviews for reviews of translations. What kinds of terms are used to review the works, and how much of the review is actually dedicated to evaluating the translation?
Here are my findings:
vol. 22 No. 17 · 7 September 2000 pages 27-28 | 2549 words
- The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel by Robert Alter
Norton, 410 pp, £19.95, October 1999, ISBN 0 393 04803 9
Robert Alter established a whole school of literary appreciation of the Bible some twenty years ago with a pioneering book on Biblical narrative. Now he gives us his own translation and commentary on the most literary of all the Bible’s narratives, the story of David. The translation is conservative, fully in line with the Authorised Version (and all the better for that). The commentary is up to date, absorbing not only the latest scholarship but concentrating on the extraordinary narrative power of the story of family vendetta and power politics which spans the two books of Samuel. A large part of its first half recounts the battle of wills between Saul and David. Saul is the original charismatic leader whose grip on power weakens as David, the true hero of the Old Testament, its poet and its once and future king, moves to the centre of the story. If Saul is the model for Macbeth, David is the model for Henry V.
What We Know
How, then, do Diane Rayor, André Lardinois and the editorial staff of Cambridge University Press deal with this daunting situation? Not, at first sight, in the most encouraging manner. The subtitle attached to Rayor’s new translation of Sappho declares it to be ‘of the complete works’. If only! Lardinois’s useful introduction begins by noting that very little survives of Sappho’s poetry, which moreover ‘is often hard to read, because of its fragmentary state, and very difficult to interpret’. A new translation can offer no more than one scholar’s reading (to a great extent arbitrary) of other scholars’ editions. Sappho’s Aeolic Greek is extraordinarily difficult, and establishing the texts of her poems – especially those reconstructed from lacuna-ridden and often near illegible scraps of papyrus – is largely a matter of guesswork and speculative emendation. It’s a case crying out for a double-page presentation of English and Greek, the latter consisting, at the minimum, of the editor’s text from which the translator worked, and, for preference (given the exceptionally high degree of uncertainty), a basic apparatus criticus of variant readings and other suggested supplements. The opportunity was not taken here, perhaps in response to the usual mistaken notions of what the hypothetical general reader will put up with.
In her note on translation, she identifies her double goal as ‘accuracy guided by the best textual editions and recent scholarship, and poetry’. As far as the accuracy goes, ambiguities and all, she has, despite the occasional quibble (tolmaton, for instance, means ‘endurable’ rather than what ‘must be endured’), gone to great lengths to establish throughout the likeliest interpretation of Sappho’s often baffling Aeolic Greek. This is no small achievement. As far as plain meaning goes, hers is probably the most reliable, as it is the most up-to-date and exhaustive translation available. Where there are two possible readings (e.g. is Aphrodite poikilothron’ or poikilophron’, richly enthroned or subtle-minded?) she explains each in a note, so that even if the reader disagrees with her choice (as in this case I do, preferring the second) the alternative is ready to hand. As far as up-to-dateness goes, she’s managed to include, in a last-minute appendix, the so-called ‘Brothers Song’, about Charaxos and Larichos, the larger part of which was only discovered, edited from papyrus and published by Dirk Obbink as recently as 2014.
Heaney translates the Virgilian hexameter into a loose five-beat line. As the Cumaean Sibyl remarks to Aeneas, the problem with the underworld lies not in the outbound journey but in the return:
It is easy to descend into Avernus.
Death’s dark door stands open day and night.
But to retrace your steps and get back to upper air,
That is the task, that is the undertaking.
On the history of translating Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina
Here are also some “Untranslatables” from my reading and experience: “mantra”; “Weltanschauung”; “orenda”; Waldeinsamkeit; gemütlich; Zeitgeist; dharma; Gemeine;