On Reviewing Translations.

Susan Bernofsky, Jonathan Cohen, and Edith Grossman produced these thoughts for reviewers of literary translations, which are cogent enough I thought I’d pass them along:

• Always include the translator’s name in your initial mention of the book and in any bibliographic sidebar.

• If the translation stands out because of its elegance, panache, or daring word choices, by all means say so. If it drags and stumbles, this too is worthy of note, particularly if your conclusions are backed up by examples.

• If the translator has included a note describing his or her approach to the translation, it is useful to summarize the principles mentioned in the statement and to indicate whether the translator’s aims have been achieved.

• When previous translations of a work exist, compare parallel passages so you can indicate the contributions made by the new one.

• If the work of the original author is celebrated for particular literary qualities, it is valuable for the reader to know whether they appear in the translation.

• Most interesting of all for you to consider is this: does the translated work contribute to the literary life of the English language, to our speech, art, and sensibility? In other words, regardless of whether the work is poetry or prose, does the translation expand the boundaries of literary practice in English, introducing new narrative techniques, poetic forms, or modes of telling a story?

Here are two examples of reviews we think are particularly successful at integrating a discussion of the translation into an evaluation of the book under review: Michael Dirda’s review of The Tin Drum by Günter Grass, translated from the German by Breon Mitchell (here); and James Woods’ review of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (here).

I share their impatience with reviews that include only “a passing comment like ‘ably translated,'” and I hope their suggestions are listened to. Thanks, Trevor!

Comments

  1. this new version has benefited from the inestimable help of the author and that it aims to reflect as closely as possible the rhythms and intricacy of Grass’s German. “Each sentence in the new ‘Tin Drum,’ ” notes Mitchell, “now faithfully replicates the length of the sentence in Grass’s original text, and no sentences are broken up or deliberately shortened.” As Mitchell concludes, “The new version I offer is meant for our present age, one that is increasingly open to the foreignness of the text, to the provocative innovation of linguistic play, to a syntactic complexity that stretches language.”

    I’m really in two minds about this approach to translation. It seems to me to be discriminatory. I think it works better for languages that are relatively close to English and are amenable to ‘direct translation’; less so for languages that are totally different from English. I just wonder what kind of translation you would get from Sanskrit if you adopted this approach. It runs the risk of generating grotesque, unidiomatic translations that heighten the effect of the superficially exotic where there is nothing at all exotic involved — like a language student who is still marvelling at the fact that the language he/she is studying can actually omit pronouns or can accommodate long strings modifying head nouns. Do you really want to emphasise this kind of differentness when translating? Unless the writer’s work deliberately exaggerates certain syntactic features in a way that is unnatural in his/her native idiom (like Hopkins’ poetry), what is the point in hewing closely to the syntactic structure of the original?

    On the other hand, I do remember being disgusted with Seidensticker’s translations of Japanese literature because he chopped those long Japanese sentences into the same unvarying Seidenstickerese, with its short emotionless sentences, whether translating Mishima or Murasaki Shikibu.

    But in the end, unless the foreign writer is deliberately using ungainly or exaggerated language, surely it’s better to translate into idiomatic English. There is nothing sacred about reproducing every comma or full stop in the original. I noticed this in comparing translations of the Little Prince, where Chinese translators from the original French reproduce all of Saint Exupéry’s punctuation, whereas translators from Katherine Woods’ English reproduce her punctuation. What is the point of translators being so pedantic, when Woods herself didn’t feel constrained to follow Saint Exupéry’s punctuation when she was translating his work into English?

  2. Garnett: The whole day had been hot; a storm was gathering, but only a small rain-cloud had sprinkled the dust of the road and the sappy leaves.

    Pevear and Volokhonsky: The whole day had been hot, there was a thunderstorm gathering somewhere, but only a small cloud had sent a sprinkle over the dust of the road and the juicy leaves.

    James Wood says that Garnett ‘sounds like good English, while Pevear and Volokhonsky’s version, with its hiccupped run-on, does not’ — and yet, apart from some minor grammatical differences (‘a storm was gathering’ vs ‘there was a thunderstorm gathering’, and ‘a small rain-cloud had sprinkled the dust of the road and the sappy leaves’ vs ‘a small cloud had sent a sprinkle over the dust of the road and the juicy leaves’), the main difference seems to be the use of a semi-colon in the Garnett version. Perhaps there is some kind of artistry in the use of semi-colons, but the difference seems trivial to me, certainly not justifying the description of one as ‘good English’ and the other as ‘a hiccupped run-on’ and ‘not good English’. Do differences between ‘good English’ and ‘not good English’ really come down to such minutiae?

  3. The problem with the P & V version is indeed that its two sentences are separated by a comma rather than a semicolon, period, or other strong separator, hence the term “run-on [sentence]”. I agree that this is nothing to judge a whole translation by.

  4. I meant to say “semicolon, conjunction, period”, but omitted the second word.

  5. Trond Engen says:

    I don’t think the semicolon has much to do with it. Garnett’s wording is simply more consise and elegant.

  6. But in the end, unless the foreign writer is deliberately using ungainly or exaggerated language, surely it’s better to translate into idiomatic English. There is nothing sacred about reproducing every comma or full stop in the original.

    Well, of course, but you’re setting up a wildly exaggerated version of the original thought and then taking whacks at it. Nobody (except a few fringe extremists who can safely be ignored) thinks you should literally reproduce “every comma or full stop in the original”; the point is that within the boundaries of idiomatic English you should make an effort to convey whatever syntactic effects the original conveys. In other words, you shouldn’t chop up long Japanese sentences into short ones without good reason.

  7. What were the connotations of the Russian word that was translated as “sappy” or “juicy”? Because both of those words (particularly “sappy,” which I doubt I have every before seen in the literal sense used in that passage) have a lot of implicative baggage associated with them; they both seem inapposite for describing moist leaves, unless there was a similar oddity to the original Russian.

  8. Bathrobe says:

    you’re setting up a wildly exaggerated version of the original thought and then taking whacks at it

    I’m not engaging in straw-man tactics. When Mitchell speaks of being “increasingly open to the foreignness of the text, to the provocative innovation of linguistic play, to a syntactic complexity that stretches language”, the implication is surely that it’s now ok for the translation to sound foreign, that it’s ok to sacrifice idiomaticity and “stretch the language” in order to represent the foreign nature of the original. Without seeing the new translation, it’s hard to say how far Mitchell has gone in “foreignising” his translation, but the implication seems to be that idiomatic English is no longer the holy grail.

    The idea that a translation does not need to be idiomatic, but should instead reflect the foreign nature of the original and stretch the bounds of language, has long been taken for granted in Japanese. Works translated from English have tended to reflect all the strange foreign practices of English, including the rampant use of personal pronouns and attempts to stretch Japanese syntax by incorporating ungainly parenthetical comments and other constructions that result in breaking the Japanese sentence. It has led to a permanent alteration in the conventions of written Japanese. I’ve long felt the Japanese approach to be abhorrent, but it now appears that the concept that it’s ok for a translation to sound “foreign” and draw attention to the foreignness of the original author seems to be making inroads into English translation theory. The translator no longer needs to become transparent by naturalising the original and allowing the author to speak to the reader in his own idiom. Now it’s ok to show that the original author was actually foreign. It strikes me as being akin to the “alienation techniques” of Brechtian drama, which keep reminding you that what is happening on stage is a play and not a naturalistic scene, or certain types of modern architecture that expose rather than hide the innards of the building. I won’t deny the effectiveness of this approach, which we now take for granted. But I still find jarring the idea that the translator should interpose himself/herself and say “Hey, folks, this is a translation here. You can tell from the syntactic complexity that stretches language. It’s strange but it’s real.”

    I don’t think the semicolon has much to do with it.

    Perhaps not, but Wood does make a special point about the “hiccupped run-on”. Surely the best way of curing the hiccupped run-on would be to use a semi-colon.

    I don’t find the phrasing used by Pevear and Volokhonsky strange. It’s slightly wordier but it’s perfectly idiomatic. The meaning is also slightly different, and that is where it is awkward, because the vague location of the storm is just a little incongruous. How can a storm be “somewhere” if it’s actually sending a sprinkle of rain in your direction? If the storm is actually “coming”, surely Garnett’s version is more appropriate.

    “sappy” or “juicy”

    I suspect Garnett was writing before “sappy” took on its current meaning in English. Pevear and Volokhonsky, on the other hand, are translating in an era when “juicy” quite clearly has connotations of being delicious to eat, literally or figuratively. And that, I guess, is the thing about literature, whether native or translated. When authors use words that sound strange in the context, we stop for a moment, adjust our expectations, accept it, and move on. That is certainly how I approached both translations. “Sappy? That’s strange! But obviously Tolstoy was talking about sap-filled leaves. Ok, next sentence”.

  9. When Mitchell speaks of being “increasingly open to the foreignness of the text, to the provocative innovation of linguistic play, to a syntactic complexity that stretches language”, the implication is surely that it’s now ok for the translation to sound foreign, that it’s ok to sacrifice idiomaticity and “stretch the language” in order to represent the foreign nature of the original.

    Again, I think your horror at what you call the Japanese approach is making you overinterpret what you’re reading. I’m pretty sure Mitchell isn’t saying you should create some sort of interlinguistic monster, just that you don’t have to be as worried about the translation sounding smooth and “as though it were written in English” as people sometimes are. Everything human is always swerving between extremes, but just because this is pushing in one direction doesn’t mean it’s advocating going all the way to the limit.

  10. It has led to a permanent alteration in the conventions of written Japanese.

    In Burmese things are even more strange, with its two grammars.

    I suspect Garnett was writing before “sappy” took on its current meaning in English.

    The OED dates it to 1670; it is part of a word cluster including sap, saphead, and dialectal sapskull.

  11. Here’s Count Leo: Целый день был жаркий, где-то собиралась гроза, но только небольшая тучка брызнула на пыль дороги и на сочные листья.

    This is very economical text. If wordiness is needed for something it is not to reproduce the wordiness of the original. The roundabout way of translating “over the dust of the road” is IMHO an attempt to reproduce the exact meaning of пыль дороги, which is somewhat unusual for Russian where more “smooth” version is дорожная пыль = road dust. I have no idea why Fat Lion decided to go less usual way.

    сочные листья is a standard Russian collocation like “blue sky”, “honest broker” etc. and native English speaker would do well to just find whatever standard descriptor is given to the leaves when they are at their most succulent. Lush, maybe.

    I’ve heard an interview with Volokhonsky some years ago where she explained that in her (and others) opinion Tolstoy is not a “smooth” writer. His phrasing is clunky. And that she tries to reflect this chunkiness in her translation.

    I also want to add that Tolstoy with this fragment got me again. From my previous (decades ago) reading of him I never noticed his descriptions of scenery (fine by me if there was nothing there to notice). He is really good at it. I know exactly on what kind of day Prince Bolkonsky went to the grove and what sort of feeling the weather and surroundings might have evoked in him.

  12. Bathrobe says:

    Seeing the original helps put it all in perspective. According to Google Translate, the Russian says:

    The whole day was hot, somewhere was going to storm, but only a small cloud splattered on the road dust and succulent leaves.

    Grammatically it leaves a lot to be desired, but it does indicate where the translators were coming from. There is a “somewhere” in the original, где-то. Does this indicate that the whereabouts of the gathering storm is unknown?

  13. Bathrobe says:

    @John Cowan

    That is very interesting. There are indeed parallels between Burmese and Japanese. After all, kanbun-style Japanese eventually came to be written natively by the Japanese, before they broke free from it in the late 19th – early 20th century. English has had only a minimal influence compared with kanbun.

  14. Real kanbun-style Japanese, the back-translatable sort, are in fashion only in the Meiji period. Pre-Meiji literati either wrote straight-out Chinese or something recognizably Japanese. The latter can be quite Chinese in diction, but are never as “translated” from Chinese as the common language of Meiji journalism.

    I think the thing that happened is that these kind of things used to be written in pure Chinese before modernity. The literati carried on the same mental pronunciation for the stylistic niche, and just made a kakikudashi for the sake of patriotism or democratization. A good example for such stylistic niches would be prefaces of books. Pre-Meiji books often have prefaces in calligraphed Chinese; post-Meiji books often have prefaces in a Japanese that is directly kakikudashi‘ed Chinese.

  15. J.W. Brewer says:

    Implicit in all of this is that the reviewer of a translation ought to have read the original in its original language, which sounds desirable enough in the abstract but I suspect may not be universally workable or even desirable, especially for little-known languages of origin. Take for example the Girl with a Dragon Tattoo etc books, which became mass-market paperbook bestsellers in the U.S. When those were first published in translation, how many mass-circulation U.S. newspapers/magazines had book reviewers on staff who were literate in Swedish and could have checked the translation against the original? Maybe two or three, by sheer coincidence? If no other publication had been able to tout the translation because of lack of personnel compliant with the Ideal Reviewer’s Code, would that have been a good thing? (I’ve never read the book, so for all I know it’s horrible trash and/or badly-translated, but I’d rather have lousy reviews than grant more power to a highly-numerically-constrained set of cultural gatekeepers.)

  16. J.W. Brewer says:

    Interestingly enough, it’s not clear to me whether James Woods (whose review is singled out for praise) can read Russian – there’s only one brief section in the review that suggests he can and it might have been cribbed from someone else. But Tolstoy is an extreme case. Because of both the number of extant translations with varying approaches and the extensive secondary literature praising and/or criticizing those translations (produced at least in part by writers who do know Russian) it is possible to educate oneself well enough in English to have a well-informed view. I am more concerned about the situation where a reviewer is addressing the first and only English translation of a not-yet-household-name foreign-language original.

  17. Implicit in all of this is that the reviewer of a translation ought to have read the original in its original language

    No, I don’t think that’s implicit at all, in the first place because it would be absurd. The only bullet point that could possibly be construed that way is “If the work of the original author is celebrated for particular literary qualities, it is valuable for the reader to know whether they appear in the translation,” but “is celebrated” should be taken at face value — if, say, Pushkin is praised by people who know Russian for his clarity, then you should say whether a translation manifests clarity. There is no requirement that you read Russian yourself.

  18. J.W. Brewer says:

    If the reviewer does not know the original language, has no other English translation to compare the book in front of him to, and has no sense of what the original author is “celebrated” for (perhaps because the celebrations are in a language the reviewer cannot read), how is the reviewer able to apportion either praise or blame between the original author and the translator? I guess the question again is whether the prototypical translation is thought to be the Nth English version of a well-known work (now in public domain so there are no licensing issues) by a well-known and safely-deceased writer versus the first English version of a work not known at all to the Anglophone public by a living author (whose agent/publisher may or may not have exercised good judgment in licensing the rights …) with no real reputation in the Anglophone world on account of not having previously been translated. Much as I love discussions of the “which is the best English version of the Purgatorio” genre, there’s a vast quantity of never-translated-into-English-at-all stuff out there which strikes me as higher priority.

  19. I don’t think the cited translators would disagree with you.

  20. January First-of-May says:

    Then there are cases where the work is in public domain (and often well-known, at least in its home country), yet there is no “Nth English translation” (sometimes because it had never been translated into English, sometimes because the only English translation is an ugly contemporary one that was made for the benefit of the English audience of the time and is by now quite archaic; the former is more common for Arabic or Chinese works, the latter for French or German).

    And sometimes even multiple translations don’t help much. Which translation of Gargantua and Pantagruel is better – Urquhart or Smith? From a modern reader’s perspective, a better question is which is worse (having only read reviews of either, I’m unable to comment further). And while calling it a “well-known work” borders on understatement, your typical English-speaking person (even reasonably literate) likely wouldn’t have heard of the book at all, except perhaps in connection with the word “gargantuan” (for example, there’s still no TV Tropes article).

  21. There are apparently two further translations of G & P: a 1955 one by J. M. Cohen (Mr. Penguin Translations himself), and a 2006 one by M. A. Screech. I read a bit of Smith, and Google Translate could have done a better job (Rabelais’s spelling aside); as for Urquhart, he is reinventing rather than translating the original, and if he is constrained rather than expansive, his learning and his sense of the grotesque match those of Rabelais well.

    But if G & P is well-known, is it frequently read by francophones? It may not be “writ somewhat crabbedly” as Urquhart is, but it is certainly “most damnably long”. Urquhart himself died after translating the first three books, and the next two were translated by his editor, who was no more than a competent hack.

  22. Squiffy-Marie von Bladet says:

    But if G & P is well-known, is it frequently read by francophones? It may not be “writ somewhat crabbedly” as Urquhart is, but it is certainly “most damnably long”. Urquhart himself died after translating the first three books, and the next two were translated by his editor, who was no more than a competent hack.

    Most readers [of Dr. Dan Streetmentioner’s Time Traveler’s Handbook of 1001 Tense Transformations] get as far as the Future Semiconditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional before giving up; and in fact in later editions of the book all pages beyond this point have been left blank to save on printing costs.

  23. J. W. Brewer says:

    I think more educated Anglophones might vaguely know the adjective “Rabelaisian” than have actually read Rabelais in translation. Although Rabelaisian sometimes gets used in modern English as a near-synonym for “Falstaffian,” which might perhaps support a plausible inference that “Rabelais” must be a comically coarse and boisterous character in one of those minor Shakespeare plays that wasn’t on the syllabus.

  24. Oh, I’m sure very few Anglophones have actually read Rabelais, but like mynheer Cowan, I am curious as to whether he’s read by French persons.

  25. Just because I live in Nieuw Amsterdam doesn’t make me Dutch.

  26. It was the ur-Dutchness of your city that brought that appellative to mijn mind.

  27. J. W. Brewer says:

    Alas Manhattan is very far gone from its roots. There are a few self-identified Belgian restaurants (I had mussels for lunch at one last week) but as best as I can tell exactly zero self-identified Dutch (or even “Dutch-American”) ones. Although one of the hipster “craft” distilleries in Brooklyn does produce what it calls “New Netherland Gin” (a reconstruction from an 1809 recipe that may or may not plausibly reflect 17th century practice).

  28. AJP Pompelmoes says:

    Chief Gowanus New-Netherland Gin is made with a base of unaged, double-distilled rye whiskey … with a good helping of juniper berries and Cluster hops, the kind which would have been used around the early 1800s

    so not that plausibly.

  29. Moreover the most typical Dutch cuisine these days is probably rijstafel, which would not have been popular in 17th century Holland. Probably any modern Dutch restaurant would have little resemblance to the typical Dutch-American food of the 17th-18th centuries . According to one historian a lot of our typical sweet “American” dishes like waffles, pancakes, cookies and doughnuts are descended from Dutch ancestors.

    http://www.nytimes.com/1989/09/13/garden/a-food-historian-works-to-give-the-dutch-their-due.html

  30. Squiffy-Marie von Bladet says:

    Moreover the most typical Dutch cuisine these days is probably rijstafel

    Zou kunnen, but the restaurants that serve a rijsttafel [sic] do not call themselves Dutch but (usually Chinese-)Indonesian, and getting a good one can be a challenge.

  31. the restaurants that serve a rijsttafel do not call themselves Dutch but (usually Chinese-)Indonesian

    Sure. But rijsttafel still seems peculiarly Dutch, the way pizza or burritos have become typical US American fare.

  32. Squiffy-Marie von Bladet says:

    It joins the glorious ranks of Localised Ethnic Food Unknown In Land Of Putative Origin, like chow mein and chicken tikka masala. But one caveat: the Dutch rarely eat it – it is saved for tourists and other special occasions. The canonical way to consume Ethnic food is moped delivery of a loempia and babi pangang with nasi or bami.

  33. I still think longingly of the rijsttafel I had in Amsterdam in 1971 — it may not have been Authentic Ethnic (TM), but damn was it good.

  34. When I was in the Netherlands for five weeks, the very best food I ate was Greek.

  35. Rodger C says:

    To speak of my experience in (formerly) teaching Rabelais, the funny parts that used to be anthologized came to be seen as demeaning to women, and what was left in the anthologies gave the students the reaction, “Why is this guy supposed to be so funny?” Then he started dropping out of the anthologies (specifically the Norton) altogether.

  36. When I was in Greece for two weeks, the very best food I ate was Italian (spaghetti carbonara, in Argos of all places). The very worst was Chinese (in Athens; I begged my wife not to insist we go to that out-of-the-way hole-in-the-wall, but she had a hankering, which she regretted as soon as the food arrived, if you can call it food).

  37. David Marjanović says:

    Crete and Poland share the best potatoes in the world.

  38. They’re pretty far apart; how do they share them? Does one fire them to the other with rocket launchers? Or do they meet halfway, in Bucharest or Belgrade, and divide them up?

  39. When I was in the Netherlands for the first time last month, everyone I asked told me that there was no such thing as distinctly Dutch food. That wasn’t quite true (I discovered mustard soup, which is now a favorite of my wife’s), but every restaurant I ate at did seem to be serving French/German/Indonesian fusion.

  40. Or do they meet halfway, in Bucharest or Belgrade, and divide them up?
    It reminds me that the worst nightmare of Politburo allegedly was China declaring war on Finland.

  41. Crete and Poland share the best potatoes in the world.
    Did you ever eat potatoes from the Bekaa valley? Delicious.

  42. A spud is a spud is a spud. It’s all in the cookery. I slather my hands with oil, rub it all over the potatoes, wrap them in aluminum foil, and bake them in the oven for an hour or so, depending on if there’s a roast or meatloaf in there too, as there generally is. Serve with butter (or sour cream, for those so inclined). Delicious.

  43. No, no, no. The quantity of starch varies greatly by variety, and there are textures you can get with some potato varieties that are quite impossible with others.

  44. David Marjanović says:

    The cookery has a great deal of influence, but it’s by no means the whole story. This even holds for cornmeal (where Turkish is best – a lot more flavor than I thought was possible).

    Did you ever eat potatoes from the Bekaa valley?

    No. Now I’m wondering how I could accomplish this new goal in life.

  45. And here I thought the greatest potato-lovers were the Peruvians (who have a dish called papas con papas, ‘potatoes with potatoes’).

  46. Breffni says:

    A spud is a spud is a spud.

    How far you’ve strayed from your roots! “Never mind the Catholic-Protestant thing, which is only a distraction. The real divide between two peoples of this island is […] between those who like floury potatoes and those who prefer the so-called ‘waxy’ kind” (Frank McNally, http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/an-irishman-s-diary-1.1037268). Perfectly true.

    And here I thought the greatest potato-lovers were the Peruvians (who have a dish called papas con papas, ‘potatoes with potatoes’)

    In a St Patrick’s Day article about the Irish many years ago, a friend of mine reported “I have heard a man order a baked potato stuffed with mash and watched him reel in unfeigned shock when it didn’t come served with chips.”

  47. Now I’m wondering how I could accomplish this new goal in life.
    They’re sold in supermarkets, shops, and by street vendors all over Beirut. Just get in a plane and hop over, Beirut is worth a trip in any case. 😉

  48. In a St Patrick’s Day article about the Irish many years ago, a friend of mine reported “I have heard a man order a baked potato stuffed with mash and watched him reel in unfeigned shock when it didn’t come served with chips.”

    OK, the Irish win!

  49. David Marjanović says:

    “Never mind the Catholic-Protestant thing, which is only a distraction. The real divide between two peoples of this island is […] between those who like floury potatoes and those who prefer the so-called ‘waxy’ kind”

    What?!? Those go in different dishes, depending on what you want to do with them!

  50. Yes, but one might prefer one variety of dish over the other. In any case, the main thing is to counter the heresy that “a spud is a spud is a spud.”

  51. des von bladet says:

    I know nothing of varietals; our stock household potatoes are labelled as “licht kruimig”. There is a choice, but the others are Mostly Wrong.

  52. January First-of-May says:

    I vaguely know that potatoes for baking might in some way be different from, say, potatoes for frying (and it might be suboptimal to use one for the other), and if the season is right, there’s a big discussion about young vs. old potatoes (the young ones are usually better, but much more expensive).
    That’s about it. I don’t even recall where the potatoes we buy are supposed to come from (Krasnodar? Azerbaijan? Israel? somewhere in South America? I’m pretty sure it varies a lot from one batch to another).

    On topic of non-native food, when I visited Bulgaria, I also got a taste for the spaghetti carbonara. But this was not for lack of ethnic food (the completely Bulgarian kebabche was also excellent) as due to how cheap (by typical standards) the Bulgarian restaurants are (the poshest we’ve been eating in was the Corona, at the botanical gardens/Romanian royal residence in Balchik, and a filling dinner for three hungry people cost us a grand total of 20 euros).

    Going back to the Rabelais discussion… as far as I know (can’t recall where I got that from, unfortunately), it’s not read much by francophones because there’s no French translation (much like how there’s no English translation of Shakespeare); modern francophones struggle with the Early Modern French (or however it’s actually called), so they don’t really get all the way to the humor.
    That said, after having read (and, for the most part, liked) a few dozen pages of the Meslanges historiques of Pierre de Saint-Julien (which I happened to encounter during some amateur genealogical research), trying to read Rabelais in original French (assuming I could find the text, at least) might not be as ridiculous as it seems. I’d have the (brilliant) Lyubimov translation to fall back on anyway.
    (Though wow, spelling sucked back then. I think I actually tried to write down all the spellings of “Toulongeon” that the Meslanges used in a several-page article on that family; can’t recall the full number, but there were definitely more than a dozen – often within a few words of each other.)

  53. There are in fact translations of Shakespeare into current Modern English for student use. My daughter studied Romeo and Juliet in secondary school, as is traditional for Americans, but she (unlike Gale and I) used a facing-page prose-only translation something like this. Like most translations, it’s as flat as a pannenkoek. My school version presented only the original text, though with mostly modernized orthography, but was thick with footnotes that explained lexis, allusions, and jokes. I read her a bit of the original out loud (but not in original pronunciation) as she looked at the translation, and explained some of the wordplay, such as “you shall find me a grave man”.

    This translation illustrates nicely the problem Tolkien was talking about in “On Translating Beowulf“: saying things in a modern style that no modern would actually say. At the word level, zounds is translated in the above version as goddammit, which is fair enough: they are both very mild oaths, each in its own historical context. But when Mercutio says “A plague o’ both your houses! They have made worms-meat of me” after Romeo’s well-meant interference allows Tybalt to deliver a death-blow, it’s translated as “May a plague curse both your families! They’ve turned me into food for worms.” This is simply not something that anglophones say in the 21C, and I find it jarring. A more correct translation would be more like “The hell with / Fuck your families! Between you both you’ve killed me!” though that would hardly pass muster in school.

    In Juliet’s soliloquy in the next scene, things get even more clashy. Juliet says “Come, civil night / Thou sober-suited matron, all in black / And learn me how to lose a winning match / Played for a pair of stainless maidenhoods.” The translation says “I wish night would come, like a widow dressed in black, so I can learn how to submit to my husband and lose my virginity.” Modern 13-year-olds not only don’t talk like that, they don’t even express such sentiments. In just the same way, Tolkien explains why King Theoden has to say “Thus shall I sleep better” (if he dies in battle rather than in his bed):

    People who think like that just do not talk a modern idiom. You can have ‘I shall lie easier in my grave’, or ‘I should sleep sounder in my grave like that rather than if I stayed at home’ — if you like. But there would be an insincerity of thought, a disunion of word and meaning. For a King who spoke in a modern style would not really think in such terms at all, and any reference to sleeping quietly in the grave would be a deliberate archaism of expression on his part (however worded) far more bogus than the actual ‘archaic’ English that I have used.

  54. Considering that the native cuisine of Manhattan was apparently roast porcupine and raw oysters (plus the usual fruits, nuts, and corn), it’s probably just as well we don’t have any authentic restaurants.

  55. I’d have the (brilliant) Lyubimov translation to fall back on anyway.

    Thanks for that, I’ll check it out.

    Considering that the native cuisine of Manhattan was apparently roast porcupine and raw oysters (plus the usual fruits, nuts, and corn), it’s probably just as well we don’t have any authentic restaurants.

    Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it!

  56. OK, we have a new potato champion, Bolivia. From Carolyn Kormann’s “The Tasting-Menu Initiative” in the latest New Yorker:

    We paused in front of some net sacks containing fantastically colored potatoes. One was the papa pinta boca: the mouth-painting potato, which has velvety purple skin. Another was the papalisa, the Liberace of potatoes, which can be baby blue, pale pink, or butter yellow with fuchsia polka dots. Bolivia has more than a thousand cultivated varieties of potatoes, along with dozens of wild species. People have been growing them for millennia on the altiplano, where the bizarre tubers’ funk and color enliven the bleak terrain.

  57. I’m not sure “tubers’ funk” was the best choice of words there.

  58. Alon Lischinsky says:

    OK, we have a new potato champion, Bolivia

    The potato was first domesticated in the Andean region spanning modern-day Peru and Bolivia, so it’s not surprising that genetic diversity is highest there.

    Where I grew up, though, some 2000km away as the condor flies, a spud was a spud was a spud. We preferred cassava anyway.

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