Tim Parks has an essay for the NYRB blog that begins “We live in a time of retranslation.” I hoped perhaps he was going to ride my hobbyhorse — there are enough damn retranslations of classics, let’s translate some stuff that English-speaking readers are unfamiliar with! — but no, he accepts that each generation feels the need for “its” Homer or Dante; he’s worried about something else:
But are new translations always better, or always feasible, even? Some time ago I was asked to do a retranslation of the Decameron. Such a commission is an honor and a responsibility. And a huge investment of time. The Penguin Classics edition runs to more than one thousand pages. So before giving an answer I thought I’d try translating a couple of passages for myself.
The bulk of the essay consists of various translations of a passage from the fourth story of the first day (as well as the original); it makes for fascinating reading, and I agree with him that Florio’s 1620 version is the best (discovering it was what decided him not to accept the commission). His conclusion:
Reading this, I experienced exactly the pleasures I feel reading Boccaccio in Italian. Albeit nearly three hundred years after the original was written, Florio still moves in a world where the whole thing makes sense, doesn’t need to be quaint. And he is a supreme stylist too. He can find exactly the idiom in the English of his time. However good a translator might be today, I doubt whether the same level of conviction is possible. Certainly, I didn’t feel I could achieve it.
I think the emphasis should be on that last point; just because Parks isn’t the man for the job doesn’t mean Florio is the last word. But it’s very enjoyable reading, if you’re the sort who enjoys comparing translations.