When Not to Translate.

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.


  1. “It has been my life,” he said, simply. “O mihi praeteritos referat si Jupiter annos… Umph—I need not—of course—translate…” Much laughter. […] Think of me sometimes as I shall certainly think of you. Haec olim meminisse juvabit… again I need not translate.”

    Goodbye, Mr. Chips, the farewell speech

  2. It would be interesting to see a graph showing the decrease in immediate recognition/understanding of those loci classici over the 82 years since the book was published. (I knew the second but had to look up the first, which it turns out is also from Virgil.)

  3. Oh dear, neither tag meant anything to me…

    So far as Tim Parks’ piece is concerned, it does I suppose support the idea that the bulk of our efforts should be on contemporary translation. Yet translations of old classics are still needed, and often there’s no classic older translation – I would not have wanted to miss the recent translation I read of the Poetic Edda, for example.

    I think I could still enjoy the Decameron in any one of the translations, even Parks’ own. His difficulty is surely partly an ethical one, though he doesn’t say so. The older translations have ways of performing the funny characters in this fabliau as if it’s a convention that’s completely understood and doesn’t trouble them. But now, however much we love Boccaccio and however much we “get” this convention, still we can’t not see that the story takes us to subject-areas about which modern society is particularly (and rightly) highly sensitive. i.e. an absolute catalogue of men’s bad behaviour towards women. I don’t think it’s just a dislike of putting on a funny voice that stopped Parks from proceeding.

  4. Yes, I agree, and had similar thoughts while reading (though in more inchoate form).

  5. As a practical matter, I’m not entirely happy with “Just read Florio” as a solution. First of all because no publisher is publishing Florio (in physical form) and most likely no publisher ever will. (Readily available in Kindle, PDF, I’m sure, but…) Second, because although I’m sure everyone here (and reading the NYRB) is just fine with 1600s English, the majority of people aren’t. It strikes me as a slightly less extreme version of “There’s no reason to translate this ancient text into English when a perfectly serviceable German translation from 1950
    is available.”

    Obviously Parks is entitled to translate or not translate what he pleases, but the argument here boils down more to “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” than “il miglior fabbro.”

  6. David Marjanović says

    I knew the second but had to look up the first, which it turns out is also from Virgil.

    I knew neither, wouldn’t have even guessed that they’re quotations – and I did actually “read” some Virgil in school (if “the popular game of ‘look for the verb'” counts as reading).

  7. Well, you’re clearly not a product of Eton.

  8. I knew the second’s origin and meaning, but not the first. Here’s the peroration of another valedictory address, Tolkien’s to the University of Oxford:

    If then with understanding I contemplate this venerable foundation, I now myself fród in ferðe [having at heart the wisdom of experience —CJRT] am moved to exclaim:

    Hwǽr cwóm mearh, hwǽr cwóm mago? Hwér cwóm máððumgyfa?
    Hwǽr cwóm symbla gesetu? Hwǽr sindon seledréamas?
    Éalá, beorht bune! Éalá, byrnwiga!
    Éalá, þéodnes þrym! Hú seo þrág gewát,
    genáp under niht-helm, swá heo nó wǽre!

    (Where is the horse gone, where the young rider? Where now the giver of gifts? Where are the seats at the feasting gone? Where are the merry sounds in the hall? Alas, the bright goblet! Alas, the knight and his hauberk! Alas, the glory of the king! How that hour has departed, dark under the shadow of night, as had it never been!)

    But that is ‘Language’.

    Ai! laurië lantar lassi súrinen!
    Yéni únótimë ve rámar aldaron!
    Yéni ve lintë yuldar vánier–
    Si man i yulma nin enquantuva?

    (Alas! as gold fall the leaves in the wind!
    Years innumerable as the wings of trees!
    Years like swift draughts of wine have passed away –
    Who now will fill again the cup for me?)

    But that is ‘Nonsense’.

    In 1925, when I was untimely elevated to the stól of Anglo-Saxon, I was inclined to add:

    Nearon nú cyningas ne cáseras
    ne goldgiefan swylce iú wǽron!

    (There are not now any kings or emperors, nor any patrons giving gifts of gold, such as once there were!)

    But now when I survey with eye or mind those who may be called my pupils (though rather in the sense ‘the apples of my eyes’): those who have taught me much (not least trawþe, that is fidelity), who have gone on to a learning to which I have not attained; or when I see how many scholars could more than worthily have succeeded me; then I perceive with gladness that the duguð [the noble company (in a king’s hall) —CJRT] has not yet fallen by the wall, and the dréam [the sound of their glad voices and the music of their feasts —CJRT] is not yet silenced.

    Tolkien has Aragorn recite a metrical version of the above passage from the OE poem “The Wanderer” when he is describing the Riders of Rohan:

    Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
    Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
    Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
    Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
    They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
    The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
    Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
    Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?

  9. Lorem ipsum“, he sighed “dolor sit amet, consectetur, adipisci velit. Further commentary would be superfluous, otiose; even redundant.”

  10. A. Nonymous says

    Am I the only one who wonders with literary translation is far too over-praised and gets too much attention? It’s kind of the icing on the cultural and economic cake. We spend so much time debating this translation of Cicero and that translation of the Decameron and conveniently forget that it represents but a tiny percent of the translation that actually goes on.

    Surely it is just as culturally interesting to ask when it might be ethical to not translate a given commercial document and to detail how our language changes around us due to the translation of software, manuals, contracts and the like than it is to get annoyed that the 100 people who will ever read a new translation of the Decameron might have to root around on google for a bit to get their fix.

    I am, of course, being rather deliberately obtuse but there is a kind of cultural superiority complex that can kick in in the discussion of literary translation that assumes the importance of it. Sure, it will be important to a certain kind of person but the translation that has a much bigger effect, saving or losing lives, causing or preventing accidents, growing or killing businesses, is commercial translation. And it will be commercial translation that has a much wider societal effect than any literary translation

  11. Those are good points, but yeah, it’s not likely that the same people will be equally interested in literary translation and commercial translation. It’s a bit tendentious to ascribe that to a “cultural superiority complex”; surely one can like literature for other reasons than burnishing a sense of superiority.

  12. A. Nonymous says

    Oh yes, absolutely. I am a fan of Beckett and Ionesco myself. Where it becomes quite tricky is when literature or literary translation are somehow seen as culturally more important than, say, software localisation of even (dare I mention it) fansubbing. The sad fact that the majority of translation theories are still based around trends in literary translation is a problem in itself.

    I do apologise for the fact that I was being a little angry and stuffy myself. It’s just that it becomes very galling to see how much literary translation, especially classical literary translation – which tends to be the preserve of the already esconced “cultural elite” – gets cultural capital, while the translation that actually keeps people alive gets forgotten. Translation of modern fiction kind of sits somewhere in the middle but, sad as it might be, the consumption of translated literary fiction in English-speaking countries is orders of magnitude smaller than the consumption of translated manuals, instruction guides and contracts. Surely, when we talk about Translation qua Translation, that is where we should begin.

  13. Too true. Of course, it also gets into the unresolvable “art versus life” quandary (is a great painting as valuable as a human life? can we admire the art of a bad person? etc. etc.), but the issues you raise should be on people’s minds much more than they are. And no need to apologize — a lot of us are a little surly these days.

  14. Or, as I said before: would you buy the brilliant paintings of an artist when you find out that he uses the profits to finance his hobby of beating up people with impunity?

  15. Von Bladet of the Desert, NM says

    Sure. People with impunity have it coming.

  16. Pbbbbbbbt.

  17. translated manuals, instruction guides and contracts

    Translated manuals, like translated menus, only seem to get air time as laughing stock.

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