On Retranslating the Classics

Here at AWP I’ve spent the weekend surrounded by writers and translators talking about great books being written Right Now (of which more soon), but come Friday I’ll be on stage back in New York interviewing a handful of renowned translators who specialize in the masterworks of yesteryear. Columbia University’s Lit Hum program, which presents incoming undergraduates with a reading list filled with classics, is hosting a discussion this Friday that I’ll be moderating, featuring star panelists Edith Grossman, Wyatt Mason, and the wife-and-husband translation team Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. And there’s a lot to talk about. Retranslating a classic work that’s already known and beloved in an older version can have its issues. For one: do you consult the older translations while you’re working on your own? In my case: no, though I do look at them when deciding whether or not to accept an assignment. With Hesse’s Siddhartha and Kafka’s Metamorphosis, I still felt I had something to add after checking out the existing translations, though that wasn’t the case with Hesse’s Steppenwolf: I liked Basil Creighton’s old translation so much that I wasn’t convinced I could do one myself that I would prefer. (It’s since been revised and reissued.) The great Lydia Davis, on the other hand (whose important translations include Madame Bovary and Swann’s Way), has said she does look at previous translations of the works she retranslates, and that’s a different way of working.

What about classic works once known by titles that come to seem outdated or wrong? Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (a title borrowed from Shakespeare) is now widely known in English as In Search of Lost Time. William Weaver’s translation of Svevo’s classic novel is entitled not The Confessions of Zeno (like its predecessor, translated by Beryl de Zoete) but Zeno’s Conscience. And Lydia Davis retitled the first volume of Proust’s seven-volume masterpiece The Way by Swann’s. I heard her say in a lecture once that she originally wanted to use the title By Way of Swann’s, but her publisher (Penguin Modern Classics in the UK) wouldn’t stand for it; and her U.S. publisher (Viking) wouldn’t go along with any title change at all: Davis’s translation appears in this country under the old title Swann’s Way.

Should a new translation of a classic update it for a contemporary audience? If so, why and how? How (if at all) should the work be placed in the context of English-language works from the same period What other special difficulties confront the translator of older works? These are all things I’ll be discussing with this panel of revered translators on Friday, and if there are other questions you’d like to request I ask, please leave them in the comments section below.

And if you’re in New York and have some time this coming Friday, please drop in to hear the panel yourself. It’ll be held at Miller Theater on the Columbia campus (the theater entrance is on Broadway just north of 116th) from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and is open to the public. More information here.

And in case you don’t know as much about these panelists as you’d like, know that Edith Grossman is one of the most respected translators of Spanish alive, specializing in both recent and older work. She is known both for her translations of Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Antonio Muñoz Molina and others but also for her translations of 16th and 17th poetry, Góngora’s The Solitudes and Cervantes’s Don Quixote. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have been translating their way through all the greatest classic works of Russian literature, producing influential new versions of works by Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Bulgakov, Gogol, Pasternak and Chekhov. And Wyatt Mason translated Rimbaud, Chevillard and Michon before turning to the essays of Montaigne.

Postscript, May 15, 2014: Video footage of the event has now been posted here.

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