Most of us who read a new translation of an old classic, sometimes ask ourselves, which is the best translation available of this book. We discuss with our reading friends and fellow bloggers about the merits of different translators and translations. Frequently, a new translation of a classic makes a big splash and many times becomes the definitive translated version of the original. I remember when the new translations of the Russian classics by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky came out, they were received enthusiastically. Most readers felt that theirs was the best translation of ‘War and Peace’ or ‘Anna Karenina’ yet. I also remember when Lydia Davis’ translations of ‘Madame Bovary’ and ‘Swann’s Way’ (the first volume of ‘In Search of Lost Time’) came out. They were received with a lot of affection and enthusiasm and readers, reviewers and critics lost no time in saying that these were the best translations of those books ever. It makes us think on how one compare the merits of different translations and decide which one is the best.
One simple way of doing that is hailing that the latest translation is always the best. Because new things are always more appealing than old ones. A child always likes a new toy more. So a Richard Pevear / Larissa Volokhonsky translation will always score over a Constance Garnett translation. A Lydia Davis translation will always score over a Scott Moncrieff / Terence Kilmartin translation. A new translation of Franz Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis’ by Susan Bernofsky is coming out next year. It is already being hailed as the best. Of course, this way of judging a translation is not satisfying. The latest is the best is not a good or a logically strong argument.
Another way of comparing translations is to take a particular sentence from a book, read it in the original language (if we know the language) and compare translated versions of that sentence. And pick the one that we like the best. When we do this, sometimes we discover that the most literal translations are not the best ones or the most artistic ones. There is a Wikipedia page which does this with respect to Homer’s epics, ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey’. Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life did that wonderfully with a couple of German classics – Thomas Mann’s ‘Death in Venice’ and Jeremias Gotthelf’s ‘The Black Spider’.
Sometimes we might read a book and unexpectedly discover the author or one of the characters talk about a translator affectionately. It happened to me a couple of times – when Michael Harvey talked about Richmond Lattimore’s translations of the Greek epics in his thriller ‘The Chicago Way’ (I hadn’t heard of Lattimore before I read this book. I want to check out his translated version one day. The translation of Greek epics currently favoured by readers seems to be the one by Robert Fagles) and Dan Brown talked about Allen Mandelbaum’s translation of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ in his novel ‘Inferno’ (I have a soft corner for Mandelbaum as I have read parts of his translation of ‘The Odyssey’ and liked it very much).
Out of these my own preferred way of comparing and analyzing different translated versions is the second one – comparing translated sentences together and alongwith the original. But most of the time, it is impossible or hard to do that, because we don’t know the original language and can’t judge how accurate or faithful a translation is.
I wanted to look at translations from a different perspective. Or more precisely, look at the translator more closely than at the translation. And as this is German Literature Month, I want to do that to the German books I have read in the past few years. My basic assumption is this. I don’t know German (Okay, I know ‘Guten Morgan’ and ‘Danke Schone’ and ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ but that doesn’t count.) So, it will be very difficult for me to compare two different translations of the same German book. Also, with respect to contemporary fiction, normally there is only one translation available. No one has done a second translation of Marlen Haushofer’s ‘The Wall’ or Bernhard Schlink’s ‘The Reader’ or Peter Stamm’s ‘Unformed Landscape’ or Elke Schmitter’s ‘Mrs.Sartoris’. Chances of a new translation of any of these books coming out is extremely remote. Maybe it might happen fifty years from now, but it is definitely not going to happen now. So this model of comparing different translations, though good in theory, is difficult to apply in practice to contemporary German fiction. So I decided to look at it from a totally different angle. During my love affair with German Literature these past few years, I discovered that there were some books that I adored, there were others towards which I was lukewarm and there were others which I was indifferent to. And I discovered that I tended to like books translated by some translators consistently while it wasn’t the case with other translators. I thought to myself – is it possible for me to look at translators that way? Is there a connection I feel with some translators, with respect to literary taste, than with others? Can I say that because my reading taste consistently matches with what one particular translator is translating, I can blindly pick any book that this translator has worked on? Looking at it from this perspective, can I say that I have a favourite translator?
I was quite excited when I thought about it this way. I thought it was time to investigate.
To start with, I made a list of German books I read. I didn’t include the classics (like Thomas Mann’s ‘Death of Venice’). I included only contemporary works. And I didn’t define what constituted a contemporary work before proceeding. I decided very arbitrarily and subjectively whether a book was a contemporary work or not. Then I grouped them under translator’s names and tried to see whether a pattern emerged. This was how the list looked like (it is not in any particular order).
Carol Brown Janeway
John E. Woods
Michael Henry Heim
Looking at the list, we can immediately see that the first four are all big names and they all seem to be translating a lot of work now. We keep stumbling upon them again and again as their range is wide. We stumble upon the others when we are looking for the books of a particular author. When I look at the top four, this is what I think.
Carol Brown Janeway – She translates from a wide range of works. (What’s with Janeway and authors whose second name starts with ‘Sch’? J) In the above list one is literary fiction, another is real-world crime and the third one straddles the fine line between literary and popular fiction. One thought which straightaway jumps at me is that I loved all of her translations that I had read. Every one of them. And unfailingly, all of them had big and beautiful fonts and thick paper. That is always an added bonus.
Michael Hofmann – Looking at the authors Hofmann has translated, it looks like he translates mostly highbrow award winning fiction. No crime novels or popular novels for him. I liked very much all his translations that I read but not in the same way as those of Carol Brown Janeway. Janeway’s translations had that extra little something.
Shaun Whiteside – For me, Whiteside is the dark horse and is the most difficult to classify. I adored one of his translations (Haushofer’s ‘The Wall’), didn’t like another of them (Schlink’s ‘The Weekend’) and liked another of them in parts (Drvenkar’s ‘Sorry’). He has hit on all parts of the spectrum and his translations seem to be a microcosm of the world itself – there seem to be room for all kinds of books there. But he has translated ‘The Wall’ and that is one thing that towers over every other book here. I think I can say that it is the best German book I have ever read. And Whiteside translated it. That is something. And looking at the fact that he has also translated Pascal Mercier’s ‘Perlmann’s Silence’ (which I haven’t read yet, but I love Mercier), I think there are going to be more Whiteside translations that I am going to adore.
Anthea Bell – She is tricky, like Whiteside, but in a different way. Looking at her translations, one feels that she is adventurous with respect to the books she translates. ‘Rain’ is an unconventionally bleak novel – though it has many fans I didn’t like it much. I liked ‘The Collini Case’ though. And I was totally charmed by ‘Three Bags Full’ which is a murder mystery in which sheep are detectives. She is a translator who surprises us with her unusual, adventurous choices.
Out of the rest, John E. Woods is interesting because he has translated two of Patrick Süskind’s works. I loved both of those books. He looked like a one author translator to me till I discovered that he has also translated Bernhard Schlink’s ‘Flights of Love’. I am keeping away from Bernhard Schlink for a while (after the disaster of ‘The Weekend’) but I hope to get to this book one day. If I like it, that will be one more feather on John E. Woods’ cap. Amanda Prantera, like John E. Woods, seems to be a one-author-translator. She has translated two of Marlen Haushofer’s works. I have read one of them – ‘The Loft’ – and it is excellent. It has to be, because it is a Haushofer novel. It will be interesting to find out which authors Prantera chooses to translate in the future.
The other translators are all one-book-wonders (by ‘one-book-wonder’ here, I mean that I have read one translation of theirs. Not that they have translated only one German book. It has more to do with me than with them. I apologize if you thought I was using this phrase in the popular way it is used) and though I liked all those books very much, I can’t arrive at any inference from that.
So, in conclusion, I can say this. I will read any translation of Carol Brown Janeway. I loved all her translations, though they were of different literary genres. If I want to read highbrow literary fiction, Michael Hofmann is the person I will look to. I will keep an eye on Shaun Whiteside, purely for the fact that he translated ‘The Wall’. If he can get hold of another book which is close enough, it will be a great day. Anthea Bell is an adventurous risk-taker. It is always wonderful to find out what she is up to. Anyone who translates ‘Three Bags Full’ must be a charming, fun person. I will also keep an eye on John E. Woods and Amanda Prantera. If I can add one more name – I am reading Jamie Bulloch’s wonderful translation of Katherina Hagena’s ‘The Taste of Apple Seeds’ now. When I finish it, I am sure Bulloch will be a wonderful addition to my list of favourite translators.
Do you like some translators more than others? Especially for quirky, subjective reasons like mine? Who are your favourite translators translating German fiction into English?