Booksellers, friends, and other readers sometimes try to sell us on a new version of a work that already exists in English. They try make the new version sound like it’s the best. Is it really, though? There are a number of things we should consider.
The Shoulders of Giants
Early translators just wanted the text to be available. Often speed was the goal and fidelity wasn’t.
Authors of recent translations have the benefit of decades of scholarly study available to them; they have texts, tools, and methods not available to their predecessors. In that sense, we can expect newer, copyrighted translations to be better than older, public-domain translations.
That being said, many older translations have been thoroughly revised and re-released, thus are less flawed than before. It therefore makes sense to consider recently revised versions of old translations alongside recent new translations.
Translators sometimes deliberately changed or omitted content in accordance with differing social mores. One name for this process is Bowdlerization, after Thomas Bowdler, who produced edited versions of William Shakespeare’s plays.
Unexpurgated versions with curses and references (possibly still rather subtle) to drugs and sexual behavior are increasingly becoming available as publishers seek to return to original texts to produce new editions. The Robin Buss translation of The Count of Monte Cristo is one example.
Loose/Accessible vs Literal/Faithful
Translators now seek to reinstate what other translators left out due to ignorance or delicacy and correct any mistakes scholars have highlighted over the decades. In addition, a translator may have one of two goals: the translator may want to accurately reproduce the experience of whatever it was that the original author meant, or the translator may want to accurately represent whatever it was the original author said. In the former case, a translator will strive to produce a loose translation that brings the language as close as possible to the language of the reader for the sake of accessibility; in the latter case, a translator will strive to produce a literal translation that brings the language as close as possible to the original text for the sake of fidelity.
And of course many translators lie somewhere on the spectrum between these two extremes.
Purpose, Audience, Context
What sort of translation is “best”? That depends on the reader. Every translator has a purpose for producing a new translation; every publisher has a target audience in mind; every edition fits within a particular reading context.
A scholar familiar with the source language or someone seeking an exotic reading experience might prefer a literal-style translation. Someone unused to reading classic literature might prefer a smoother reading experience, and thus choose a translation that employs paraphrase and modern language and integrates cultural, historical, and linguistic explanations into the text rather than putting them into footnotes or endnotes. And perhaps the best translation is not one that lies at one of these extremes, but one that does its best to strike a sensible balance between the unique characteristics of the original text and the needs of the target audience.
In some contexts, the quality of the translation doesn’t particularly matter. There are many editions produced simply to look beautiful or impressive on the shelf. Whether anyone reads them is a secondary concern, if it’s a concern at all.
Trendiness and Quality
I have a suspicion of trendy things. There is a correlation between the quality of something (say, a translation) and its popularity, but I think people tend to assume the correlation is stronger than it actually is.
Having worked in the publishing industry, I’ve seen that a book’s reputation and commercial success can depend not on its inherent quality but rather on issues of timing and luck. Once a book is successful, it can become famous simply for being famous. Nothing succeeds like success.
When you ask “What’s the best translation?”, the question people are probably actually answering is, “What’s the trendiest translation?”
The truth is, very few people actually have any basis for comparison and are recommending the particular translation they happen to have read. People are more likely to respond to the question if they’ve read the book recently, which probably means they bought it recently, which probably means it was published recently and is selling well.
Some people will even make recommendations without having read any translation at all, just on the basis of what they’ve heard. And if they’re repeating what they’ve heard, you should be 0% surprised if they’re repeating something they heard about a recent translation that’s selling well.
It’s not that such recommendations are wrong, it’s that they shouldn’t be interpreted as representing a complete analysis. If you want to know what the trendiest translation is, crowdsourcing is a good way to find out.
The Test of Time
Some old translations have been forgotten and others have lived on. Just as there’s a correlation between quality and today’s trendy books, there is a correlation between quality and the popular books of the past that are still available today. The public-domain translations that have survived have likely done so because people all along have seen value in them.
The popular editions of the past also have a statistical advantage: those that were printed in larger quantities are the ones more likely to have been scanned and digitized for reuse online and by budget classics publishers looking for texts to reprint.
Should old books sound old?
Some readers prefer English translations made around the time the original text was published, because the text will then sound like it belongs to its own historical era.
However, some claim that the original text and the English translation age at different rates. Perhaps the English text from the same era sounds outdated whereas the original sounds modern. I have heard it said, for example, that Russian has changed less than English. I can believe that; English is an exceedingly strange beast.
Authors of new translations sometimes justify their labors by criticizing the work of previous translators. After all, why would a translator bother to rework an entire text unless there was something fundamentally wrong with all the earlier versions? There must be some driving motivation or specific goal for every new translation. In the translator’s eyes, the new translation offers something sorely needed and is of course better than whatever came before in some way or other. In the reader’s eyes, however, the difference in the translators’ motivations and goals just means each new translation is different from whatever came before!
There are reasons to believe that older translations are better. Classic translations are historical artifacts that sound like the time the work was written. The worst flaws of old translations have been corrected. These texts have been studied by generations of scholars and have stood the test of time.
There are reasons to believe that recent translations are better. Although some recent translations may have advantages that have nothing to do with inherent quality, it is definitely the case that authors of recent translations have more information to work with and fewer social constraints on what is considered fit to be published than translators of older editions had.
There are also reasons to believe that translation taste is personal, because every reader’s purpose and context is different. If you’re reading for your own pleasure, it’s perfectly all right not to prefer the whatever translation happens to be the most recent, the most popular, or the most critically acclaimed. The best way to choose is to read a sample and see what sounds good.