Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Lost in translation?

A recent list in The Guardian proposed 100 novels that one should read.  They were all in English, and this is surely not right.  Still the question arose of the adequacy of translations.  Here is my response.

How much in fact can one gain from reading a novel in translation, as distinct from the original text? Balzac, for example. wrote at great speed and with little attention to linguistic precision; his novels are important for character. plot, and social analysis. So go ahead and read them in translation: you won't miss much. With Flaubert it is just the opposite. He claimed. a little improbably, to have spent three days on a single sentence. Flaubert's exquisite music only comes through in the original. 

A classic of modern Italian literature, Quer pasticciaccio brutto de Via Merulana by Carlo Emilio Gadda, presents a different problem because of the writer's extensive use of Roman dialect. Once I could handle it. but no longer. The Trimalchio scene in Petronius' Satyricon similarly characterizes the arriviste by his use of vulgar Latin instead of the literary standard.