Lost in Translation

I believe it was PG Wodehouse who remarked that Don Quixote was thought to be the world’s greatest novel, although all the literary critics he knew only took that on faith, since none of them could read Spanish, and the English translations were so poor as to make them unreadable. I mentioned this to Husband this week as he showed me the two translations of Don Quixote he bought on his recent trip to Denver.

“Who needs two translations of Don Quixote?” I asked. “Well, why do you have two translations of the Odyssey?” he countered.  He had me there. (One is a verse translation and one is a prose translation, but still).

I have always wondered what we lose  when great works are translated. Is Balzac more dramatic and fast-paced in the original French? What is War and Peace like in the original Russian? Is Don Quixote really the world’s greatest novel?  It will probably take Husband more than a year to get through his new books, if he ever does, so I will have to wait for his thoughts on it.

What do you think is the world’s greatest novel? What books do you wish you could read in their original languages? Have you ever read Don Quixote from cover to cover?


38 thoughts on “Lost in Translation”

  1. Thoughts on this topic from Vladimir Nabokov:

    Three grades of evil can be discerned in the queer world of verbal transmigration. The first, and lesser one, comprises obvious errors due to ignorance or misguided knowledge. This is mere human frailty and thus excusable. The next step to Hell is taken by the translator who intentionally skips words or passages that he does not bother to understand or that might seem obscure or obscene to vaguely imagined readers; he accepts the blank look that his dictionary gives him without any qualms; or subjects scholarship to primness: he is as ready to know less than the author as he is to think he knows better. The third, and worst, degree of turpitude is reached when a masterpiece is planished and patted into such a shape, vilely beautified in such a fashion as to conform to the notions and prejudices of a given public. This is a crime, to be punished by the stocks as plagiarists were in the shoebuckle days.

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    1. I thought of Nabokov when I read today’s post. He grew up speaking three languages fluently: English (which, surprisingly was the language his parents used when speaking to him), French (beloved by the Russian aristocrats) and Russian.


  2. Morning–
    This is quite the question for a Monday morning.

    I’m not the voracious reader some of you are. One copy of a book is enough for me. In English please otherwise it will all be Greek to me! Ha!
    I do have kids versions of adult books, like the Odyssey.
    The first copy I bought years ago because I had heard I should read them. Only “Illiad” was in verse and I struggled with it.

    Amelia and I like to read the kids version of Odyssey.
    I do like that one.
    It’s at least one of the worlds greatest novels.
    And I sure do like ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’ but not sure I’d call it a worlds greatest.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. And a happy/weird coincidence that today is the birthday of Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote! Just discovered that tidbit on Writers Almanac.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. I wonder where the urge to rank things, like “greatest novel” comes from and what purpose it serves. If you read the “world’s greatest novel” are you then assuredly elevated? I think particular books are powerful for us because we find them at a time when they have a particular resonance. The power is not exclusively in the book but also in the particular chemistry of a place and time and the book’s greatness for us, no matter how beautifully written it is, is likely to be ephemeral.

    I’ve read many books I thought were great at the time and some still resonate with me but I find it incomprehensible that any book could be great for every reader and for all time. I’ve also read some supposedly great books that I found insufferable.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Books all, at some level, arise from a particular society and a certain time. Some books seem more universal than others, although critics many decades later will quibble about which books are great in that sense. For me, a book is great if it makes that hot, strongly felt connection with any group of readers.

      Liked by 2 people

        1. I think there can be some gray here in this issue. I would never say that if a book was the greatest book that I had ever read then it should be the greatest book to everyone else who ever read. But I do think that you can see how a book might be an influence even if you haven’t read it. For good or bad (Fifty Shades of Gray is coming to mind). And of course human beings for the most part like to make lists and rank things..no way to stop that train!!

          Liked by 1 person

    2. Then there are the books that I thought really good at the time and when I re-read them years later, I find them uninteresting. When I first read The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain, I found it very funny and interesting. Years later, I suggested it for Blevins Book Club and really didn’t enjoy it. Now I’m afraid to ever suggest another book for book club

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Oh LJB, don’t worry about that. I have absolutely got the market cornered in the “suggesting bad books” arena. Someday ask me about The Cockroaches Have No King or Dictionary of the Khazars or my biggest fail last year … Swamplandia.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Well, okay, I won’t worry about it, thanks VS. Anyway, I probably won’t make it to book club for a while…


    1. Sometimes being an expert is disabling. It turns out that Henry Thoreau (of Walden fame) came from a family whose name is correctly pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable (it sounds like “thorough”). If you are a Thoreau expert, you know that. So your choice is to pronounce the name correctly and sound like an affected snob, or pronounce it incorrectly because that will sound right to anyone who isn’t an expert.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. In America I’d say all bets are off when it comes to pronouncing family names. Many of them have changed not only the pronunciation, but the spelling as well. This whole name thing would be a good enough reason for me not to specialize in Ayn Rand; not that I was ever tempted to.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. I often challenge Husband to read the Dutch and Frisland names in my home town paper. It is difficult. We laugh a lot at what the names look like and how they are really pronounced.

          Liked by 1 person

      2. I initially thought that the Twins’ player Justin Morneau’s name would be pronounced with the accent on the second syllable. But he pronounced it with the accent on the first syllable. Took some getting used to.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I, too, don’t know what I’d consider the world’s greatest novel. Chances are I haven’t read it. I have tended to skip some of the tomes that with some regularity appear on lists of what a well-read person should have read. Like Bill, what I like changes over time. What is becoming evident, though, is that what I read has to be in large print. Because of dry eyes, and old age I suppose, my eyes tire easily, so I have difficulty reading for an extended period.

    I’ve mentioned on here before that I have dabbled in translating, and I can attest to how difficult it is. Translating word for word may not capture the essence of the original, but there’s a limit to the liberties you can take as well. It takes a profound knowledge of another knowledge to be able to capture the tone and spirit of a work. I think I’ve mentioned before that the Danish translation of My Fair Lady and various operas by Gilbert and Sullivan were superb; dare I say even better than the originals?

    When I was younger I read, and loved, Dickens, Steinbeck, Twain, and Hemingway in Danish translations. Those translations captured the originals well enough to justify going back and read them in English later on, but I’ll admit that I enjoyed the English versions better. Of course, I was much older by then, and brought, perhaps, a more sophisticated understanding of what I was reading to the process.

    I have nibbled my way through various Ibsen and Strindberg plays in the original Norwegian and Swedish without too much difficulty, but I sure would love to be able to read Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Pushkin in Russian. I just have an idea that their works in particular lose a lot in translation. Perhaps that’s because I have a romanticized notion of the Russian language, who knows?

    Liked by 3 people

  6. I don’t think I’ve read enough of what’s considered Great Books to answer intelligently – I read plenty, but… the one that I’ve learned the most from?… the book that moved me the most?.. or the one that changed my mind about something I thought I knew for sure?…

    Still thinking, gotta go. OT: We’re having a vigil tonight in support of the Jewish Community in Winona, and I’m planning the music. I may have gotten in over my head.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I’ve read a lot of what people consider the classics but I’m not particularly stuck on any of them, certainly not Don Quixote (which I did have to read in school). Books that speak to me the most are not necessarily older classics. The best book for me this year (so far) is Beartown by Fredrik Backman which is only a couple of years old.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. the bible was my choice
    i see wes got it earlier
    reading john paul mark and luke in the original text would be a kick
    that old paul could spin a yarn couldn’t he? and that luke… what a guy
    i’d like to read hesse in his german but i like my english wordsmiths just fine

    Liked by 4 people

  9. The book that I keep thinking of is Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, though I know it probably wouldn’t qualify as the WGN.

    I would like to read in French a relatively unknow memoir, Resistance, by Agnes Humbert.

    Have not yet read DQ – should I put it on my list?


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