Translating the Greats

March 8, 2009

This year’s AWP conference featured a panel entitled Translation: On the Page and Beyond, which touched on many thought-provoking issues relating to literary translation. Interesting to me was a peripheral statement made by Olivia Sears, editor of the translation journal, Two Lines, who pointed out that what publishers were looking for were new voices, that new translations of Dante, Homer, or Lorca were really only needed every 10 years. The take home message of such a statement is somewhat eclipsed by the revelation of our thirst for familiar works of great art made in our own image. Are new translations of classic works really needed every 10 years?

In 2008, a new bilingual edition of Lorca’s “Poeta en Nueva York” was published translated by Pablo Medina and Mark Statman (it is worth mentioning that it is the first new translation to appear in ten years). The translation’s selling point is found on the back cover of the edition, where it is written:

After September 11, 2001, poets Pablo Medina and Mark Statman returned to this seventy-year-old work. Struck by how closely it spoke to the atmosphere of New York after the World Trade Center crumbled, they felt compelled to create a new English version of the text—translating Lorca’s words with a contemporary poet’s eye, allowing their work to uphold his surrealistic technique, mesmerizing complexity, and fierce emotion unlike any other translation to date.

Clearly, there’s some marketing at work here. But it is interesting to think about the relationship between the historic moment as we perceive it and the need to publish new translations to cope in this most important “now”. While the work in its original language is left untouched, allowed to grow awkward and out of style (ok, maybe not in Lorca’s case), a translation is almost expected to be redone, to tell the same story spruced up in the latest tendencies. Do we really want our classics to sound like each successive generation of our writers? Why else would they need to be published every ten years?

Been kicking these thoughts around, any comments?



5 Responses to “Translating the Greats”

  1. mike Says:

    I think the other reason classics need to be published so frequently is so publishers can keep on making money off of the classics. You know, why shouldn’t every major publisher have their own translation of a classic work of literature–the classic is going to get assigned in high school and college classes, and even if there are 9 versions of Dante or whatever, each publisher is going to move a couple thousand copies annually. Maybe the leading translation will sell significantly more than that, particularly the first year it comes out. Which I guess is more of a reason why you’ll see 9 translations of a classic, put out by different publishers, that are not that different from one another, rather than a reason new translations keep coming out.

    Perhaps I’m totally wrong, but I imagine one reason to keep publishing new translations of classics has to do with enthusiasts for a particular classic. Say there are ten thousand Dante enthusiasts out there. If a new translation comes out that receives interesting and favorable reviews in significant places, that’s ten thousand copies moved right there–plus whatever else you’ll be able to sell because of the inevitable assigning of the latest translation by some teachers.

    Another economic reason to re-translate a classic. Occasionally you’ll have a person translate a work more or less because the translator is famous. For example, a few years back the Abbey Theater in Dublin was having a major anniversary celebration, so they commissioned “Famous Seamus” Heaney to translate Antigone. Now, Heaney’s a really good translator obviously, but his version of Antigone (The Burial at Thebes) was rather lackluster. Didn’t really do much with Antigone that hadn’t been done. But hey–the Abbey Theater got a doubly recognizable play (Sophocles AND Seamus Heaney!) and Seamus Heaney got some more cash, and the publisher (whoever it was) got to put out a New Version of a Classic Work by a Famous Translator. Ka-ching!

    I tend to think that classic works shouldn’t be re-translated as often as they are, unless the translators are producing work with distinguishable aesthetics. Like, there have been five new translations of the Aeneid published recently. And sure, there are differences, line by line. But they all more or less sound the same to me, and I read both Latin and English poetry with great regularity. They all manage to make the Aeneid pretty boring (Fagles’s translation slightly less so, God rest his soul). None of them sound particularly different from the translators of the 60s and 70s (Fitzgerald and Mandelbaum and others). The new translations aren’t helping anyone aside from the translators and the publishers I suppose.

    But then, what do I know. Gary Wills says in the New York Review of Books that Sarah Ruden’s new translation of the Aeneid is the best since Dryden’s, and stands on its own as one of the great poems of the English language. Well.

    I should say I have no problem with new translations of classics. I just personally have no burning desire to see the classics re-translated every five years. But some people are into that. That’s fine with me. There are worse things to spend your money on.

  2. […] Philadelphia Inquirer, and even says we’re in a translation golden age. Wowza. Ties in with what Sara was saying below about translating the classics, and my overly lengthy response to that post. Ties in because this […]

  3. Mark Statman Says:

    I just want to add a voice here since it is partly (sort of) my voice that is being discussed.

    Sara does quote jacket copy and of course that is about marketing. But another question for me is have other translations done justice to the poet? We were translating Lorca who writes in a language called Lorca that looks like Spanish, into a language called Lorca that looks like English. Since languages are growing and changing all the time, there is a need to think through these kinds of translation issues. In no way do I criticize previous translations of Poet in New York, in fact, I think we stand on the shoulders of the translators before us (even as we deftly ignore their mistakes, some of which are inexplicable). Pablo and I went back to Poet in NY because of 9/11 but that alone would have been a poor excuse alone to offer a new translation if we thought there were ones out there that lived and spoke to what was contemporary in the poet. Of course this is risky, requiring respect and hubris, humility and chutzpah.

    In a way, as a colleague of mine once noted, literary translation is one of the highest and most sincere forms of literary criticism. The work must sing in translation as it does in the original. And for those who can’t read the original, Gregory Rabassa has been quite eloquent on this in his memoir, the translator becomes the representative of the work. Some charge, no?

    And that John Ashbery commented as he did on our translation was for me slightly astounding. To call it “definitive” is probably not true. There should be a new version (I hasten to add in ten years or so). Or Pablo and I should update it, in ten years or so.

    To cast this in economic terms is rather odd. The amount of money (welcome as it is) is small for the translators, for sure, given the years we put in on the work, and even for the press. The poet? Well, he’s not getting much (the family something). That Grove did what they did with us has a lot less to do with profit than with a sense of the historical and current meaning of the work. That FSG has kept their edition in print for so many years says the same. I respect that even as I know we compete for sales.

    I welcome any response to this. An important kind of dialogue.



  4. mike Says:

    Mark, thanks for stopping by the blog.

    Yeah, my way-too-long comment was less about translating any “great author” (like Lorca) and more about translating those particular great authors who have substantial followings and get assigned in intro-level college classes with great frequency. In this category Lorca does not quite fit in–at least not on the level of Vergil, Homer, Dante, Dostoevsky… So I don’t think I’d cast the rationale for a new Lorca translation in economic terms. But I would cast a new Vergil translation in those terms.

    In other words, my comment was a bit off-topic, or at least unclear.

  5. Mark Statman Says:


    Thanks for your words. Of course my sense is that Lorca belongs in many ways on the comp lit syllabus though I would never want to tell anyone how. There was a survey done last year in Spain of the most important works produced by Spanish writers–First was Don Q, no surprise, but the second was Poet in New York. Given how the Franco regime struggled hard to erase him and other poets, the fact that he seems so central to the culture, to our culture as a whole, is significant (there are those who have suggested that Howl would not have been written were it not for Poet in NY). He is up there with Dante and Eliot if one wants to address the power and greatness of poetry. He is easy to resist if one wants to reduce him to a cultural figure, a victim, an idea.


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