Translation and Reinvigorating Old Works

Language, even when falling on the right side of intelligibility and dialect, can still be a barrier to readers.

Note: I will largely be speaking to English, as it is the language I am most familiar with, though I feel confident in saying this issue spans across languages and language groups.

Reading the works of Chaucer in their original written form makes it quite apparent why the stories get updated. In fact, these updates are more like a translation from Middle English — something unfamiliar enough that it requires a translation — to a more modern form of our language (though they tend to keep the sonnet form, so it is not an outright rejection for the sake of the story, so much as a compromise to ease barriers to entry and enjoyment). I remember when I first read the Canterbury Tales, I did so in Modern English. The Middle English isn’t so far removed from contemporary language that I couldn’t do it, but it felt like needless suffering, on some level, and, clearly, if there were editions that came in Modern English, there must be a need for them. Middle English, though, would be a comfortable space to translate. There’s a need, but not a necessity. It is the threshold, where Beowulf would lay on the other side, needing either translation or an education in Old English in order to be read.

Obviously, translations are necessary for works written in entirely different languages. The dividing line is immediate. Is it in Russian? Translate it. Is it French? Translate it. German? Translate. Often it is said that certain elements of a work may be lost in translation. I often wonder if those can even be retained when learning the language for the sake of the book, but that is a bit of a tangent.

What’s important to me right now is this idea that translating a work updates it. I’ve read The Idiot twice. The second time, I was handed a book and told “this is the better translation” as though it was an objective truth. I didn’t much question it at the time, and in fact, I found the experience much more enjoyable with the newer translation I was handed. It wasn’t until later that I realized an important distinction should be made between translations: the era in which they were produced.

Translations inherently modernize a book. The books are made to be more consumable by contemporary speakers of the language they are translated into, barring certain attempts at keeping to semi-analogous archaic dialect. Seldom would one translate a work like the poetry of Rumi or Water Margin or The Tale of Genji into Middle English for the sake of such a parallel. Certain words — like ye, thine, thou, etc — might be retained for an archaic feel, but that is largely in the interest of the illusion of the text. In the case of The Idiot, I found the contemporary translation much less cumbersome. Perhaps that would be less true to form. Perhaps the book ought to be an unwieldy mess of a story for the sake of accuracy to the way it was originally written. Or perhaps the book I read the first time through was genuinely bad at getting across all the feelings, notions, and circumstances it was supposed to. Such measures of quality are even harder to gauge when there is an incommunicable “original” version to compare to.

And these are all important questions, to be sure. But they do not strike the heart of my focus.

Let’s pick on Dickens. Or we could pick on Herman Melville. Or Robert Louis Stephenson. Or even Jane Austen.

All of their books are certainly decipherable. All of them are comfortable enough to read in the way they were written that they do not necessitate the treatment Chaucer or Beowulf get. But they also miss out on the treatment Dostoevsky gets. Suggesting that one rewrite the works of Austen to make them more “modern” would likely be considered blasphemous, but that must happen when they’re translated into other languages, no? How could it not, were it not for the fact that English, as the current hegemonic language gets more attention and likely is more valued/marketable for writers. (Put another way: does the world really need more than one translation of Absalom, Absalom! into Dutch?)

There are always “definitive translations” of an era. Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf was noted for being the best one yet. We already had translations though. He wasn’t the first to pull that tale from out of its depths in Old English and center it somewhere more modern. As time marches on, we may find ourselves with another version of Beowulf, as Heaney’s version becomes clunky to our changed sensibilities. As time moves forward, another iteration of The Idiot may yet be published. But we won’t get the same treatment for Persuasion, for example, unless language moves so far that we enter another dialectic era. And I suppose that leaves me wondering if such a thing is good or bad. It leaves me wondering if retooling a book could even have a market. Film adaptations seem to imply they do, but they’re often met with the criticism levied at many “unique” retellings of Romeo and Juliet, that the “modernizing” feels more like a gimmick or a cheap filter. Perhaps these retellings need their gimmicks in order to stand apart — to not be plagiarist works or to avoid being called lazy. Perhaps it’s that any idiot can tell the story of Romeo and Juliet in a contemporary manner and that nobody can tell it like Shakespeare told it. Yet, there’s something to be said for the art these translators, perhaps unwittingly, perform in modernizing stories without changing the setting, circumstances, or characters. It makes me curious if the byproduct that is modernization could ever be faithfully reproduced in “translating” a book from English into English.

I’m left wondering what such endeavors might even look like.

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