Translations are akin to the first sentence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in that all good translations are alike, but each bad translation is bad in its own way.
It was the upcoming centenary of Tolstoy’s death on November 20 that sent me back to Anna Karenina and its immortal opening: ‘All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The version I turned to is by Louise and Aylmer Maude, famed renderers of Tolstoy. Aylmer also wrote The Life of Tolstoy, still among the finest analyses of the count’s post-confessional years.
Done in 1918, the Maudes’ rendition has lost nothing to time, something that cannot be said of their great rival, Constance Garnett, who introduced countless Anglophone readers to Tolstoy. That aside, every generation insists on its translations of the classics.
To read Beryl de Zoete’s prettifying turns on author Italo Svevo — whether of Senilità (As a Man Grows Older) or of La coscienza di Zeno (Confessions of Zeno) — can induce a rush to the shelves for the 21st-century comforts and divergent psychological sensibilities of William Weaver’s Zeno’s Conscience (significant title change, that).
Still, without De Zoete’s 1920s and 1930s works, I would not have become acquainted with Svevo. So too with the almost absurdly self-effacing HT Lowe-Porter, through whom I first read Thomas Mann in a Penguin Modern Classics paperback put out in the 1960s, containing Death in Venice, Tristan and Tonio Kröger.
In his 1927 translator’s note to The Magic Mountain, Lowe-Porter anguished about ‘the version in all humility here offered to English readers, lame as it is”. Nonetheless, closer in time to Mann, Lowe-Porter seems to capture the essence of his master’s sensibilities more acutely than many later efforts.
Similar is the fray between David Magarshack (1950s and 1960s) and Michael Frayn (1980s and 1990s) over Chekhov’s four great plays, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. Frayn almost abominates what he sees as a certain conservatism of mind in Magarshack, and Frayn, after all, is a fine playwright himself. But there is much to commend in Magarshack. He is punctilious without being prim, and not given to the chattiness that sometimes mars Frayn’s vivacious renderings.
Vivacity is the touchstone of Tobias Smollett’s peerless 1755 version of Don Quixote. Legions of detractors have sought to rubbish Smollett by an unproven transcription theory that he translated not from Spanish but perhaps from Italian, or perhaps French, or maybe both. What is irrefutable is Smollett’s brilliance, to which only John Rutherford’s version in 2000 for Penguin Classics comes close.
Good or bad, translations offer windows into the worlds of their originals — and whole new worlds of their own.