The ‘Classic’ paradox: why the grass is always plus vert in translation

I read something in a piece in the TLS today – by Henri Astier, writing on two French books by Antoine Compagnon – that included an observation on translations that was so obvious I was astonished it had never occurred to me before:

Montaigne needs modern champions even more in French than he does in English. New translations are always available. The French, however, are stuck with an original that has become obscure, even with updated spellings.

It’s such a startling point – that our Proust, our Dante, our Cervantes are periodically given a coat of fresh paint, while the native readers of these classics must deal with language that may well be many centuries distant from their own. Think of the constant flow of translations of Dante into English, then think of The Canterbury Tales – of course, you can buy parallel texts, and even ‘novelisations’ like Peter Ackroyd’s, but I feel pretty sure there are plenty of non-academic readers who would be far more likely to pick the Italian than the Englander were they to see them side by side in a bookshop.

Other ‘of courses’ of course also apply: that spruced-up contemporary translations risk losing much of the colour and tenor of the original by smoothing away its period features; and, on this side of the fence, that it is precisely by keeping ourselves well acquainted with the archaic roots of our own language that we keep it vivid and alive today. Think of the vibrant life that  Shakespeare has outside the classroom, and think what huge good that must be doing to contemporary English – think what our language would be like if performing Shakespeare had somehow fallen out of fashion over the last 50 years.

Yet the fact remains: foreign classics have a way of keeping up with us that our homegrown ones don’t – or rather that we tend to mistrust anyone who seeks to update a homegrown one; which point you can turn right on its head by saying that we simply don’t have the capacity to mistrust the newly translated foreign classic as we do our own.

Funnily enough, there is another piece in this issue of the TLS on the same topic. Lydia Davis discusses her attempt to rewrite in contemporary English a children’s book that has fallen out of fashion, partly, she thinks, because of its archaic language. It is Owd Bob, the Grey Dog of Kenmuir (or Bob, Son of Battle in the US). Naturally, she is lairy of ironing out all the ‘difficult’ words. The difficult words are, to some degree, essential: “In fact, this is the way we learn words, whether quite accurately or not. I am still learning.”

It’s a good lesson. Perhaps the simplest point to take away from this is that, as readers, we should resist the temptation to reach for a foreign classic – “in a new translation” – before a classic of our own tongue.

If I read a ‘contemporary’ or perhaps ‘contemporanised’ Dante (which I never have), someone else has done the hard work. If I read Chaucer (which I never have, all of it) then it’s me that must do it, but the work is on my own language, and if we have a duty to broaden our understanding of the world through reading in translation, then we also have a duty to deepen our understanding of our own language, through reading backwards through it, and not stopping when it starts to get hard.



  1. Max Cairnduff

    Chaucer I think in most editions is translated. It’s possible to read untranslated Chaucer, but it’s not easy. Too much intervening language drift.

    Still, the point you make is a good one. A Spanish friend commented when I was reading Don Quixote how difficult it is in the original Spanish, and my impression from what he said was that the original because of its age was harder than my nice up-to-date Edith Grossman translation with occasional helpful endnnotes.

  2. Pingback: Weekly Links: The Untranslatable, Fellowships and Grants, and a 100-Year-Old Translation Mystery | Two Lines Press

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