Found in translation

We are living in a golden age of translation. The UK's Man Booker Prize, possibly the most prestigious literary award in the English-speaking world, will now give its International Prize to one book rather than one author's body of work, and it will split the award between the original writer and the translator. It is an acknowledgement that if a book written in a foreign language is great in its English iteration, its greatness is largely due to the translator.

Translations reflect their era and can even obliterate the esthetics of an earlier age. Curious about Longfellow's handling of Spanish classics, I once read his translation of Jorge Manrique's famous Coplas, the jewel of Spain's medieval poetry. What I found was an overwrought romanticism that had nothing to do with Manrique's sober and restrained meditation on death. 

And translations can affect a writer's international reputation. Of my native Cuba's 20th century masters, Jose Lezama Lima has enjoyed a great reception in the English-speaking world, even if his novel Paradiso is a dense labyrinth of prose. While Alejo Carpentier, arguably the father of magical realism, which he called lo real maravilloso, has not been as warmly embraced. Lezama had the good fortune of being translated by Gregory Rabassa, whose work on Garcia Marquez helped cement the Colombian's fame in English. I tried to read Carpentier's seminal The Lost Steps in English and found it clumsy. I'll say no more because the translators' grandchildren are my friends.

Still, bad translations were good for me. As a youth reading the classics, from Greek drama to Russian novels, I had a shaky command of English. I could understand the writing but I could not fully savor it. Therefore, I could not detect the defects in a translation, by which I don't mean its accuracy but the degree of gracefulness in the English version. Thanks to my shortcomings I was able to plow through what were truly awful translations. 

I read War and Peace in an edition where the translator proudly claimed to have made abridgments that made Tolstoy less confusing. I bought that -- hey, I was still in my teens. Recently, I read the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation and, besides being awed by Tolstoy, I concluded that yes, I would've found this too confusing in my early years of wrestling with English.

And when years after college  I wanted to revisit  a Thomas Mann novel that had been part of a course, I simply couldn't read it. This, I concluded, is not English. Perhaps that's why some folk don't bother with anything outside their native language, which had always struck me as chauvinism. Damn stuff is, or was, unreadable. But not to a boy who'd been reading English for only a few years  

So let's hear it for the bad translators, without whom I would have never read the classics. And let's hear it for the great translators throughout history, like those who penned the King James Bible. And, above all, let's hear it for today's magnificent translators. The pleasure, the intellectual and emotional growth, the closeness to our siblings throughout the world, all the good they do is beyond any prize.