As a lover of language, I have always been fascinated by translation. During my undergraduate studies I spent countless hours pouring over Latin and Greek dictionaries, and for my honors thesis I translated an excerpt from Aristophanes’ Acharnians. I believe everything is best read in its original language — who better to decide what word or phrase an author would have used than the author himself?
Obviously, not everything I read is in its original form. I’m not fluent enough in most other languages, and if I only read things whose author wrote in English, I would be missing out on a lot of wonderful literature. And while I maintain that the original is preferable, if a publisher wanted to translate my work to sell in another country, I would do my best to help make it happen. The upside to translation is that it makes a work accessible to a wider audience, and while some things are inevitably lost, these minutiae are almost always overwhelmed by what is gained.
Since I’ll be on my way to a foreign country when this post is published, I thought it might be fun to mention a few translations I’ve enjoyed over the years. These range from classics to bestsellers, popular to obscure. If you have a favorite work or author in translation (or perhaps a favorite translator), please share in the comments!
- The Beginning and the End by Naguib Mahfouz. Originally published in 1954, the novel depicts the economic, moral, and spiritual struggles of a middle-class family during the Egyptian revolution of the 1950s following the death of the head of the household. The different ways in which the siblings react to their father’s passing and the consequences of these reactions provide insights into both their characters and mid-twentieth-century Egypt.
- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, and the subsequent books in the trilogy. This was recently made into a movie, so I’ll keep the summary brief: Lisbeth Salander and Makeal Blomkvist are unique characters whose lives intersect in the investigation of a family secret in this mystery/thriller.
- The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. In this tale, set in 1945 Barcelona, Daniel finds comfort after his mother’s death in Julian Carax’s mysterious book, The Shadow of the Wind. Looking for other books by Carax, Daniel discovers that someone has been destroying every copy of every book he has written, and Daniel’s investigation plunges him into some of Barcelona’s darkest secrets in a story of murder, madness, and love.
- The Alchemist by Paolo Cuelho. The story follows the Andalusian shepherd boy Santiago as he sets off in search of the most extravagant treasure in existence. He journeys across Spain and parts of Africa before finally encountering the alchemist. This tale of listening to one’s heart and following one’s dreams was more philosophical than what I usually read, but it was an interesting novel.
- Antigone by Sophocles. I had to pick one Greek or Roman work, and I’ll be honest, this was a tough choice. Part of the challenge of translating ancient works is that one also has to translate the cultural and historical references in them. Antigone isn’t my favorite classical work, but I think this translation is the most accessible to the average reader. (Some of my favorites include Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis and Aristophanes’ Acharnians, but both employ puns in the original language and require a lot of background knowledge for one to understand the humor.)