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When you want to do a little bit of “light reading” over the holidays, what better to do than to start off with 150 year old literature like a Dostoevsky novel? I’m joking of course. While Dostoevsky is certainly not an easy read, it’s easy to forget as an English reader that behind his writings is also the important work of a translator. Translators are influential in accessing many of the world’s great writings that are still being studied today. People who are interested in studying Western philosophy, for instance, rely much on the work of translators, from Greek (Plato, Aristotle), German (Nietzsche, Kant), Danish (Kierkegaard), French (Descartes) and Russian (Dostoevsky, Tolstoy), to name a few (here’s another long list of influential philosophers). And each of their writings and translations are further studied by other thinkers of today.

Notes from Underground

The thought of writing this blog came after reading a translation of the 1864 published “Notes from Underground” by Dostoevsky. The book was written from a narrator’s perspective, and the first-person observations and interactions described in the book uses language and social conventions that were common in the mid-1800s. However, the book is fairly accessible (it’s also very short) with some need for historic reference material. Once you get through the more difficult first act that is essentially a rambling monologue filled with riddles, the story then focuses on 2 main acts that are much easier to follow. Throughout the book, the story read to me as if it was penned directly by the Russian writer in that particular time, although I’m sure considerable thought has been put into the English translation by the translator many, many years later (1972 Penguin Classic, in my case, by Jessie Coulson). Coulson has translated several of Dostoevsky’s publications and in reading about commentary on his work he certainly is well-recommended. The most widely recommended or recognized English translations of Dostoevsky’s work probably is Pevear and Volokhonsky, who as far as I can tell from commentary, were the most literal translators concerned in keeping with the style of the original writer.

The plight of the literary translator

In an earlier blog we discussed the role of the translator on how difficult it is to define the exact rules by which we grade all translations. Especially with literary writings, the goal of truthfully translating a writer like Dostoevsky seems almost impossible. Not only are you dealing with the language of the time, but also with the writer’s style that is deeply associated with their own character and motivations. Some of the literary commentary about other translator’s work of Dostoevsky’s writings that I read was that they took either too much liberty with the interpretation of language and removing some of the essential quirkiness of Dostoevsky’s character as a writer. Some earlier translators of literary work simply omitted information that was deemed unnecessary for the English reader.

A translator has to deal with the fact that their interpretation of the work undoubtedly takes away some of the essence of the original writer. To illustrate the difficulty in deciding what kind of approach to take in the work of a translator, I recall a comment made on the works of Shakespeare. English readers do not get the “luxury” of reading a translation since the original text was already in English. But it is very old English and so if you wish to actually read Shakespeare, it has to be read in its original form by the reader and not through an intermediary scholar who carefully translated the work into something more accessible. That is the downside of sticking with original writing as it ages over time. But, then, who would dare to translate Shakespeare into plain English?

And that’s the plight of the translator as the intermediary link between the work of the author and the collective force that is the readers. Not to mention their own historical and personal biases that they have to wrestle with, publishers deadlines to achieve and literary puritans to please. What’s more important, though, is that the translations of texts that had a profound influence on how people generated ideas and that are still affecting the world today, are preserved and distributed in languages that can be read by anyone around the world. It’s important for people who wish to provide commentary on social, philosophical and political ideas to be able to investigate the works of minds that have shaped the world and to be able to build from there a world view that can be shared and discussed.

Translation gives access to knowledge

In a sense now we are all interpreters and social commentators of our time, influenced by the history of great minds of the 19th and 20th century thinkers who themselves have been influenced by writers and thinkers of times before. Translators have played, and continue to play, an important role in sharing the knowledge that is contained within these writings. It’s important that we see the works of translators as a way to get a thorough feel for the author’s perspective even though the work of the translator sometimes requires some linguistic freedom. How much influence a translator has on the changing the true words of the writer is difficult to quantify, especially when the author is no longer around. Some may find that it is imperative to read different translators to get a sense of their own style and see what translation fits best. But there’s no doubt that translations are a much needed good that provides access to a rich and diverse group of fundamental thinkers that went before us and to continue translate the work that is being done today. And that’s a pretty good thought for the translation world to keep going strong into 2019.

So here’s to the work of translators, who help provide the world with the wealth of knowledge.