Monday, 15 June 2009

An apple is an apple, or In defence of (good) translation - Part Two

I have been toying for some time with the idea of publishing a new edition of Dante’s Convivio (The Banquet). A casual Internet browser may say I’m a fool, as a quick search shows there’s around a dozen other English editions published in the last four or five years, as if signalling a Renaissance of translated fiction in the English-speaking countries. A more careful look will show that these are not mainstream editions, but badly rehashed, mostly unedited versions of some out-of-print translation. The prices range from £8.99 to over seventy quid. They are all by print-on-demand or e-book publishers, with suggestive names such as Dodo Press, Aegypan, Bastian Books, Kessinger Publishing, Standard Publications Inc., The Echo Library, Book Jungle.

Can we call these operators cynical right-grabbers? Or are these publishers motivated by a sincere love of literature and by a true desire to make available books that would otherwise be hard or impossible to come by? I’ll leave it to you to decide just by browsing their “publishing” programmes (which strangely brings to mind what Google is trying to do on a much larger scale). Call me a snob, but I have always maintained that spreading bad information is worse than remaining silent.

And I want to invite you to a short trip into the past, using that much underrated time machine that is a library. Just browsing the London Library catalogue, you’ll find not one or two, but three different translations of Dante’s Banquet published between 1889 and 1909. The first was published by Kegan Paul, Trench & Co, the second one by J.M. Dent (1903), and the third one by Oxford University Press – all of them very much mainstream publishers. These volumes are printed on high-quality paper (one of them on laid paper), beautifully typeset and complete with notes. The translations are fairly accurate, and I am convinced that they rang authentic to their contemporary audience.

On the other hand, this is what on offer on our leading online retailer one hundred years after the more recent of the three translations above (Courtesy of Read Inside):

‘As the Philosopher says in the beginning of the first Philosophy, “All men naturally desire Knowledge.” The reason of which may be, that each thing, impelled by the intuition of its own nature, tends towards its perfection, hence forasmuch as Knowledge is the final perfection of our Soul, in which our ultimate happiness consists, we are all naturally subject to the desire for it.

Verily, many are deprived of this most noble perfection, by divers causes within the man and without him, which remove him from the use of Knowledge.’

Which, I would argue, is hardly intelligible by a modern reader, especially because of its haphazard punctuation and the absence of notes or any editorial context.

I don’t think the problem here lies with Dante’s proverbial obscurity. He is obviously far removed from our world and our culture, having died almost seven centuries ago. But I think the real issue is the scarcity of good translators – not necessarily motivated only by money – and good translations for our times.


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