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New translations of Iliad, Odyssey, Decameron, Ivan Ilyich, and Tolstoy’s Confession

October 6, 2013

A somewhat overwrought Wall Street Journal article announces several new translations:

The article in the Wall Street Journal, as is typical of Rupert Murdoch news outlets, is amusing but rather shallow—suggesting that the principal differences between various translations of Anna Karenina are best characterized by how they translate “поршни”—a term for a type footwear:

Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina famously starts “All happy families are alike.”  But what readers may want to know is how alike are different translations of such foreign classics?  There are half-a-dozen English-language translations of the 1878 Russian novel available for sale online, including the 2001 version produced by celebrated translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  An endorsement by Oprah Winfrey turned that edition into a best-seller, with more than 1.3 million copies in print to date.  Yet next year, two new translations of the massive novel will hit the shelves. “Why two more now, and in the same year? I have no idea,” says Mr. Pevear in an email.

It isn’t only Tolstoy’s works that get such treatment. For example, shoppers can choose from half-a-dozen versions of The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio’s sometimes bawdy 14th-century tale.  This month, however, W.W. Norton & Co. will publish a new translation by Wayne A. Rebhorn priced at $40. New versions of The Iliad and The Odyssey are also coming this fall.

What possesses a publisher to produce a new version of a classic?  The long answer is that costs are low—no big author advances are needed—and there is always a chance that a new version will become a hit in colleges, providing an annuity revenue stream.  And the short answer, at least in some cases, is that some translators are out to make names for themselves. 

“I thought I could do better,” says Mr. Rebhorn, an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin who started work on The Decameron in 2006 after concluding that the translations he was teaching in his classroom fell short of the mark.  As an example, he cites a 1977 version, published by Norton, that includes a scene where a young man is described as being “naked from the waist down.”  Mr. Rebhorn says Boccaccio actually wrote the man was "naked from the waist up."  The distinction is critical to the meaning of the scene, a central point of which is a red birthmark on the man’s chest, says Mr. Rebhorn. 

One of the translators of the 1977 version, Peter Bondanella, a distinguished professor emeritus of comparative literature, film studies and Italian at Indiana University, appeared a tad put out when told of Mr. Rebhorn’s critique.  “I would be happy to address this question if you allow me to go over Wayne’s edition and find some mistakes that he can address,” he said via email.  In a follow-up note, Mr. Bondanella said that mistakes are inevitable in translations of such long, complex works. “Each new translation profits from those that went before,” he wrote. “I am sure that Wayne took a look at our version, especially since we tried to take a nonarchaic, non-British approach to Boccaccio’s great and very clear vernacular Italian.”  Mr. Bondanella said he would seek to correct the error that Mr. Rebhorn spotted in future editions.

But such concerns provide impetus for some translators, such as Rosamund Bartlett, who is translating one of the coming new versions of Anna Karenina, for Oxford University Press.  (Another, translated by Marian Schwartz, will be published by Yale University Press.)  Ms. Bartlett describes herself as a “perfectionist,” one reason her translation has taken seven years, three years longer than Tolstoy took to write the book in the first place. She also wrote a well-received biography of Tolstoy during that period. 

Her exactitude comes through in her focus on the correct translation of a word used to describe footwear in a hunting scene, featuring an aristocrat dressed in shabby clothing and wearing a summer peasant shoe made from a simple piece of leather.  The late translator Constance Garnett, whose published translation first appeared in 1901, described the footwear as “spats,” which Ms. Bartlett says is “an example of where she was off the mark.”  Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, in their best-selling version, described the footwear as “brogues,” which Ms. Bartlett believes conjures up an image of “smart shoes with perforations.”  She decided to describe the shoes as “light peasant moccasins.”  Yet even the choice of “moccasin” contains within it the seeds of misunderstanding, she notes, since there are many relatively fancy moccasins available for sale today. “It’s a loaded word, particularly in the U.S.,” says Ms. Bartlett.  “Most disagreements over words ignore the context, which is all important,” responds Mr. Pevear in an email.  He says Tolstoy’s original word for the shoes, “porshni,” “is obsolete in Russian,” describing “primitive peasant shoes made from raw leather.”  He says that is “rather close to the first meaning of brogues in the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘rough shoes of untanned hide.’ “

As Ms. Bartlett’s seven-year effort suggests, translating is a labor of love for many. Certainly, no one goes into the field to get rich. Ms. Bartlett’s entire advance for the book was £4,500, or about $7,000.  Although she is also entitled to author royalties, she expects it “will be a long time before I get those.”  Judith Luna, a senior commissioning editor at Oxford University Press, said one reason Oxford is bringing out a new edition is that “we want to have a 21st-century translation with a critically up-to-date introduction and notes.”

For some, the act of translation confers its own rewards.  This November, Robert Weil, publishing director of Norton’s Liveright Publishing imprint, is publishing two of Tolstoy’s works translated by Peter Carson in one volume, The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Confession.  The work combines a piece of fiction and Tolstoy’s spiritual memoir. Mr. Carson completed his translation only a few days before dying.  “He consciously chose to spend the last year of his life translating this book,” says Mr. Weil.

Can there be too many translations of a single work?  Apparently not, because certain classic titles strike some publishers as simply irresistible. These include Murasaki Shikibu’s 11th-century novel The Tale of Genji, which has been published by Penguin Classics and others.  Yet Jill Schoolman, publisher of Brooklyn-based Archipelago Books, says she is mulling a new one.  “There’s always room for another excellent translation,” she says.

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