Faithfulness or Fun: What Should Be the Goal of Translation?

Thursday June 21, 2012

By Guide Biography: Patrick Kennedy

Right now, I'm reading Gavin Flood and Charles Martin's brand-new translation of The Bhagavad Gita. Okay, okay, I'm exaggerating a little here. Though I've thoroughly read the dust jacket and the introduction, I'm still trying to find just the right time to sit down to Flood and Martin's version of the ancient Hindu poem. But there were some things, dust jacket and introduction-wise, that caught my eye. This Bhagavad Gita has garnered advance praise from the Library Journal as "a translation that blends true scholarship with artistry." And in the words of Hinduism scholar Vinay Dharwadker, this Bhagavad Gita is "meticulous and imaginative at once."

Yet can a translation always be simultaneously meticulous and imaginative? Which of these two qualities should be the main goal of a translator? There isn't a common consensus on these questions, and very important translators have held very different opinions. Vladimir Nabokov, who was both a great novelist and a translator of 19th-century Russian novels, was obsessed with faithfully reconstructing his source texts. But the renowned American poet Robert Lowell had different priorities, and created entertaining yet radically abridged English versions of ancient Greek poems and plays. Not every translator can balance "true scholarship with artistry," and not every translator wants to.

If you had to choose, what kind of translations would you rather read? Translations that are faithful to their originals and give you a really good idea what Nietzsche or Gogol or Homer actually wrote? Or translations that are fun to read, and sacrifice meticulousness for the sake of eloquence and excitement?


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