#19: GREAT TRANSLATIONS. Keats’s sonnet “On Looking into Chapman’s Homer” is the great statement of a particular pleasure: discovering a translation that conveys the greatness of an ancient classic. For long years as a bookseller I’ve winced as some unsuspecting soul has approached a text in an arthritic translation that has long ago passed its sell-by date; and I still remember the shock, the extraordinary clarification of spirit, of reading Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of the Iliad and feeling that it had really happened, I had read the great work of the Western tradition. I was thinking of this experience recently, reading the Modern Library reissue of Donald Frame’s translation of Montaigne and rejoicing at how completely that great humane soul had made it into English. Some writers, Racine, for instance, Horace, Wang Wei, still await great translations; no one has quite yet brought across the whiplash perfection of La Rochefoucauld, or the full music of Eoghan O’Rathaille. Only as recently as 2000 has Seamus Heaney’s new version of Beowulf convinced me it was a great poem rather than homework, and once in a very blue moon you actually get a translation which equals or betters its original— Brian Hooker’s version of Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac comes to mind.
We are living in an extraordinary period for the art of translation. I strolled into a Borders the other day and could lay my hands on a remarkable range of books, everything from Stephen MacKenna’s translation of Plotinus to a new complete version of Huizinga’s Autumn of the Middle Ages and new versions of everything from Chasidic masters to Pablo Neruda. What follows is just a jumble and a stray selection of reading that has stayed with me, but the classics are so often spoken of as unchanging bedrocks that we forget that their guises in English weather differently and are often in need of revision. And when the renewal comes—when some fresh version carries the current across time and touches us with a living voice—it is ourselves, of course, not just the authors, who are translated.
---Of the Greek classics: Mary Barnard’s versions of Sappho are still very much the
best; Guy Davenport’s version of Diogenes (in his Seven Greeks) captures the
exhilarating edge of classical literature’s crankiest bastard. Robert Fagles’s version of
the Oresteia of Aeschylus is my favorite, and I remember with gratitude the impact of
reading Edith Hamilton’s translation of The Trojan Women during the dark time of
the Vietnam protests.
---Of the Oriental classics: Kenneth Rexroth’s translations of Tu Fu (in his 100
Poems from the Chinese) are only a fraction of the great T’ang poet’s work but are still as close as he’s come in English. Rexroth’s collections of Chinese and Japanese poetry have been introducting people to these topics for a generation now and are still among the best available. The various collections and editions by Red Pine are all terrific stuff. R.H. Blyth’s versions of the haiku poets are splendid; one can only wish they were available inexpensively. Barbara Stoler Miller’s Love Song of the Dark Lord is a version of Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda, and I also favor her version of the Bhagavad Gita.
---Of the great early twentieth century group of Russian poets, one who has made it most happily into English is Marina Tsvetaeva. Elaine Feinstein’s versions (in Selected Poems, Penguin) capture Tsvetaeva’s Yeatsian shock at the ferocity of her emotions.
---One of the great phantom figures of twentieth-century literature, the Irish-language novelist and poet Mairtin O’Cadhain, figures here ironically; like many nationalist artists, he opposed the translation of his works, and Cre na Cille (Graveyard Clay), his most famous novel and reputedly one of the great works of modern world lit, has never been done commercially into English. Fortunately for us, the temptation was too great for Eoghan O Tuairisc, who gathered a selection of O’Cadhain’s best short stories and translated them into a remarkably natural and expressive English, in The Road to Brightcity (Poolbeg Press). The stories are masterful—read them and you’ll believe O’Cadhain’s huge reputation is no more than justice. Brightcity is, alas, out of print, but not yet difficult to come by.
---P.S. 2018: Cre na Cille has now, however belatedly, been translated into English: twice, by the same publisher (Margellos World Republic of Letters), by Alan Titley as The Dirty Dust and by Liam Mac Con Iomaire and Tim Robinson as Graveyard Clay. I have sampled the first and read the second, and must admit that I came away a bit disappointed. The book—the snarling and riotous conversations of the dead in a Connemara graveyard—has a wild energy and biting humor; but the conversations go on an awfully long time for my money. I suspect the ingenuity—and the pleasure of recognizing—the Irish slang simply cannot be rendered in English; and good lord, it really does go on. I’d say if you want to read O’Cadhain in English stick to Brightcity.