Returning to the Well; Or, Why do we keep translating the classics?

Peter Ilsted

When I walked into my office this morning, I was greeted by the sight of a cartful of gorgeously bound classics. My library already has copies of all of the donated titles, but I want to add them to the collection because they’d be great replacements for our most beat up copies. This donation included a bunch of titles in translation that I will have to consider carefully before they’re added. I hesitate to add just any old translation because I’ve read critical (in the ordinary sense) reviews of translations that took liberties with the text or were unreadably dull. Not all translations are created equally.

Thinking about this particular batch of donations along with the news that there is a new critically acclaimed translation of The Odyssey got me to thinking about why publishers keep producing new translations of old titles. The cynical answer to my question is that public domain works are almost pure profit for publishers because there’s no author to pay royalties to. I have some theories as to less cynical answers.

My first theory is that the translator wanted to create a definitive translation that’s better than anything that’s come before. Past translations of a work may have been deeply flawed in terms of accuracy or deathly dry. In those circumstances, it’s absolutely necessary to make a new translation. Some Victorian era translations of books are so awful they’re crying out for a decent translation into English. The problem is that, no matter how good one’s translation is, it will only be definitive until the next definitive edition.

My second theory is that some translators have the gumption to play around with original to tell the old story in a new way. Some languages are extremely hard to translate due to nuances, cultural context, and linguistic drift. I love it with translators throw strict fidelity out the window to capture the essence of a story and bring it back to life.

I’m sure all of these explanations—the cynical one, the definitive one, and the playful one—are all true. But none really explains why translators keep returning to the same titles over and over; translations of old works that haven’t been published in English before are still rare. In the end, I suppose, some texts are truly immortal. The Iliad, The Odyssey, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and all the rest of the giants are so packed with meaning and so full of lively drama that we’ll never be done with them.


3 thoughts on “Returning to the Well; Or, Why do we keep translating the classics?

  1. Interesting post…I love translation theory! I did a bit of study on translation theory, textual criticism, etc. in seminary and when it comes to translation of ancient books (e.g. the Bible, the Iliad) there are at least a couple other reasons for new translations:

    1. Changes in receptor language: Like most languages, English is constantly changing, so a translation made 3-400 years ago (e.g. Pope’s Iliad or the King James Version of the Bible) no longer communicates to English-speakers in easily comprehensible language. An especially colloquial translation can become outdated much more quickly than 3-400 years.

    2. Updated scholarship: as more ancient manuscripts are discovered/studied there is a greater understanding of the ancient language (grammar, idioms, etc.) allowing for increasingly accurate translation (e.g. the discovery that the New Testament was written in Koine/Common Greek rather than Hebrew-influenced Classical Greek or some sort of mystical “Holy Spirit Greek”). There may also be new manuscript evidence that comes to light (e.g. the oxyrhynchus papyri or Codex Vaticanus), allowing for an even closer reconstruction of the original text where there are variants between manuscripts.

    And this is already way longer than I meant it to be so I’ll stop there 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I consider updated scholarship to be part of the drive to create new “definitive” versions, but I really like your first point about changes in the translator’s target language. The King James Bible, at least to me, is a definitive translation. Compared to later, more scholarly translations, the KJB just sounds right to me; it’s the most Bible-y Bible I’ve ever read. The KJB might be the only exception to your theory. I’m not widely read enough to think of any others, though I’ve heard great things about Constance Garnett’s translations of the Russian classics.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, the classic debate over the place of the KJB…Please feel free to ignore me if this doesn’t interest you…it’s kind of a hobby horse of mine so I do natter on. Personally, I would say that the KJB has had a tremendous impact on English-speaking culture (and the English language itself) and enjoyed longstanding popularity due to its beautiful-if-archaic language, but that does not make it definitive if by “definitive” we mean “accurate” or “the only one that we really need.”

      Historically speaking, any Bible translation that is around long enough gains a loyal following who feel that “this is what the Bible sounds like” (even if it barely resembles the language they actually speak) because it is the only Bible they have heard/read regularly. Anger and occasional violence ensued when the Latin Vulgate replaced the Greek Septuagint after about 500 years…and when Tyndale’s English translation replaced the Vulgate after about 1,000 years…and when the KJB started trying to displace the Geneva Bible after only about 50 years (it took 40-50 more years to fully unseat Geneva)…and when the NIV surpassed the KJB as the most-purchased English translation.

      In terms of accuracy, many modern translations surpass the KJB both in terms of properly catching grammatical nuances and reasoned textual decisions in passages where the wording of the original Greek manuscripts varies (the KJB New Testament rests on about 8-12 relatively recent Greek manuscripts and most modern translations on almost 6,000 going back as far as 2-3rd century). For all that, the differences in meaning are minimal and while they occasionally impact the meaning of an individual passage, they do not affect any of the doctrines of the Bible as a whole…so it all depends on what degree of scholarly accuracy you want.

      Something interesting in the “I prefer the archaic poetic language” side of things – at the time when the New Testament was written many (most?) Geek-speaking authors wrote in the poetic/sophisticated Classical Greek of 200 years before rather than the Koine/Common Greek spoken on the street. However, the New Testament writers opted for writing in Koine/Common Greek, giving their original recipients the Word of God in their own current, everyday language. For me, that’s an argument in favor of continued translation into everyday English rather than enshrining Shakespearean language as somehow “more like how God actually speaks.”

      Personally, I find poetic and historical value in the KJB, but for really serious Bible study I usually compare the relatively formal/poetic ESV (a direct descendant of the KJB) and the more colloquial NIV if I’m going to use English translations.


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