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.