Better Mendacities

A few years ago, when I was in Russia, I got into a conversation about Pushkin. He is the guy who Russians effuse over and cite as their national poet, but ask people in the West what Russian authors they admire and you'll hear Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Chekov (the latter especially for his contributions to the short story form). Few Westerners, however, read Pushkin. I suspect it's a translation thing. I've often wondered why some authors translate and others don't.

People who can't read classical Greek are still blown away by Homer. Goethe, on the other hand, not so much. I know great admirers of Flaubert who can't speak a lick of French, but try as I might I can't get into an English translation of Rimbaud. All this makes me think it's related to genre. Poetry loses its "sound sense" in translation, a loss that is not as central to drama and the novel. So even though Shakespeare and Homer wrote in verse, there are compelling enough plots, characterizations, and themes to support them outside of their original languages (ever see Kurosawa's Ran?).

Still, can you even imagine reading Lear in Spanish? The loss would be immense, although, I suppose, still bearable to those who didn't appreciate what they were missing. But just try to imagine reading someone like Gerard Manly Hopkins, Wallace Stevens, or even e.e. cummings outside of English. It would be almost pointless. Here, the "sound sense" is vital to forming an understanding (and I would argue Whitman--our national poet--would be lost in translation as well).

I once heard a classics professor say that it was profitless to read Aeschylus without an awareness of the richness of Greek verb tenses. I don't know. Maybe, but I think there's still enough meat on the bones to matter with Greek drama. I also read somewhere that the difference between reading the New Testament in the original Greek and reading it in even a good English translation is like going from grainy black and white to the most intense Technicolor you could possibly imagine.

Sometimes, too, I recall a quote from Ezra Pound: "Better mendacities than the classics in translation!" But what are you going to do? It is a great pity that we can't spend our entire lives learning languages.


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