Lost in Versions of Translations

July 9, 2009 at 12:00 am 8 comments

The Signet Classics Version

The Signet Classics Version

It’s funny what will set you off about a book. I think that most people, deciding to read Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy would be first put off by its heft (hardly surprising for Tolstoy) and then its epic tragedy (most everyone likes a happy ending, let’s be frank) and finally possibly its lack of a clear titular protagonist (Why, exactly, is is just named after Anna [or her daughter]? Why not Lenin? Or Vronksy? Or Kitty? This may become clearer to me once I finish it. I’ll keep you posted.).

For me, none of these things really got to me and my entire dramatic relationship with Anna Karenina came down to copies. I will post a fuller review of Anna once I finish it and thus this is simply a teaser of things to come, but I must say my long and storied history with versions, translations and the copy that you chose to be yours came to be a head with Anna Karenina.

Translation has almost always been a thing that has bothered me. I read The Stone and the Flute sometime in middle school and was immediately bothered and distanced from the text by the translation. It seemed flat and unnecessarily devoid of feeling and, most of all, it made me wonder what was lost in translation and how much or little of the author’s text I was really getting. Or perhaps I was getting all of the text and none of the feeling. Either way, there was undeniably something lost.

Since then, I have been increasingly manic about translations. I spent the better part of an hour in a bookstore deliberating about which Don Quixote was the truest, fretted over the poetic Beowulf of Seamus Heaney vs. a more traditional translation and was completely entranced and intrigued by Richard Pevear’s new translation of The Three Musketeers (let’s just say it’s purportedly more accurate and thus a good less bowdlerized). This was all well and good, but with Anna things reached new heights. Why? Because of copies.

In reading Anna, I was thrust into the unique and unpleasant situation of beginning in one copy/translation and continuing in another copy/translation entirely. The first copy/translation was a lovely little Signet Classic with a vivid and thoroughly era-appropriate translation and a cover that featured a brown painting of a woman seated at a desk from behind. I loved everything about that Signet Classic except for the fact that it belonged to my roommate and I was thus obliged to part with it half-way through and find my own copy. This put me in the thoroughly detestable position of having to not only find my own copy after becoming attached to that little Signet, but muddle through the myriad choices of translation having already become accustomed to another.

Versions and copies of any given book present many difficulties, translation being simply one of them. The odds of finding the perfect combination of cover, translation, font and physical size are so slim, even without having to contend with one’s affections already being engaged to another copy, that I suppose it is hardly surprising that I floundered and, ultimately, failed when it came to Anna. But not after many hours and much misery. As my mother put it at the end of a day as I sobbed over the Dover Thrift Edition I ended up with, “I know it’s a tragic novel, Corey, but really…!”

The Dover Thrift Edition

The Dover Thrift Edition

I have never before been so lost in the sea of versions and copies and translations as I was with Anna. At present, I am barely content with what I ended up with. Despite its unpleasant physical size, ugly cover and passable translation, the Dover Thrift Edition was at least purchased from an indie bookstore, so that’s some consolation. And at least it and the Signet can both agree to call Anna’s husband “Karenin” instead of constantly referring to him as “Alexei Alexandrovich.” And, although the translator seems inordinately fond of parenthesis instead of the commas preferred by the Signet translator, at least the translation is good enough to let me get lost in Tolstoy rather than getting bogged down in wondering and worrying over what I’ve lost in this version of the translation.


Entry filed under: Classics, Musings and Essays. Tags: , , .

Scarred Fairy Tale Friday: The Happy Prince

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. KT  |  July 9, 2009 at 8:51 am

    Okay, I am intrigued! Your post is just what I needed to prompt me into buying my own copy — some sort of Penguin Classics deluxe edition that’s a little…tarted up to apparently appeal to the modern reader. It won some sort of translation award, though, so maybe it’ll be good.

    Also, expect something in the mail at your mom’s apartment (I don’t have your new address!). :D

  • 2. Corey  |  July 9, 2009 at 9:15 am

    Oh. My. God. Richard Pevear is so the coolest person ever. He did the translation of your copy of Anna as well as my Definitive Copy of The Three Musketeers! I feel like such an idiot for not immediately getting his copy of Anna. *head doink*

    Anyway, what does your copy look like? Is it the one with the naked legs and flowers between them?

  • 3. KT  |  July 9, 2009 at 9:27 am

    Yes it is! Which makes me feel a little silly, especially as it’s listed as the Oprah’s Book Club version, but it doesn’t seem to say that anywhere on the cover, so I’ll deal with it. I’m not above a little cover-tarting :P

  • 4. Corey  |  July 9, 2009 at 10:17 am

    Oy. This is totally my problem! That text is no doubt my preferred text, but I am deterred from buying it because the cover is so silly and oftentimes mentions Oprah! I don’t want to be seen reading that on the subway! So I’m stuck with the husband and wife translating team of Aylmer and Louise Maude (c. 1914) and a dour-looking portrait of some stern woman staring back at me. Travails!

  • 5. KT  |  July 9, 2009 at 10:59 am

    On the upside, at least someone at Harpo knows what’s what.

  • 6. Corey  |  July 9, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    Meaning because they chose the book for Oprah’s book club?

  • 7. KT  |  July 9, 2009 at 7:28 pm

    Meaning because they chose the right translator to endorse ;)

  • 8. Corey  |  July 10, 2009 at 6:26 am

    Ah yes, indeed! Sorry I missed the boat there. *belatedly applauds Harpo*


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