Sunday, February 9, 2014

Found in translation

Last October I was playing with the idea of reading my way through Zola's Rougon-Macquart novels as a long term project. Never one to rush into a thing when I can put it off for a bit it's taken me until this week to actually open a book but I've finally started on 'The Fortune of the Rougons' and it's giving me a lot to think about.

I once read something somewhere about the British being pretty poor at reading European classics which presumably extends to fiction in translation generally. If I'm in any way typical it's an accurate assessment and I'm guessing I am reasonably typical in this because bar the inevitable Scandi thrillers my local bookshops have very little foreign fiction (would that be the correct term?) on offer. I'm not really sure if it's something I should feel mildly guilty about or not, great books deserve to be read, but there are far to many to ever read all of them so does it matter which ones you read as long as you enjoy them? I don't think it does matter but still feel mildly guilty about it and that's the reason for this Zola odyssey - I get to combine a general enthusiasm for nineteenth century classics and expand my horizons (very slightly).

Not reading a great deal in translation coupled with no ability to learn other languages at all also means I don't spend a lot of time thinking about what translation means. Until I read about it somewhere it had never occurred to me that translation would be anything other than literal but then I'd never thought about it, now I have it's obvious that there would be a creative, interpretive element to it. When I first thought about this project Tom at Wuthering Expectations pointed me to this blog here for somebody who'd already done it and had some interesting things to say about old Zola translations - the Vizetelly versions are available free as ebooks and in some cases are (I believe) all that is available. The version I'm reading is a new translation for Oxford World's Classics by Brian Nelson which I'm really enjoying, it's vivid, evocative, and generally compelling. I've also had a look at the Vizetelly version - just the first few pages to compare a sequence I particularly liked in the OWC book. The differences aren't as startling as the passages Guy picked out (follow that link) in this case different words don't really change the meaning of a descriptive passage of a disused graveyard but Nelson paints me a more satisfying picture.

The result is that this is the first time I genuinely wish I could understand French but then books are so often the way into things for me. I wonder if I'd been familiar with some French classic suitable for 11 year olds and told it was even better in the original if that would have made me try that little bit harder with the language. As it was Asterix was pretty good in English and all I can do is read Zola's story rather than his words which possibly explains why as a nation we're reasonably indifferent to translated fiction but does nothing to explain why we're not better at teaching languages.


  1. I have read two of the Brian Nelson translations and they were both terrific. This series of new Zola translations Oxford is doing is a gift. I am not quite as tempted as some people to read all 20 of the Rougon-Macquart books, but as spiffy new translations continue to appear I may change my mind.

  2. I'm drawn to 19th century classics which made Zola tempting, if I carry on enjoying the series as much as I am the first book I would want to read them all anyway. The impression I got from Guy Savage's piece was that the books worth reading have got recent translations, I think I'm right in saying OWC are releasing new translations of the 3 he thought particularly good and not then available in up to date versions. On the other hand I'm not overly committed to reading any book that proves a bit of a dud and there's no time limit on this project if I do see it through.

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