“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

50 Best Translations…

By Eric Abrahamsen, published

From the past fifty years. So says The Times, at any rate. One Chinese book, Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain, and that almost certainly because Gao is a Nobel laureate. On the other hand, if I had to vote for a best Chinese-English translation from the past fifty years, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a definitive champion…

Update: Esther Allen, Executive Director of the Center for Literary Translation at Columbia University, posted this up on the Guardian about the list of 50, in which, alongside ruminations on the books that made the list, she mentions that the recommended translation rate posted on the British Translators' Association webpage is 80 pounds per thousand words of prose! Golly.


# 1.   

Well I definitely wouldn't choose soul mountain...the translation is awful; its just literal,academic rubbish without an ounce of feeling anywhere in the whole book. For the best translation from Chinese into English ever I would say it has to be David Hawkes' Dream of a Red Chamber, despite the verbosity of the original.

I don't know how you judge the best translation though, because surely the winner will be the best book, where the translation is transparent and doesn't hinder the original.

Fred, July 13, 2008, 5:45a.m.

# 2.   

I just had a look at the list, Soul Mountain is higher than War and Peace...bit of a joke really

Fred, July 13, 2008, 5:47a.m.

# 3.   

War and Peace in Russian is actually War and World, that is what I have heard anyway.

zerihar, July 13, 2008, 1:02p.m.

# 4.   

Seconding David Hawkes and John Minford's translation of 红楼梦. Absolute gold standard. Victor Mair's translation of 庄子 (as "Wandering on the Way") has a lot to recommend it as well.

Interesting that they go with the Glenny translation of 'The Master and Margarita' -- I'd been under the impression that it was pretty flawed. I've only read the Bergin/O'Connor translation myself, as a friend bilingual in Russian recommended it, plus when in doubt I tend to go with the Irish names.

Note that William Weaver's on that list twice - once for Eco, once for Calvino.

 Brendan, July 13, 2008, 2:04p.m.

# 5.   

I also like how the names of the translators are included as afterthoughts, in parentheses (3rd) after the original author's name (1st) and the translated title (2nd). Oy.

Matt, July 14, 2008, 12:10p.m.

# 6.   

How nice of them to drop the 50 best translations out of the sky like that. I wonder what the criteria for "good translation" are... Is it just something that's assumed to be self-evident? Is it some complex calculus of obscurity, sales figures and "giving voice"? It would at least be nice to know how these things are judged.

Matt, July 14, 2008, 12:34p.m.

# 7.   

Just a few mumblings from the Old Drunkard:

Barbara Wright as 状元 for Exercices de style is well-deserved, because every translator of the funniest book in history (cf. Eco for the Italian and Helmlé/Harig for the German translation)should be at the top of such a list. Is there a decent Chinese translation?

No idea for the best CH-E translation of a single work, but (as I am drunk)I will nominate Edward H. Schafer as best translator of Classical Chinese for his philological fastidiousness and poetical exuberance.

Congrats on a very nice blog.

zuiweng, July 14, 2008, 5:35p.m.

# 8.   

Over at Three Percent they figured out that the list is in chronological order, so that's one question answered. Yet to be resolved is what constitutes an outstanding translation, and why Soul Mountain is on the list...

Eric Abrahamsen, July 15, 2008, 2:55a.m.

# 9.   

ooor, they're implying that translations are just getting worse and worse... :-)

Matt, July 15, 2008, 3:45a.m.

# 10.   

I have to add Richmond Lattimore's translations of The Odyssey and Iliad. From someone who has read from both the originals, they are an outstanding combination of poetry and academic insight. The newest translation of the Divine Comedy by the husband-and-wife pair (Huntington) is also impressive. I agree with those above that Soul Mountain has no place anywhere near that list, but I'm going to come right out and admit that I have a problem with Gao Xingjian in general. That, however, is another argument.

Canaan Morse, July 15, 2008, 2:38p.m.

# 11.   

I liked Lee's Soul Mountain, but I haven't read the original, so I'll reserve judgment. Roberts' translation of Three Kingdoms is also very nice, seems to me to capture the tone nicely, though, again, I've only read fragments of the original.

It's just a piece of commercial fluff, this thing. From the site of the organization that made the list (not The Times): "The Translators Association celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. To mark the occasion the Committee has compiled a list of 50 outstanding translations from the last 50 years – a sampler, to provoke thought, and get people talking. It’s by no means definitive, and many wonderful translations and eminent translators are missing, but here’s our list."

Phil, July 16, 2008, 12:09p.m.

# 12.   

In response to comment #3, zerihar: Whomever told you that was either having a joke at your expense, or was not quite clear what he was talking about. World and peace are homonyms in Russian. The meaning of the title of the work "War and Peace" is the same in Russian as in English.

Will, July 17, 2008, 6:59a.m.

# 13.   

While I'm not surprised it hasn't made the list, it seems like Alfred MacAdam's translation of Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet should be on the top shelf of any translator worth his or her salt.

This may well be the saddest book I've ever read. Here is an excerpt from the translation (ppgs 20-22):

"There are metaphors that are more real than the people walking down the street. There are images in the secret corners of books that live more clearly than many men and women. There are literary phrases that possess an absolutely human individuality. There are passages in paragraphs of mine that chill me with fear, so clearly do I feel them to be people, standing alone so freely from the walls of my room, at night, in the shadows, [...] I have written lines, whether they're read loudly or softly, whose sound - it's impossible to hide their sound - is that of something that has gained absolute and entire independence of soul..."

"I created myself, echo and abyss, by thinking. I multiplied myself, by going deeply into myself. The smallest episode - a change of light, the crumpled fall of a dead leaf, the petal that drops off and commits yellowcide, the voice on the other side of the wall or the footsteps of the person behind the voice next to those who should be listening to the voice, the half-open gate to the old estate, the patio that opens with an arch onto the houses heaped up in the moonlight - all these things, which do not belong to me, tie up my sensory meditation with cords of resonance and nostalgia. In each one of these sensations I am someone else, I renew myself painfully in each indefinite impression."

"I live on impressions that don't belong to me, prodigal with renunciations, just another version of myself."

Cindy Carter, July 20, 2008, 2:06p.m.

# 14.   

I am no expert, but...they do not even have one Murakami on the list. Crazy!

Kanav, September 9, 2009, 1:28a.m.


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