5 Epic Literary Translations

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It’s no secret that literature can be difficult to translate. That said, some books are definitely more challenging than others. Here are five novels that required epic levels of time and/or devotion from their translators.

1) Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

From a translator’s perspective, David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece could not have been more appropriately named. At one thousand pages of prose, with footnotes and 388 endnotes, the length alone makes translation an intimidating prospect. On top of that, there’s Wallace’s stream-of-consciousness prose style, packed with sly humour, allusions and hints that need to come through in the target language if readers are to have any chance of making sense of the tangled plot.

Nonetheless, Infinite Jest has been translated into six languages: German, Portuguese, Brazilian Portuguese, Spanish and French. The French translation just came out this year. It took two translators a dozen years to finish!

2) War and Peace, Tolstoy

War and Peace has been translated from the original Russian (and French) into English 11 different times. Each time, translators have had to decide how they will convey Tolstoy’s sometimes quirky writing style. As the New York Review of Books describes it:

Tolstoy’s syntax is unconventional. In War and Peace he frequently ignores the rules of grammar and word order to strengthen an effect or to recreate the looseness of the spoken word—a practice that can make his Russian read quite clumsily at times. He employs a wide variety of linguistic idioms, from the archaic civil service language of the chancelleries (put into the mouths of statesmen such as Arakcheev) and the Latin-German pattern of eighteenth-century literary Russian (spoken by the old Prince Bolkonsky) to the Gallicized and sentimental Russian of the early-nineteenth-century salon and the plain speech of the soldiers, peasants, and workmen.

These peculiarities combine with the sheer length of the text to make translating quite the task. One early translator, Constance Garnett, went almost completely blind while working on her version of “War and Peace.”

3) Finnegan’s Wake, James Joyce

Finnegan’s Wake is generally considered one of the “most difficult” novels in the English language, and with good reason. It took James Joyce seventeen years to write it, and it’s chock full of made-up words, grammatical irregularities and general weirdness. Plus, Joyce’s writing style here could best be described as stream-of-consciousness with a side of LSD. A sample:

“Anna was, Livia is, Plurabelle’s to be. Northmen’s thing made southfolk’s place but howmulty plurators made eachone in per-son? Latin me that, my trinity scholard, out of eure sanscreed into
oure eryan! Hircus Civis Eblanensis! He had buckgoat paps on him, soft ones for orphans. Ho, Lord! Twins of his bosom. Lord save us! And ho! Hey? What all men. Hot? His tittering daugh-ters of. Whawk?”

“Whawk?” is right. And yes, that is the English version. Yet somehow, Finnegan’s Wake has been translated into French, German, Japanese, Dutch, Korean, Brazilian Portuguese, Polish, Greek and partially into Chinese. Our hats are off to the brave men and women who worked on these translations! It can’t have been easy. The Chinese translator, Dai Congrong, spent eight years on just the first third of the book. The French translation took 30 years to finish.

4) In Search Of Lost Time, Marcel Proust

Literary value aside, In Search of Lost Time is notable for its length. It’s over 4,000 pages. For some perspective, that’s over twice the length of the average Bible.

It was first translated by Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff, who changed the title to “A Remembrance of Things Past” to add an allusion to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30. He died before he could translate the last volume.

5) 100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez

Márquez’s masterpiece covers seven generations of a single family. It was translated into English by award-winning translator Gregory Rabassa. His translation is acknowledged to be just as much of a masterpiece as the original work. According to the Center for Translation Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas: 

“Much of the chorus of verbal applause for Rabassa’s work is engendered by the conspicuous translation success of Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude. John S. Brushwood, author of many books on Mexican and Latin American literature, observes that Rabassa’s translation of Marquez’ novel “overcomes difficulties that would sear the imagination of most translators.” William Kennedy concludes that “On the basis of One Hundred Years of Solitude alone, Gregory Rabassa stands as one of the best translators who ever drew breath.”

Márquez himself paid Rabassa the best compliment an author could ever pay to a translator, saying he preferred Rabassa’s translation to the Spanish original.

What are your favorite literary translations? Have you read Finnegan’s Wake all the way through in any language? And if so, could you make sense of it? Let us know in the comments!

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