8 Famous Translators From the Past and Present

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Translators tend to live in the shadows of the writers and authors whose work they translate. But today is World Translation Day. That means it’s time for translators to enjoy their day in the sun.  To celebrate, we’re highlighting 8 of the world’s most famous translators. Which one is your favourite?

St. Jerome (347-420 AD)

St. Jerome was an early Christian scholar who translated most of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. His translation, known as the Vulgate, became the official Catholic translation of the Bible and was the only translation of the Bible in use for a thousand years.

As such, even Jerome’s translation mistakes had a tremendous influence on Western culture. For instance, there are countless pictures of Moses with horns on his head because Jerome translated the Hebrew “keren” as “grew horns” instead of “radiated light.”

St. Jerome is the patron saint of translators, and we celebrate World Translation Day on his feast day.

Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890)

Let’s jump right from the sacred to the profane, shall we? Sir Richard Francis Burton was an “English explorer, geographer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, spy, linguist, poet, fencer, and diplomat” (according to Wikipedia).

In other words, he was basically The Most Interesting Man in the World for the 19th century.

Sir Richard Burton didn’t always translate ancient literature into English…but when he did, it was usually something erotic and “scandalous” for the time. For example, he was the first person to translate the Kama Sutra into English.  He was also the first to produce an uncensored translation of The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night. Other notable translations include The Perfumed Garden of the Cheikh Nefzaoui: A Manual of Arabian Erotology and the Priapiea, a collection of ancient Roman poems dedicated to “the rigid god.”

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)

He’s best known as an author, but Jorge Luis Borges was also a notable translator. He got his start early, translating Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince into Spanish for a newspaper in Buenos Aires when he was only 9 years old!

He later translated William Faulkner, André Gide, Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka, Rudyard Kipling, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf and more into Spanish.  As he was both a writer and a translator, it’s no surprise that he also wrote quite a bit about translation. In both his translations and his writings on the subject, Borges discounted the importance and desirability of sticking too strictly to the source text. Instead, he prized a “happy and creative infidelity” both in his own work and when reading the translations of others.

Gregory Rabassa (1922-2016)

Gregory Rabassa, who passed away earlier this year, was noted for translating literature from Spanish and Portuguese into English.  Authors he translated included major Latin American greats like Julio Cortázar, Jorge Amado, and Gabriel García Márquez.

In fact, García Márquez was so impressed by Rabassa’s translation skills that he was willing to wait 3 years for Rabassa to translate One Hundred Years of Solitude.  His patience was rewarded; he considered the resulting translation to be even better than his original.

Rabassa’s memoir,  If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Discontents, is a popular book that’s well worth reading in its own right. The Los Angeles Times named it a “Favorite Book of the Year” for 2005.  It also won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for the Art of the Memoir.

Constance Garnett (1861-1946)

Constance Garnett was famous for her translations of Russian literature, including works by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Chekhov. She was quite prolific, translating 71 volumes of literature from various Russian authors before retiring in 1934.

Her work was by no means perfect. If she didn’t understand a specific word or phrase, she sometimes resorted to leaving it out. Her translations were controversial even at the time. Conrad and Tolstoy loved her. Nabokov despised her. He once referred to her translation of Gogol as “dry sh*t”. There may have been some sour grapes there … Nabokov liked to pontificate on how translation should work but his own translation of Eugene Onegin is (by design) notoriously inaccessible to the average English reader.

Whatever you think of Garnett’s translations, her work introduced important Russian authors to an adoring English-speaking public, influencing notable writers like Hemingway.

Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

Sometimes, two heads are better than one. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are a husband-and-wife translation team that has worked on updated translations of Russian literary classics like The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina. Volokhonsky is a native Russian speaker, her husband is an American professor who has taught courses on Russian literature and translation.

Oprah Winfrey chose their version of Anna Karenina for her Book Club in 2004, and they’ve won the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize twice.

Edward George Seidensticker (1921—2007)

Edward Seidensticker was one of the most highly regarded Japanese translators, bringing work by Japanese authors Yasunari Kawabata, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, and Yukio Mishima to English readers.

How important is the work of a translator? According to the New York Times, “Mr Seidensticker’s translations of Kawabata’s work are generally credited with helping Kawabata secure the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968, the first Japanese writer to receive the award.”

Stephen Mitchell

Stephen Mitchell is famous for his many modern translations of ancient literature. His oeuvre includes but is not limited to Tao Te Ching, Gilgamesh, The Iliad, and The Odyssey.

His translations are known for being “vibrant, earnest, unfussily accessible,” as reviewer Joy Connolly noted in the New York Times Book Review.  The Wall Street Journal has called him “the rock star of translators.”

Obviously, this list could be several times longer, and it would still be incomplete. So, I’ll leave it to you… who are your favourite translators? Let us know in the comments.