Being bi-lingual and interested in languages and literature, I have or so I like to believe, a fine ear (or eye) for literary translations in the languages I know. Here is a recent experience: A short while ago, I read The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross, a history of classical music in and of the 20th century. Excellent! Related blog, with musical examples. The author relates that a number of American musicians/composers have read Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkuehn As Told by a Friend. This sent me back to my library to re-read the novel, in the original German, about a composer who makes a Doctor Faustus-like deal with the Devil and eventually sinks into insanity, coinciding with the turmoil of the 1920s in Germany and the rise of Nazism. The novel is a tour de force in prose, and I wondered how this could actually be translated into English without loosing its impact. Not very well, I decided, after I had borrowed the above linked 1997 edition, translated by John E. Woods. As a matter of fact, I could not bring myself reading much of the book, it was too painful. Somewhere out there, there is a translation authorized by Thomas Mann, but it's out of print.
The question though is, do translations ever work satisfactorily?
All this got clarified in my mind when I caught up with my New Yorker issues. November 26, 2007 has an excellent essay and discussion of the latest edition of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, translators. The essay is titled Movable Types, How “War and Peace” works, by James Wood. After an initial analysis of author and novel, Mr. Wood goes on to the subject of translation. On Page 4 he starts out with saying that "Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation gives us new access to the spirit and order of the book," and then talks about translators as "originalists" and "activists," and that a good translator has to be a bit of both. There follow a discussion and revealing examples of the current translation compared with older ones – and made me understand my problems with the Doctor Faustus translation better. I picked up a 1920s German edition of "War and Peace" (Insel Verlag) at an antique book dealer's some years back and do like the translation much more than the English one I own, simply because it reads better. I'll have to find and check the cited passages to see whether they meet Mr. Wood's criteria – when I have the time …
So yes, translations do work with the right approach. And there is a good albeit unusual example within the sphere of this blog. Robert Graves' I Claudius and Claudius the God have been translated into the German in one single volume, Ich, Claudius, Kaiser und Gott. The translation was supervised by the author who here calls himself Robert von Ranke Graves, after an ancestor, the 19th century German historian Leopold von Ranke. Along the way Graves tightened the story considerably, which in my opinion makes it actually more readable than the English original.