Why I Refuse to Read Translations

The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either one. They’re reading Constance Garnett.

Joseph Brodsky

Several years ago I studied a postgraduate course in medieval history. During the overview the advisor had some choice words for myself and the other students: “You cannot truly call yourself a medievalist if you cannot read Latin,” he said. “If you only read via translation, you are at the mercy of the translator, at the mercy of that translator’s grasp on the language, and of the vernacular of the time in which the translation was written.” At the time, I took his words to be nothing more than gatekeeping, a way of justifying to us why the bulk of the subject was built more around learning to read and write Latin rather than historical examination.

It was only months later, once we were well into the subject and had a firmer grasp of Latin, that I fully understood the Professor’s words. We were given two texts of a dispute between a landowner and his tenant, one in the original Latin and the other already translated into English. We were told to first read the English version before then reading the Latin and making our own translation of the piece.

In the already translated text the landowner, on learning that the tenant has built a grain mill without obtaining prior permission, goes down to meet with his tenant, where he informs said tenant of his need for planning permission, and tells him that he will need to tear down the building. The tenant reluctantly agrees.

The Latin told a very different story.

In the original work, the landowner, on learning that the tenant has built a grain mill without obtaining permission, throws his food to the floor, declares himself white with anger, runs down to the plot of land, tells the tenant he’s an old fool who should know better than to build something without permission and then tells the tenant that if the building isn’t demolished within the day, the landowner is going to tear down the building himself and he doesn’t care if the tenant and his children are inside it when he does.

It was an interesting insight to the changes that could be, and indeed were, made to foreign works, and it certainly redefined my attitude towards reading translations. Indeed, there is an untold number of ‘classics’ that I have yet to read, simply because I do not understand the language in which they were originally written and I refuse to put my understanding of a sentence at the mercy of somebody else.

I guess it will have to continue to be the case that until I learn how to read every language known to man, I will have to stick simply to the limited language that I know I know. Shame, really. I hear Dostoyevsky’s quite good.  

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