Monday, March 3, 2008

Reading old translated classics

The past couple of years, I've tried to become a more cultivated person by trying to read the "classics" — old books revered by well-read people far and wide. A lot of literary contributions have been in languages other than English — the French and the Russians in particular have made tremendous contributions to world culture — and in reading some French and Russian classics I've wondered how much I'm missing by not reading them in their original languages.

What I've found has been utter genius as far as pure ideas go, and eloquent choices in figurative language. Both translate well, as one would expect. As far as clever turns of phrase, I know I'm missing out because the wording hasn't seemed terribly impressive in the translations of Les Miserables (by Victor Hugo, originally in French) and War and Peace (by Leo Tolstoy, originally in Russian with a lot of French phrases). Even in translation, though, I found Victor Hugo to be frequently poetic even in prose because of he often pulled in some gorgeous metaphors.

Tolstoy was the same too, only his were more gritty. Sure, he wrote grandly of the ocean of humanity, but he also compared the movements of armies to the inner workings of a clock, made some references to ideas from calculus, and compared the actions of humanity to the steam engine.

Reading long 19th century novels in translation, I admit, was an effective way for me to relax and fall asleep at night. I pressed on because the stories were interesting enough. Still, though, with the attention span of most people these days, I think I know why the new books released tend to be much smaller than many of these "classics" that I read. Either readers are more impatient and pressed for time these days, or authors have become better at getting their points across with fewer words.

In any case, it'll be good to mix things up by reading something shorter and something that was originally written in English, so I've started reading All the King's Men, a much more recent American classic.