It occurred to me recently, while browsing the lovely Pushkin Press site recently and trying to resist the temptation of another rediscovered 20th century classic, how lucky I am as a modern reader. For where would my reading be without translators?
I am a total monolinguist – I was good at French at school, but that was a long, long time ago and I have no vocabulary left. Additionally, I think the French I would speak would very formal and old-fashioned, because the version my children were dealing with at school was very different to the one I learned. As for other languages – hopeless! I once dreamed of learning Russian, but I think it’s beyond me. So, staring at my piles of Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, Zweig, Szerb, Hesse, Beauvoir, Sartre, Camus and the like, it’s sobering to realise how much of my reading pleasure is dependent on the people who undertake to approach a piece of art in another language and render it in English so that I (and many others) can enjoy it.
And it’s only recently that I’ve started to think more deeply about which translators’ work I like best, and which I’ll choose to read. Admittedly, in the early days of my reading, there was much less choice than there is now, and I more often than not ended up with any Penguin Classic I could find. You still often can’t go wrong with one of their volumes, but the range available is so much wider nowadays. Some independent publishers, like Hesperus, Pushkin and Alma, specialise in bringing us lost works in sparkly new versions, and NYRB are also responsible for many. So in no particular order, here are some of my favourites:
Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, for their sterling work on bring Platonov to the English-speaking world
Len Rix, champion of Antal Szerb
Anthea Bell, known best for many volumes of Stefan Zweig, but also translator of Irmgard Keun
Joanne Turnbull, who’s given voice to Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
Hugh Aplin, quietly translating away so many volumes of Hesperus and Alma Classics
Will Stone, who rendered “Rilke in Paris” so beautifully and has staunchly defended Zweig’s work
The Maudes, whose translations of Tolstoy were contemporary and are still definitive in my mind
David McDuff, whose versions of Dostoevsky are really wonderful
William Weaver, doyen of Calvino translations
These are just the ones that spring to mind, translators who’ve provided some of the books which have given me so much pleasure recently. Alas, it’s likely that I’ll stay a monolinguist forever, so thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for giving me the freedom to read literature from around the world!