Do Literary Translations Get Old?

Translating literature is one of the hardest, yet more fascinating tasks for a translator.  To translate a novel, a play, or a piece of poetry means to carefully analyze the original and its cultural context, and then transpose it to the target language. This process involves making a precise choice of translation strategies. But theory of literary translation constantly evolves together with the sensibility of translators. Therefore, literary translations of classics might get outdated.

To Translate, to Rewrite

Translators facing a piece of literary art soon realize that the idea of translation as the perfect matching of words between languages cannot apply to their work, as even with close languages, a perfect correspondence of meaning rarely exists. Words that have multiple meanings and interpretations in one language, might lose this ambiguity in translation, or the carefully studied sound pattern of a poem might be disrupted by a mechanical dictionary search.

Therefore, literary translators are challenged to rewrite the text, choosing to render in their language what the author meant, according to their sensibility and taste.

Retranslating: When and Why

Although it is true that literary classics never get old, the same does not apply to their translations. Relying so much on the personality of the translator, the time they live in, and the cultural context, a new version could bring a fresh look upon the original text by making different word choices.

Given that a perfect and definitive literary translation is not achievable, every new version brings new life to the literary work, without necessarily making the previous translation obsolete. Some readers are looking for a vintage flair, or a different approach, and might prefer one translation of their favorite classic over the other.

What are your thoughts on literary translation? Have you ever read a book where the language felt wrong or outdated? Let us know in the comments!

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