Best Books of 2017 – Translations!
The comparative percentages of literature in translation available on the American book market are predictably embarrassing, but even so, there were enough first-rate translations to keep me busy all year, and since two of the books that eventually made it onto this list were originally composed in languages I don’t read, it’s worth taking a moment to point out what translators have been saying for centuries: accuracy is only half the battle. Translators are also responsible for fidelity, and since the two qualities are at least equally important, I tend to consider a translation outstanding if it succeeds in the latter, even if I can’t personally verify its success in the former. That little technicality now behind us, let’s proceed to the best English-language translations of the year:
10 The Red Sphinx by Alexandre Dumas, translated from the French by Lawrence Ellsworth (Pegasus Books) – Impossible that this huge, delightful, and lesser-known Dumas epic sequel to The Three Musketeers wouldn’t be on the list! Translator Ellsworth has done a superb job in the deceptively tricky task of conveying the author’s lack of art and surfeit of conviction. All of Dumas feels like a gift, but a Dumas I’d never read before? Sheer bliss.
9 The Confessions by St. Augustine, translated from the Latin by Sarah Ruden (Random House) – Ruden is a brilliant translator, and here she’s found a perfect match for her skills, one of the strangest and most immediately personal texts in the canon of any era, much less the ancient world. Her translation captures that immediacy better than any English translation has done before.
8 The Aeneid of Virgil, translated from the Latin by David Ferry (University of Chicago) – Veteran translator David Ferry was very veteran – in his early 90s – when he produced this translation of the Aeneid, but the single most amazing thing about the book is that although it’s wise, it’s never wintry. Here Virgil’s epic brims with brutal energy.
7 Poets of the Bible, translated by Willis Barnstone (WW Norton) – Barnstone has made a long career out of teasing the often recondite poetry of the Bible into supple and beautiful English, and this latest volume broadens that endeavor wonderfully, ranging all over the Old and New Testaments. Willis’ skills as a translator have grown steadily even from their prodigious beginnings decades ago; now they’re almost eerily effective in making wallpaper-familiar verses seem new.
6 Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky, translated from the Russian by Michael Katz (Liveright) – This translation joins a tall pile of English-language versions of Crime and Punishment, but Katz’s book stands out even so for its perfect capture of Dostoevsky’s brittle, chattering genius. I’ve liked virtually every translation of this book that I’ve read, but the headlong strangeness of this one makes it my top choice.
5 Bookshops by Jorge Carrión, translated from the Spanish by Peter Bush (Biblioasis) – Carrión’s subject is one that will be familiar to virtually every devoted bookworm: the bookshops that make up such a glowing part of our lives. Here the author concentrates on not only the history of bookshops in general but also on a handful of specific charmed locations, and the many appeals of the resulting book have been translated wonderfully by Peter Bush.
4 Jottings Under Lamplight by Lu Xun, edited by Eileen Cheng & Kirk Denton (Harvard University Press) – This lovely volume of the great Chinese man of letters translates sixty-two of his chatty, aphoristic, deceptively placid essays into a rich, flowing English, and since a third of the pieces presented here have never been translated into English before, this volume represents a huge improvement over all earlier attempts to introduce this author to the Western world – and as you’d expect from this publisher, the all-important critical apparatus is both erudite and accessible.
3 The New Testament, translated by David Bentley Hart (Yale University Press) – Quite a few of the texts featured on our Best Translations list this time around are towering classics of the Western canon, and none more towering than this! But instead of giving his readers the stiff classic with which they’re very familiar, he crafts in this version of the New Testament something strange and clipped and strident, both sound in scholarship and distinctly memorable in tone. And Hart’s own critical apparatus is equally good.
2 The Odyssey, translated from the Greek by Emily Wilson (WW Norton) – I first approached Emily Wilson’s Odyssey with a feeling of vicarious shame, since this is the very first translation of Homer’s epic into English ever published by a woman – in 2017. But my appreciation of the historical achievement quickly gave way to my appreciation of the literary one: like so many other volumes on this list, this is a version of its source material that’s unlike any previous version – it’s leaner, faster, and at times more disarmingly colloquial than any of its predecessors … a tremendous reading experience.
1 Poet in Spain, Federico Garcia Lorca, translated from the Spanish by Sarah Arvio (Knopf) – The announcement of this selection of Lorca’s poetry, the best translation of 2017, at first left me indifferent; I’ve read and grappled with and loved Lorca’s poetry for a long time, and while I’ve read and enjoyed many English-language renditions, in every case there’s been that slight inner slumping that happens when a translation isn’t doing full justice to the magic of the original. Not so in poet Sarah Arvio’s case: her absolutely luminous translations of Lorca are the first ones I’ve ever read that didn’t immediately send me hunting for the originals – they’re poems on their own terms, and the collection is a beautiful tribute to Lorca’s work.