Intelligent reading always requires the use of translations, and however short they may fall from conveying an author’s or language’s nuances, we are always better off working at the knowledge and information that potentially enriches us. We may not want to read Butler’s or Chapman’s translation of Homer, let’s say, but we cannot dispense with an awareness of Homer. Plus so many successive translators have now rescued limitless texts that we have no excuse for failing to address the ongoing need for our cultural enrichment.

At the same time, more intimate reading confirms the old saying that “translation is treason.” Not merely the mechanical transfer of word and sentence from one language to another, it is argued, but an entire cultural context of the original is lost, betrayed, or distorted. Many classics translated into English from Greek, Latin, French, German, Russian, Chinese, etc., have suffered from English translations frozen in their British, then American, milieu.

Translations sought to rescue meaning and satisfy curiosity but could not effectively convey nuance and cultural context. Only now do we know better and can criticize translators more rigorously. The differences are minor, utilitarian, insignificant, it may be argued in defense of the old translations. At one time, it was more important to bring the classics of Europe and Asia to the English-only world, after all. The gist of what the works were about should have been received with gratitude.

But the average reader was not to be faulted. As William Deresiewicz (in a New York Times item) has pointed out, the idea of reading in translation versus the original language was a favorite tool of elites to scorn those who could not read the originals because of lack of education and, therefore, class. “The contempt for translation partly reflects a desire to keep literature away from the grubby hands of the great unwashed, who don’t know how to appreciate it anyway,” he notes pointedly.

The history of translation as a cultural phenomenon in the West has always been momentous, and not recent. Begin with the Greek influence on Hebrew scriptures, then on Christianity in the early Roman Empire. Translation of Aristotle and others by Arab thinkers into the Latin of the Middle Ages affected the progress of philosophizing in Europe, followed by the Reformation controversy over translating the Bible into vernacular languages. The early 19th-century discovery of Asian thought (as a result of British imperialism, however) brought a series of stilted Anglicized versions of Hindu and Buddhist classics onto the English-speaking world, which, for all their accuracy, nevertheless inspired many thinkers. For example, Emerson and Thoreau, both of whom praise the Bhagavad-gita, were undoubtedly affected by this waft of fresh air otherwise inaccessible to them without translation.

Nor are modern translations necessarily better than 19th-century ones. To this writer’s mind, the Long translation of Marcus Aurelius seems hard to surpass. The modern version of Gregory Hays, with its clipped truncated style, loses the grand irony of an intelligent emperor reduced to reflection, instead offering a busy book of quick advice.

Then there is the controversy of Constance Garnett’s sweeping translation of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The famous phrase extrapolating from Nietzsche’s theme — “If God is dead, everything is permitted” — has long been argued as not being stated by any character at all. It was not in the translation, it was argued. But this argument was due to not accessing the Russian original (which few could do) and by dependence on Garnett. The modern translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky remedy the deficiencies of Garnett as a whole with their sensitivity to Russian culture, and the phrase or sentiment is easily reconstructed after all.

Another modern controversy has been Albert Camus’ The Stranger. The British translator Stuart Gilbert took a didactic tack and interpolated explanatory twists into what Camus had presented as nearly Hemingway-esque clipped cadence. Gilbert translated the famous French term of endearment “Mamun” for “Mother,” thus contradicting an important aspect of the protagonist’s mindset, as Sartre himself pointed out. Stuart formalized the protagonist’s relationship with his mother with this colder term of British custom. This translation has been displaced for many readers by American translator Matthew Ward’s. Perhaps not quickly, but qualitatively.

Translator Susan Bernovsky discusses (in a New York Times blog entry) the nuances of translating Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” especially the core words describing the insect and how it moves and reacts. Here the translating is, as in the case of Camus, from one Western language to another, but the faithfulness of translation is in conveying the original intent of the author and in reproducing the author’s thoughts, fears, feelings, and perceptions, not merely in getting within range.

If Western languages can generate translation controversies, how far are we in grasping the nuances of Asian authors and their works. Today, that task is much eased by native language translators, and by the openness of scholarly exchange and critical review, but in the end, one must sense the affinity and identification of sensibilities of the author, the culture, the era, the physical environment — all increasingly lost as modernity races on.

Here is my quick two-word assessment in no particular order of ten English translations of Lao-tzu — a little glib, perhaps. My favorites also happen to include the original Chinese on facing pages, as if to say “you may check me.” These are Feng/English and Red Pine; Star and Henricks also include the Chinese. Of course, that inclusion may have depended on the generosity of the publisher.


Stephen Mitchell – contemporary reverence
D. C. Lau – reliable service
John C. H. Wu – inspired wealth
James Legge – inscrutability dabbling
Red Pine – dogged clarity
Jonathan Star – rigorous complexity
Ursula LeGuin – daring literalism
Robert G. Henricks – utile iconoclasm
Gia-fu Feng & Jane English – happy comprehension
Thomas Cleary – mysterious didacticism