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When no translator's named

Geeks who love the Classics

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Sep 28, 2010, 9:48am Top

I'm reading Madame Bovary and suddenly realized, of course this must be a translation from the French, but there's nothing on my copy to indicate who did it. Does that usually mean the translation itself is so old that it's gone beyond copyright and they don't need to identify the translator? Or, are there cases where a particular translation has become definitive?

Sep 28, 2010, 10:57am Top

In my experience this means that your first guess is correct. The translation is in the public domain. I once wrote to a publisher to find out who had translated a copy of Crime and Punishment that I had read, and even they couldn't tell me.

Publishers in the 19th century often did not name the translator. In many cases these were university students or other people of dubious credentials. Budget publishers use these translations because they are free, not because they are the best. I avoid anonymous translations if there is an alternative.

Edited: Nov 29, 2010, 8:26pm Top

I have a whole set of Flaubert published sometime around the turn of the 20th. century. None of the volumes indicates a translator. I was curious and compared Madame Bovary with several modern translations. Seems like my MB was translated by Eleanor Marx Aveling. I don't think I can assume that everything else was also her translations.

Edited: Dec 16, 2010, 4:27pm Top

There are some good anonymous translations. A lot of Dumas' work is anonymously translated. I like the anonymous translation of Chekhov that Dover uses for Three Sisters better than any other that is currently available. I also have an anonymous translation of MB. It's a little so-so though.

I usually get anoyed when I find it reads well then can't find what else has been done by this translator. OCLC firstsearch and googlebooks is very good for figuring out about these translations. But, it may be the translator worked on one book and it all falls under a Black's Readers Services credit or some such. Constance garnett is in the public domain and is usually credited so it may not always be the case that the publisher is chosing not to credit the translator. You can probably bet that the translation is anonymous and in the public domain if it's not credited. Some of these little reprint companies, like a digireads may not go crazy with bibliographic citations or cut a few pages from the front matter, but these works usually come directly from a Project Gutenberg or Internet Archive so you can go back there and glean what you can from the original publication.

Of course I read an awful wordsworth classic translation of Hunchback of Notre Dame and it wasn't until I looked at another edition a few years later that I realized how much it sucked. Those anonymous Oxford translations of the Musketeer cycle aren't bad (though we're talking about Dumas, not a Flaubert) but with the first book, the short paragraph that specifically alludes to D'Artagnan's coital encounter with Milady, is completely removed (I suppose it was too much to suggest a sexual act to the English speaking audience). Without that information her fury seems over-the-top, cartoonish. Oxford should really have spent the few extra pennies to restore that passage. Pevear fixed it in the one he recently did, but I think up to that point it had been missing. So whenever I read one of these things, I worry about things like that. This doesn't seem to happen with those handful of books that are seemly re-translated every few months nowadays.

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