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Beowulf and Gilgamesh

October 27, 2000

Last week, we strayed into the province of literary translations, which is an interesting place to visit, although you might not want to live there. Translations of sacred texts are predictably the most difficult given the investment people make in their revelations.

But the topic got me to thinking. Translated texts come across the library desk all the time. Just recently, we got in new translations of very old literature: Beowulf and Gilgamesh. There’s far more distance (in time) between Gilgamesh and Beowulf than between Beowulf and Thomas Wolfe, but “old” is always relative.

The new Beowulf translation by Seamus Heaney has received much good press, although a retired English teacher here professed that she liked a more literal translation preserving some of the Old English style — similar to her preference for the King James bible. I was pleased to discover that one of the more respected translations of Beowulf, done thirty years ago, was by Burton Raffel, and it sold more than a million copies. I recently reviewed Raffel’s new book of poetry for a library journal — “Beethoven in Denver and other poems.” It is good, engaging poetry, and … lo! … it’s at your local library.

The new “Epic of Gilgamesh” translated by Danny Jackson a few years ago received accolades for its poetry and faithfulness. This is the challenge, of course, and perhaps why a book is never translated for all time. We change, our language changes, the context of our words evolves. Sometimes, though, we simply don’t agree, and so we have to say something a different way.

It may go without saying, but I’ll say it: Translations enlarge our world. A quick walk around the library produced the following authors, all translated into English: Guy de Maupassant, Isak Dineson, Ranier Maria Rilke, Sholem Aleichem (Rabinowitz), Anton Chekov, Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Of course, there are also the sacred texts and classical authors and Russian novelists. Then there’s also Gibran, Neruda, Simenon, Colette. There’s Hitler.

But you might be surprised at the number of contemporary authors translated into English. I spotted Garcia Marquez (“One hundred years of solitude”), Jostein Gaarder (“Sophie’s world”), Laura Esquivel (“Like water for chocolate”), Luis Sepulveda (“The old man who read love stories”), Janwillem Van de Wetering (mystery writer), Arturo Perez-Reverte (“The fencing master”).

English is our world’s current universal language. As such, it has many versions. The written language varies less, perhaps. From India, you can easily read the writings of native speakers of English whom you might not be able to understand in person–the words are the same, but the spoken sounds are different. In fact, India is a rich source of literature in English; for example, Arundhati Roy (“The god of small things”), Salman Rushdie (“Midnight’s children”), Rohinton Mistry (“A fine balance”).

Anyone who has traveled the United States knows there are plenty of places in which to be challenged by the local patois. Even with standard English, we colonists speak differently than the Queen. Take the case of the translation of Peter Hoeg’s work, “Smilla’s sense of snow” — a fine book, by the way. While enjoying the good fortune of being in London last spring, I strayed into a book shop and spied Mr. Hoeg’s book, although at first I didn’t recognize it. It was entitled “Miss Smilla’s feeling for snow.” Yuck! If I ever again hear a Brit maligning American use of the English language, I’ll bean him with that book. Miss Smilla’s feeling, indeed!

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