Apr 30, 2007

new wine in old wineskins

Why do we value fresh translations of older texts in other languages, but don't care too much for modern versions of classics in our own language? I thought about this after writing an updated translation of Matthew 12:46-50, and after reading the piece about a major publisher's plan to abridge mammoths like Moby-Dick.

We justify the new translations in several ways, but I'm most interested in the claim that the new version better does justice to the original. What if the original doesn't do justice to itself? Is it wrong to suggest that someone could give Huck Finn a more realistic conclusion, or un-lag everything Henry James ever wrote?

Maybe it's just being inculcated in the remake-remix culture that makes heresy so attractive.

Update 5/4: I wonder if JRR Tolkien would approve of his son's creative appropriation of his legacy.


Matthew Anderson said...

You raise two interesting questions here.

Regarding translations of works in our own language, we clearly do update some works (I think some renditions of Chaucer count as translations, and people certainly update Pilgrim's Progress all the time). That said, I wonder whether "doing better justice" to the original is often the claim of translators as much as readability (confession: didn't click through). Of course, that would still merit updating English versions.

The second issue, of "improving upon" other author's works is also interesting. I've been told that the film-making process is a lot like this--people will take a short story, tweak it, and then it gets played with by 100 different people in the creative process. This sort of collaborative creativity is really interesting to me. But to update a "finished" work seems to be off limits, for two reasons: 1) It seems the original author has the rights over his work, even while he's dead, when that work is not created in a collaborative process. 2) The flaws of finished works eventually take on a peculiar ly loveable quality, like a spouse's flaws after hundreds of years. "Melville has flaws, but he wouldn't be Melville without them!" Or something like that. Those are two VERY tentative suggestions, at least. : )

Jim Anderson said...

1. My point isn't so fine as to preclude updating incomprehensible works in Middle English (like Chaucer). I'd hew things off at Shakespeare, which requires a glossary but is still largely understandable to the lay reader.

2. The translations I have in mind--the ones closer to the "spirit of the original"--are the Ward translation of The Stranger and the MacAdam translation of The Death of Artemio Cruz. (I'd also argue it's the primary motivator in Biblical translation.) It's not always the primary goal, but it often matters--and people are happy when the result squares with what they enjoy about or need from the original.

3. We definitely have different standards for movies, not just in their genesis, but in their life history. People are much more willing to accept a remade King Kong than a rewritten Great Gatsby. But why do we have that intuition?

4. Whether Melville is lovable as Melville--because of or despite Melville's flaws--is a separate question as to whether we could improve upon Melville. We love classic cars for different reasons than we love their modern counterparts--and yet the modern Mustang is arguably an improvement over its predecessors.

Matthew Anderson said...


Good clarity.

1) I agree about Shakespeare. At some point, it seems we just have to make people work a little harder than they might otherwise want to.

2) Haven't seen either of those translations, so I can't address it. I think you're right about Biblical translations, though I sometimes wonder if money isn't the primary motivator. But that's the cynic in me.

3) I have no idea. Perhaps because the nature of the art-form? It's closer to something like theater, which has multiple players, whereas writing COULD have many authors, but can also be completed solo. That's a stab, at least.

4) Whether we could "improve" upon Melville and still have it be "Melville" is a difficult question. I'm inclined to say "no." The new Mustangs just aren't the old Mustangs, even if they are "improvements." If you want to improve Moby Dick, then I think you'll end up with something that's not Moby Dick. But of course, this presumes that there is a finality to the artistic work that preserves it from being open to emendation. Why I think that, I have no idea. Heretic.

Jim Anderson said...

Because we know the authorial process--sometimes an outright battle between the writer and the editor over the final version--we know that Moby-Dick probably isn't Moby-Dick the way Melville intended. He might have surrendered in certain points to the impulses of his editor; what we think of as the ur-Moby-Dick is actually the shadow puppet dancing on the wall of the cave.

Matthew Anderson said...

I know nothing about the composition of Moby Dick, so I have no idea if that's true of that particular point. In the editing process, though, no author has to make changes that he doesn't submit to. It seems like the final work is wholly his own, even if someone else has tinkered with it (at least that's been my experience thus far as both an editor and an author). Even if Melville surrendered points, it's still his final work as he intended it, isn't it? Does consent entail intention here? My intuition isn't clear, but it's plausible...

Nobody said...

I would love to chime in here as my Masters was in editorial theory and practice, but it's 4:15 AM and I have student reports due "tomorrow" and have to give a conference paper on Friday. Hopefully everyone won't be tired of the topic by this weekend.

Jim Anderson said...

I'm willing to grant that ceding to an editor would be a form of intention--but it could be for rank reasons, and end up spoiling the artistry of the author's original. Publishers are bound by the bottom line, and doubtless at times sacrifice art for popularity's sake.

That an author can change the original draft, aligning with the needs of the editor or publisher, is only proof that there is no ur-text, only a frozen moment of stasis. And it certainly doesn't mean that what's frozen is the best possible version of the text. Robert Frost was famous for revising his previously published poems on the fly, while reading them aloud. Arthur Conan Doyle had to resurrect Sherlock Holmes due to public outcry. Let's not even talk about the ending of Huck Finn.

But I suppose I should wait for Nobody's comments. I have all the patience in the world.

Matthew Anderson said...


I'm not convinced that there is no ur-text--just that there is no ur-text that has been perfectly communicated by a text. When author's revise, they do so (I think) because they have a standard of their work that they are appealing to--some intuitive grasp that a word is in the wrong place or they used the wrong image. Such claims, though, suggest there is an idea of the text (Platonic form?) that they are grasping toward.

When it comes to the performance of that idea, there are going to be imperfections. But then I want to say that those perfections in the text are ultimately redeemed somehow in their preservation and in the loving reception by the audience. Not sure how that works yet, and it sounds just esoteric enough to make me like it. : )

Regardless, if there is an "Idea" of the text that an author is going for, then I think it matters that their expressions is their expression of that idea. As such, revision seems to be anathema (in an ideal world where money wasn't involved).

Really, I can't wait to hear what Nobody has to say. I've had similar conversations in person with him, gotten waxed by him, and helped enormously by him.

Jim Anderson said...

If there is an idea, it's an idea that evolves and mutates in the constraints of the text, or generates new branches and directions. Writing is artifice, surely, but it is also mysteriously organic.

Annie Dillard captures this dynamic when she writes, "Sometimes part of a book simply gets up and walks away. The writer cannot force it back in place. It wanders off to die."

Even at her most Platonic, Dillard describes writing as obscuring, rather than illuminating, the vision, which she is careful to separate from the work itself. "You try--you try every time--to reproduce the vision, to let your light so shine before men. But you can only come along with your bushel and hide it."