The Italians have an aphorism — traduttore, traditore. In English, that’s, “Translator, traitor.” I’ve never attempted to translate anything from one language to another; English is the only language I know at all well. But I can well imagine how difficult it must be.

I’ve taken over as coordinator of the monthly used book sale for Friends of the Livermore Library. The chief perk of this job is, I get a sneak preview of the used books. When something catches my eye, I can grab it and put it aside. This month I picked up a matched set of worn but decent-condition hardbacks, published in the 1920s, containing selected works by one author or another. I would never pay $10 for a collection of works by Ibsen or Dumas, but for 50 cents, how could I not?

As a consequence, last night I found myself dipping into Nana, by Emile Zola. I knew almost nothing about Zola, and had certainly never read anything by him, but the opening chapter of Nana got me curious. In the course of my online research, I discovered that there was another translation of Nana, also done in the 1920s, and it’s available as a free download. There’s also a modern translation, which I would have to purchase.

What I found interesting is that the two 1920s-vintage translations differ so widely from one another. Not a single sentence is identical. Granted, English has a wealth of synonyms, so the translator has considerable freedom and needs to exercise taste. But beyond that, the word order of the sentences is often not the same. Details are shuffled from one sentence to another. One translator inserts a few extra words that he feels will help English readers understand the paragraph; the other doesn’t include those words.

It’s fascinating. It’s almost more interesting than the novel itself. If I were planning to live forever, I’d sit down and do some detailed research on the differences among the three translations. Alas, life is too short. The difficulty, then, is to decide which translation I should read.

Why read any of them? Well, I’m always on the lookout for recreational reading. What’s interesting about a novel of such venerable age, though, is the glimpses it gives of a culture so very different from our own. And also, of an approach to fiction that is quite unlike what you’ll find in anything being published today.

Expanding your horizons — always a good thing.

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