The Emperor of Portugallia – Retranslating Classics

The Resident IT Consultant has been reading that well known feminist, Selma Lagerlöf, over the holiday. Here he is on The Emperor of Portugallia and translations now and then.

“There’s nothing like a fresh translation to invigorate a classic. When I read Austen or Scott or Dickens I’m usually prepared to accept the stylistic differences and obscure vocabulary that tend to accompany texts of this age. Publishers provide notes to help me to understand words that I cannot look up in the dictionary. But with a translation I’m less sympathetic. Why should I accept dated language when it’s not that of the original author?

If foreign language classics are to remain accessible to the ordinary English reader they need to be retranslated every generation or so: the last decade has seen enthusiastically received retranslations of, among others, Pushkin, Balzac and Cervantes.

Selma Lagerlöf, The Emperor of Portugallia

Selma Lagerlöf (1858-1940) was the first female winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. She is the author of a succession of works, mainly novels and short stories, published between 1891 and 1932. Most are set in her native Värmland and share some of the same sense of place, and the tragedies of life, as Thomas Hardy’s Dorset. Her books were widely translated at the time of their first publication but there have been very few retranslations. It shows.

Norvik Press are to be congratulated for undertaking (with support from the Swedish Academy) the publication of a series of high-quality new translations of Lagerlöf’s most important texts.

I have just finished reading The Emperor of Portugallia, translated by Peter Graves. This relatively short novel, first published in 1914, tells the story of the relationship between poverty-stricken farm labourer Jan and his daughter Klara. At the age of seventeen Klara leaves home in order to raise the money that will enable her parents to remain in their home. She is successful, but never returns home herself, and Jan is driven mad by his grief at her absence. He comes to believe that he is the Emperor of Portugallia.

The novel focuses on the father/daughter relationship and the author herself saw it as a Swedish King Lear.

I found the text easy to read, stylistically straightforward and with generally accessible vocabulary. So I thought I would test the hypothesis that classics need retranslation by comparing with the original English translation by Velma Swanston Howard in 1916 (available on gutenberg.org).

Stylistically, perhaps surprisingly, there seems to be relatively little difference. Average sentence length, measured over a number of passages, appears to be about the same. The main differences are in the words and I here I far prefer Graves’ choices. Howard has translated some of the place names: Askedalarna has become Ashdales, Storsnipa has become Great Peak and Snipaåsen has become Snipa Ridge. I feel this loses some of the feeling of place.

In Swedish, Jan’s daughter is named Klara Fina Gulleborg, a particularly grand sounding name intended to celebrate Jan’s idea that his daughter has the sun as her godmother. Howard has translated this as Glory Goldie Sunnycastle while Graves has left it almost unchanged as Klara Fina Goldenborg. I much prefer the latter.

Howard’s ‘seine-maker’ is Graves’ ‘net-maker,’ her ‘spavined bay’ is simply ‘Brownie who was old and stiff-legged,’ her ‘senator’ is a ‘Riksdag man’ and her ‘rix-dollars’ are ‘riksdaler.’ Again Graves’ translations all feel more appropriate.”

Well, this is what new translations are for; making books better. And who better than Peter Graves?

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