Which works should be read in the original?

Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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12 Responses

  1. David Schaengold says:

    “Foucault is easier in English, and you don’t lose very much I don’t believe.” But one of the major texts wasn’t published in unabridged form in English until 2006. I was too young for it to be of any certain help, but my parents were once friends with the principal and for some time the only translator of Foucault into English. I do remember, or think I remember, some conversations about how a philosophically neutral translation is impossible.Report

  2. J.L. Wall says:

    I, for one, couldn’t figure out what the big deal was about Sappho until I read her in Greek: translations really can’t compare. But to do that, you’ve got to go learn Greek. Ergo, everyone should drop what they’re doing and go learn Greek. My suspicion has always been that Gabriel Garcia Marquez is incomparably better in Spanish, but as I know no Spanish, this is just a hunch.Report

  3. Rufus F. says:

    I agree on Baudelaire; I’ve a friend who is a huge fan of Baudelaire in English and I’ve told him to learn French immediately. Since we just mentioned him, I enjoy Proust in French, although I often get lost in his huge cotton candy ball sentences. In Latin, Virgil is great, of course, but I’d really recommend Tacitus. His biting comments on tyranny don’t have quite the same impact in English because you have to use twice as many words to translate them. For Spanish, I’d agree with Marquez and I actually found Cervantes more enjoyable than I’d expected, but never finished. It’s not literary, but I also like Pedro Almodóvar movies a bit more when I have to follow them in Spanish- I used to live with a Peruvian who had all of his movies on VHS and we’d drink and watch them with his Spanish-speaking friends. That’s also why I have a fondness for Inca Kola, even though it’s like drinking bubble gum.Report

  4. George says:

    If I had the time, I’d learn German just to go back and re-read Kant and Nietzsche. I hear the German idealists (not that Nietzsche is one) are best in their native tongue.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to George says:

      And I’ve heard that Germans read both Kant and Hegel in English, because the translators break up their sentences.

      Both writers have a reputation for being difficult, incidentally, but I think it only applies to some of their works, not to all of them. The Phenomenology of Spirit is a damn hard book to understand. The Philosophy of Right is a lot easier. It’s not pellucid like Nozick or Mill, but it wouldn’t have earned Hegel a reputation as an obfuscator all by itself.Report

      • Hegel once said that only man ever understood him and that man didn’t really understand him. Another joke has it that the German thinkers go down deep but come up muddy. I have heard that one must read Heidegger in German to understand him. Honestly, though, I’ve recently started working on learning German and my number one goal is to read Goethe in German, and not to struggle through Heidegger in another language.Report

  5. Max says:

    The bible.

    Aside: I’d be curious to know what I’m losing when I read Baudelaire in English. I have enough passing French knowledge to read and decode him in the original, but this is merely a step before actual comprehension, which must take place for me in English. I’ve always wondered what I’m missing.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Max says:

      I told my friend who loves Baudelaire in English and now wants to learn French to read him there that the first word to really learn is “ivresse” which means something like losing your equilibrium in a state of exaltation or drunkenness. It really can apply to a state of religious ecstacy or the derangement of the senses when inebriated. Baudelaire loves the word and often uses it in an indeterminate way- he could mean both senses- but it’s hard to get both meanings across in the English and so translators often go with drunkenness. But when you’re also alluding to religious transcendence, drunkenness doesn’t cut it.Report

      • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Rufus F. says:

        An excellent example. Another is the word jouissance, which can mean delight, but does not ever mean mere delight — it’s more like a transport of delight, a mind-altering delight — and, yes, an orgasm. It also means usufruct, making it very difficult to translate. “Enjoyment” is possibly the closest, but it doesn’t cover all the bases.

        Another: In English, the word for cloud sounds ugly. In French, it’s nuage, which has a beautiful sound.Report