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For my first week of class, we read Oedipus the King, by Sophocles. Being a frugal student, I had ordered almost all my books off Amazon, and being a bit of a procrastinator, I had ordered them a little late, and my copy of Oedipus didn’t make it in on time. I wasn’t sure about the translation my professor preferred (I didn’t see the class version at the library or in the Kindle store), so I picked up two versions. It turned out to be a great choice–I happened to find two radically different versions of the story, which made for a great side-by-side reading experience.

The first place I turned to was my trusty Kindle, where I picked up a copy for $0.99. Despite its modern format, the text was proudly old-school, with near-Shakespearean language and perfectly metered lines. It was a slightly less accessible read than the library version I found, but it read like poetry. Many of the lines actually held more power for me due to their formal language–sometimes I feel the old stories get a little watered down when they’re brought into present day vernacular. This one was glorious:

(Kindle version)
Creon (reacting to Oedipus’s accusation that he is a traitor): …the calumny/ Hits not a single blot/ But blasts my name

Library version: This is no minor charge.

The library had an anthology of Sophocles’s plays, Oedipus included, and the version came complete with blocking directions and some costuming notes. The text, though, didn’t come off particularly theatrical at all. It felt, surprisingly, almost Biblical in places–something a Psalmist might say, or one of the gloomier prophets. When it moved away from the prophetic, though, the modern language felt a little flat. On the other hand, one of my favorite lines was a moment of “wait for it…” irony that feels most natural when you read it in everyday language:

(Library version)
Chorus (introducing Jocasta to the messenger): This is his wife and mother…of his children.

Kindle version: This is his wife the mother of his children. (That one word and a well-placed ellipsis makes all the difference.)

What I like about translations of works is the way they illustrate the flexibility of language. Both versions of Oedipus I read (Oedipi?) tell the same story, the same way. There’s no radical experimentation in tone or format. The word choice is the only thing that changes how each version feels, and what a difference it makes! Reading a translated work lets you know what matters to the translator in a story: accessibility, beauty, maintaining purity of rhyme or of word meaning, and many other elements start to show in the move between languages.

The final project for this class will have to do with translation. We’ll be working with Madame Bovary (supposedly the “perfect novel,” so expect more on that in November), either from the original French for those who speak it (alas, my French only extends as far as “pomme de terre” and “la bebe es sur la table”), or from the two different English versions we’ll read in class. It’s going to be interesting to create my “ideal” version by borrowing someone else’s words.

Do you think about the translation when you read something originally written in another language? What are your experiences reading multiple versions of a work, or reading an original and translated version?

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