Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Let's Give Credit Where Credit Is Due

I used to watch conductors leading their orchestras and think, what's the big deal? I could do that. Anyone with an impeccable sense of rhythm could do that.

Then I started reading translations of Russian novels.

I've read several Dostoyevsky and I'm very nearly finished Tolstoy's "War and Peace".

I quickly came to the conclusion that all translations are not created equal.

The translation of Dostoyevsky's "The Idiot" that I read was wonderful. Likewise "Crime and Punishment".

Then I tried "The Brothers Karamazov". I got bogged down less than half way through it. The language was murky and thick as pea soup.

I put it aside.

Thinking about this- the crucial role of a translator- made me think about music.

(It was a long, windy road, going from Russian literature translators to music, but get there, I did.)

I thought- the translator takes what someone has written, and has to make it accessible to another audience. He has to understand it, and interpret it preserving the integrity of the original thought or concept.

This is what a conductor does.

Mozart or Beethoven or Brahms... anyone with a quill and a sheet of parchment and a symphony in their head- took what they heard and wrote it down.

The conductor must understand and interpret what the composer wrote, preserving the integrity of the piece. He has to have a heart for what the composer was trying to say, and to communicate this to the musicians, drawing out of them his interpretation of the original thought or concept, so that they in turn can communicate these musical thoughts to the listening audience.

What a joy to have the gift of interpretation- to be able to see, hear and feel what another artist has conceived  of and to make it accessible to others.

War and Peace has been wonderful; funny, poignant, thought provoking and interesting. I do think, however, that Louise and Aylmer Maude's names should be on the front as big as Leo Tolstoy's, because their part in taking the original thoughts and concepts and interpreting them for a wider, English speaking audience is integral to said audience's ability to understand and enjoy Tolstoy's writing.

Let's hear it for THE INTERPRETERS. Those musical and literary geniuses that enable us to enjoy classic works of greatness.


  1. That's what scares me. I'm looking forward to reading more Dostoyevski and some Tolstoy, but what if I get a crappy translation? How can I know? Different people will like different translations...I guess I'll have to work with what I have.

    Anyway, good post. Conducting really isn't just swinging a chopstick up and down, is it?

  2. I have concluded that the best way to get the best translation is at a good used book store, such as they have in Saskatoon! If you can pull down 2 or 3 copies of a book, and actually read the first few pages you can compare the language and style of the translation. I'm hoping that when I re-try The Brothers Karamazov it will go better, because I was able to compare several different translations, and I got the one that was the most readable to me. It is very cool to read the different translations and try to guess which era they were translated in! Those done in the 60's have a very different and distinct flavour to those done, say in the 70's or 80's!

    For my part, Louise and Aylmer Maude did a first rate job of War and Peace. And if at first you don't succeed? Try another translation! (You are welcome to borrow my book if you like! I've only got half a dozen pages left)

    : )