By Chet Yarbrough
By Stuart Gillespie
Narrated by Alex Hyde-White
Dr. Stuart Gillespie, among other qualifications, is a scholar of Shakespearean literature at the University Of Glasgow, Scotland. “English Translation” is an intellectually dense examination of the art of translation; particularly translation of ancient classics like “The Iliad”, “The Odyssey”, and works of Ovid, Juvenal, and Horace.
The selection of Alex Hyde-White, actor and narrator of “English Translation”, magnifies the value of Gillespie’s fascinating work. Not knowing whether phrasing of ancient texts are correct, ignorant listeners are impressed by Alex Hyde-White’s smooth transition from understandable English to not-understood sounds of foreign and nearly “dead” languages.
One surmises Gillespie embarrasses and enlightens most college educated people who think they know something about literature. “English Translation” reveals how mislead readers can be when reading translations of classic texts. Gillespie concretely reveals the difference between a good and bad translation. His assessment is based on the ability of a translator to remain within the culture of a classics’ writer while revealing modern “transforming moments”.
Gillespie’s insight to quality is as important to modern as to ancient text translation. When Dostoevsky is translated into English, it is as important to convey information about Russian culture as to convey a theory of sub-conscious human motivation. A reader learns something about another culture while experiencing a “transforming moment”, a universal cultural understanding of psychological motivation.
Words are slippery things. The same words mean different things to different people even when they are raised in the same culture. Part of the reason a book written in a native language becomes a classic in the country of its origin is because its familiar cultural context is only a piece of what a reader learns.
When Bigger Thomas murders a white woman in “Native Son”, he murders within the context of his culture but Richard Wright is also telling a story about universal taboos that cross all cultures. Wright offers readers a trans-formative moment because murder’s causes and consequences cross all cultures.
Gillespie offers a brief history of translation in his book. He suggests a turning point in translation occurs with Ezra Pound in his translation of Homer’s “Odyssey”.
Pound injects his own understanding into the translation of Homer’s epic. Pound modernized the classic without destroying the context of Homer’s time. Pound used modern English to translate a Latin version of Homer’s “Odyssey” to show that excavation of the past can illuminate the present and the future. Pound did not translate the “Odyssey” word for word but he grasped a trans-formative moment in the story, turned it into English, and made it both his and Homer’s work.
Gillespie’s book is a warning to book critics that are not authors but interpret author’s work. If a critic fails to understand trans-formative moments, by those authors that can create trans-formative moments, then the critic’s critique is a failure. Gillespie suggests that critics that are not authors should not be critics; i.e. a little too harsh for this ignorant critic.
This is an interesting and insightful book that would be more fun to one who understands Latin.