Okay you lovers of books about books. I finished Every Book Its Reader by Nicholas Basbanes before I got sick last week and let me say, it was wonderful (in case you hadn’t figured that out from this and this). The book is loosely put together, as it seems Basbanes’ books tend to be, around the general theme and idea of books that made a stir either in a culture or community or to an individual. And oh what fun! I think I added about 30 books to my TBR list and even managed to mooch one, a biography of John Adams by David McCullough.

One of the most interesting (to me) portions of the book was a section on translation. One of the translators Basbanes talks to is Robert Fagles whose Iliad I am finding vivid and engrossing. Fagles talks about translating that book and how difficult it was from the very first line. He said some very interesting things, like:

On the desk in front of me I keep two big books. Let us say that the first big book is the text of Homer or the text of Virgil, with all the lexicons, and the commentaries, and on the other hand–and I mean the right hand–will be a big book of modern verse, English verse, and I try to keep the two in tandem, because I’ve got a dual responsibility. One is to the ancient text and the other is to the modern reader. They don’t always work in balance, but I do the best I can.

Fagles said when he’s working on a translation he particularly likes to read C.K. Williams, Paul Muldoon, Derek Walcott, and Seamus Heaney. Basbanes also includes an interesting discussion of other translations of The Iliad before moving to talking about Proust. He also interviewed Edith Grossman for this chapter and Breon Mitchell.

One of the things I always wonder about with translations is how true they are to the original. I don’t mean word for word because that would be impossible and just plain silly to expect anyway. What I wonder about is if, for instance, Homer wrote in English, would what I’m reading be what he would write? There is no way to know for sure, I have to trust the translator. Breon Mitchell made a comment Basbanes that I find both intriguing and bothersome:

“The interesting thing to me about translation,” he said, “is that the translation is not only a reading–every translation is a close reading of the text–but every translation is a different reading of the text, too. If the same text is translated by three different people, it’s going to be three different readings of that text.” And not only is the translator a mediator of the text, he said, the translator is a “filter and a conveyor” of the work.

I used to think, naively, that the translator didn’t matter, a translation is a translation, the translator nothing but an invisible conduit. But the more novels I read in translation and the more I read about translating, the more I realize how important the translator is. The translator is not invisible at all, his or her mark is on every word, even every punctuation mark. I don’t like that the book has to be mediated, but barring learning a whole bunch of languages I have no choice. And suddenly the translator is more important than I ever imagined.

Something else Basbanes writes about in Every Book Its Reader is a program called Reach Out and Read. Reach Out and Read is a national (US) nonprofit organization that encourages early literacy by giving new books to children when they go to their pediatric exams. The doctors and nurses also talk with and give advice to parents on reading to their children. By the sound of it, it is a very successful program both in the number of doctors who participate in it and the number of (usually) low-income children and families who have benefited from it. I can’t imagine anything better than a doctor telling someone to read a book. That’s good medicine.