At some stage, readers have to perform a cost-benefit analysis around the necessity of learning other languages. Sometime in my teens I made the decision that I would be able to read more books by keeping on reading than by losing potential book-reading time by learning other languages fluently. Now, while I crawl my way through texts in a couple of European languages, I remain uncertain whether I made the right decision.
The conundrum is not made easier by a few remarkable people. A don I know of has such natural competency at learning languages that all he needs to pick them up is to hike through the land of the language with a vocab book in hand. And of course there is Clive James who, apart from being one of the best-read people of all has taught himself to read in a quite insultingly large number of languages, including not only Italian (from which he has translated Dante) but also Japanese, which surely tries the self-esteem of the rest of us.
Doubtless I took the easy route. But there are consolations. The best translations can be miracles in and of themselves. Archibald Colquhoun’s translation of The Leopard is so subtle and fluent that you get quite as much (so Italian friends tell me) as you can from Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s original. Take the wild rabbit which Don Fabrizio and Don Ciccio simultaneously shoot while out hunting. They find it with “horrible wounds lacerated snout and chest”. We read, “Don Fabrizio found himself stared at by big black eyes soon overlaid by a glaucous veil; they were looking at him with no reproval, but full of tortured amazement at the whole ordering of things.”
I remember making a pained noise when I first read that, and I am emitting an echo of it as I type now. “Glaucous” is obviously a magnificent word to select (where else has the word been used?). But it is this order of words that ends up winding me: “at the whole ordering of things.” We know by the precision of the phrase that this is not just what Colquhoun wanted to convey, but precisely what Lampedusa wished to reveal to us as well. That the rabbit is Don Fabrizio and his era and that his era is also us.
Of course, poetry is the place where the imperative to acquire other languages is at its most acute. Do English poets I know work well in translation? Rarely as well as the originals. And yet absorbing even 90 per cent of a range of works in different languages still seems to me (in some grimly time-efficient way) better than absorbing 100 per cent of fewer works in more languages. And there is always the option of getting as many works of poetry as possible in bilingual editions. Which is how I properly encountered Rilke, 15 years ago, when a friend gifted me the Duino Elegies in the magnificent Norton bilingual edition translated by David Young. I like to be able to check the German even when most of the checks demand a German-English dictionary.
Two phrases in the Duino Elegies hit me with that same force that winded me over Don Fabrizio’s rabbit. The first was the moment where — as Young gives it — in the “Second Elegy” Rilke asks a version of the question which all human beings ask but which none has ever put better: “Does the outer space/into which we dissolve/taste of us at all?” And then that line which always makes my eyes prick, even if I have steeled myself before remembering it, one of the simplest and truest lines anyone ever wrote: “Because to be here means so much.”
Would I have found these lines if I had spent more time with my crampons fixed onto the mountain of German? Possibly, but I feel an only slightly guilty relief at having met Rilke, like Hesse and Mann, through this short-cut. Besides, when a poet grabs you, you can still always get fractionally closer to the source by trying the range of translations. I have no Greek, though I deeply wish that among others I could read Cavafy in the original. Still my shelves have enough — perhaps all — of the translations of his work (culminating in Daniel Mendelsohn’s translations) to persuade me that although I cannot ever get the full rays, I get enough of the reflected glow that it feels like the sun.
When I think back over all the books that have rewarded me the most, over and again I thank that under-thanked union of scholars, obsessives, geniuses and freaks who have toiled in this rarely-rewarded vineyard. Without Berlin’s translation, I might not have become acquainted with Turgenev and then wolfed down everything of his. Without Michael Hoffmann and Andrea Bell, perhaps neither Roth nor Zweig would have become intimates of mine. Certainly I will have lost something in translation. But what I have gained — among much else — is an adoration for those people who ensured that all of us can sit anywhere and travel the world.