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Hard Reads, Lost in Translation

Millman and Dreher are having fun comparing the toughest books they’ve finished and not finished. They’re responding to a top ten list of the hardest reads in Publisher’s Weekly by a couple of literary critics.

One observation about these lists, others around the web, and the comments they’ve attracted: they don’t always consider the challenges posed by translation. Consider Being and Time, which more than one blogger has described as especially brain-busting. Although a hard book in any language, it’s considerably easier in the original German, in which Heidgegger’s neologisms are less jarring. On the flipside, I can’t imagine trying to tackle Ulysses auf Deutsch.

Books’ difficulty, then, can depend considerably on the translation. Personally, I was unable to finish even one of Dostoyevsky’s novels in the old Garnett versions. The recent editions by Richard Pevear and Laura Volkhonsky, on the other hand, were, if not exactly a breeze, then certainly a joy. I’m really grateful to them for allowing me to enjoy such an important author.

Multilingual readers, are there any books that you’ve found easier in the original than in translation? What about translations of classics that were more or less difficult?

about the author

Samuel Goldman is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at George Washington University. He earned a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard, where he has also taught writing. In addition to The American Conservative, Goldman’s work has appeared in The New Criterion, The Wall Street Journal, and Maximumrocknroll. Follow him on Twitter.

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