Who are the best translators in history?

September 12, 2018
Who are the best translators in history?

Translation can serve many purposes. It can facilitate business relationships that cross international borders. It can educate people about different cultures and ways of life. It can help to save lives by spreading knowledge of new medical techniques around the world. The list of benefits that translation can provide is enormous. 

In this spirit, we began looking into translators who have made a name for themselves in the history books and what they have given to the world. The results are detailed below, as we celebrate some of history’s best translators. 

St Jerome

One of the world’s most famous translators – and certainly one of those whose work had the most influence in shaping the world – was St Jerome (347-420 AD). St Jerome produce the Vulgate, which became the official Catholic translation of the Bible, and which he translated into Latin from Greek and Hebrew. For the next millennium, the Vulgate was the only translation of the Bible in use. 

Jorge Luis Borges

As well as being a famous author, Jorge Luis Borges was a talented literary translator, having reputedly translated The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde into Spanish at the tender age of nine. He went on to translate a wide range of literary fiction for Spanish audiences, including works by Edgar Allan Poe, William Faulkner, Rudyard Kipling, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, André Gide, Hermann Hesse and Franz Kafka. His translations were founded on a principle of “happy and creative infidelity,” meaning that sticking too closely to the source text wasn’t his top priority!

Constance Garnett 

Another superb and prolific literary translator was Constance Garnett. Her focus was on Russian literature, which she brought to English audiences. Her translations included works by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov, among many others, though not all Russian authors appreciated her efforts. Vladimir Nabokov was an outspoken critic of her translations, in part as a result of Garnett’s tendency to leave out words of phrases that she didn’t understand. However, with 71 volumes under her belt, Garnett was a key literary translator who did much to build and understanding of Russian history and culture among English-language readers. 

Gregory Rabassa 

Gregory Rabassa is another translator who did much to present foreign-language works to English readers – in his case, novels that were written in Spanish and Portuguese. His focus was on some of the greatest Latin American authors including Julio Cortazar, Jorge Amado and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In fact, the latter felt that Rabassa’s translation of his One Hundred Years of Solitude was even better than the original work – and that after waiting three years for the translation! 

Sir Richard Burton

A fascinating individual, Sir Richard Burton has been described (by Wikipedia) as an “English explorer, geographer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, spy, linguist, poet, fencer, and diplomat.” Rather than setting his sights on highbrow literary works, Sir Richard focused on more controversial volumes. He was the first person to provide an English translation of the Kama Sutra, and his other translations included an uncensored version of The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night – a highly controversial work given Victorian attitudes to ‘obscene material.’ 

Edward George Seidensticker 

Bank in the field of literary fiction, Edward George Seidensticker was an influential figure in terms of his translation of Japanese fiction. Indeed, many readers would be unlikely to have heard of authors such as Yukio Mishima, Yasunari Kawabata and Jun’ichirō Tanizaki were it not for Seidensticker’s efforts. Not only did he benefit English-speaking readers by translating the novels of these authors, but he is also credited with helping Yasunari Kawabata become the first Japanese winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature (in 1968), as a result of his translation work. 

Final thoughts

Who else do you feel deserves a place in the history books when it comes to their translations? And who in our modern era will end up known posthumously for their contribution to translation (and society)? Leave a comment below to let us know your thoughts. 


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