Translation fatigue


I’ve been reading more classics of late, a few of them originally written in non-anglophone languages. But every time I settle on which to read, the wading begins. Sifting through my options, going through the process of elimination by scanning reviews and sampling the writing on Amazon. It’s exhausting.

This year I’ve researched and read:

And now I’m looking at The Art of War by Sun Tzu (Ancient Chinese). Wikipedia says there are 18 translations. And then there are edition preferences to take into consideration – do I want one with notes on the text, extra background and context; or notes that focus on the extrapolation of war to business strategy?

Goodreads says there are at least 1,065 published editions. Discounting out of print and free online editions, The Book Depository has 268 in stock.

crushed under pile of books iosphere

That’s an avalanche of choice to contend with. I’m literally lost in translations.

And then you have the fake Penguin Classics impersonation cover editions* to avoid that pop up on Amazon, and I’m not talking about the funny yet obvious fakes. Take Pride and Prejudice, for instance.

Penguin Classics Pride and Prejudice fakes

While not exactly the same, the fakes are similar enough to fool the average Joe. Note where the ‘World Classics Series’ in the white space of the fake is, where the ‘Penguin [Penguin logo] Classics’ should be – that’s the giveaway.

Anyway, I digress.

Researching to find the edition right for me takes time, time that could be spent reading a book originally written in English. My guess is that’s partly the reason why some don’t even bother to attempt foreign reads.

It’d be nice if there was some authority that discussed the pros and cons of what’s available, which two or three translations are arguably the best, followed by the additional special features offered by publishers wanting to differentiate themselves from the rest, other than by the cover art. That would be a remarkable time-saver, and I bet more readers would venture into foreign literary lands. Combing through multiple university syllabuses to check edition recommendations, if they’ve added them to their course descriptions, is the closest I’ve been able to get.

*Thanks to Moonlight Reader for pointing these out.

4 thoughts on “Translation fatigue

  1. I’m with you on this, it’s absolutely exhausting trying to find the right translation for non-Eng classics. A couple months ago I picked up my copy of The Divine Comedy (randomly purchased) but hated the translation so I did like 2 weeks research and ended up getting another copy on Kindle. I read bits of the new one and it was a lot better. Especially with sagas and epic poems, the translations done from verse to prose are the most frustrating! 😛


    1. I had the one by Longfellow (outdated) and I got a copy translated by John Ciardi. There were some others that were recommended but this is the one I choose. Perhaps I might try out other translations in the future. Some translators have also only done 1 or 2 books, not all three books of the Divine Comedy so that limits the choices too. 🙂


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