Translations: Some books always have a market for more

Not too long ago, I picked up a £1 copy of Ronald Knox’s 1950s translation of the New Testament at a charity shop. On a whim. I must admit that I’ve not looked at it yet, but word on the street (or Amazon, really) is that it is elegant and modern at the same time.

The Bible as a whole, and the New Testament in particular, is a text for which there will always be a market for new translations and paraphrases. One can purchase the Orthodox Study Bible (which includes its own translation of the Septuagint), the New King James Version, the King James Version, the New International Version, the updated New International Version, Today’s New International Version, The Living Bible, the New Living Translation, the Contemporary English Version, Today’s English Version, JB Phillips’ translation, the Jerusalem Bible, the New Jerusalem Bible, Richmond Lattimore’s New Testament, the Revised Standard Version, the New Revised Standard Version, the New American Standard Version, the New American Bible, the English Standard Version, the New English Bible, and so forth, or self-aware paraphrases such as The Message or Word on the Street.

Similarly, there seems to be no end to translations of St. Augustine’s Confessions. I was once in the Indigo on Bay Street in Toronto and found seven different translations available in the religion section!

If religion isn’t your thing, you could make a small library of translations of Homer instead. Just last year, Stephen Mitchell released his translation of the Iliad, making the editorial choice of leaving out everything that ML West obelised — including the entirety of Book 10 (here’s Butler’s translation if Mitchell’s all you’ve got). Mitchell’s translation is added to Robert Fagles‘ of both Iliad and Odyseey, Richmond Lattimore’s (also of both), Robert Fitzgerald’s (also of both), Anthony Verity’s, EV Rieu’s (also of both; also out in updated translations), and the old, classic translations by Alexander Pope, Samuel Butler, George Chapman, and John Dryden.

Gilgamesh seems also to be doing fairly well, with at least two translations in Penguin Classics (Andrew George and N. Sandars), Stephen Mitchell again, and is included in the Oxford World’s Classics book  Myths of Mesopotamia. Not as abundant as the above, but give Gilgamesh time. Not as many people know Akkadian and other Babylonian languages as Greek.

Perhaps, although not into religion per se, you aren’t so much into the epic poetry, either. Then I recommend you turn to Plato’s Republic. There are at least ten translations easily available to you.

All of these books are books I would recommend — the Bible, the Confessions, Homer, Gilgamesh, the Republic. Other books I would recommend are not served so well in English translation, however; outside of the forthcoming (but not sure what year) Landmark edition, I know of but two translations of Ammianus Marcellinus, the late-antique historian. For The Hymns of Zoroaster, I know only of M L West’s translation, which exists precisely because what little West could find was not up to his standards, so he taught himself Avestan and did his own translation. And while people are translating and re-translating St. Augustine, the entirety of Pope Leo I’s epistolary corpus has never made it into English, living in two partial translations. Apuleius’ hilarious Latin novel The Golden Ass lurks about in a mere two translations, one for Oxford and one for Penguin.

So long as these less-well-served works stay in few translations, some of them sawdusty, others inaccessible due to rarity or price, still others quite rubbishy at times, they will not reach the English-reading public, which is certainly larger than those who read Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Akkadian, or Avestan.


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