Choosing a translation can be a daunting task and a bad translation can turn you off a great novel. So if you don't happen to know a native speaker what are you to do? Here are three steps I have found helpful:
1) Read the translator's preface or introduction. Translation is a complex and difficult process and translators have different methods. Most translators will explain their theories and methods. Some strive for word-for-word exactitude, others seek to recreate the tone of the original; some set the work in its historical context, others update the work. Consider whether you agree with the translator. There is no correct way to translate a novel, it is a matter of taste and as the reader it is your taste that matters.
2) Consider the date of the translation. Like original authors, translators are products of their times. This is especially important with historical translations. Alexander Pope's translation of the Iliad, for instance, is a beautiful work of art but is very much an eighteenth-century retelling of Homer.
3) Carefully read a few passages, including some dialogue. If there are several translations you are considering, read the same passages in each. Do you like the writing? Does it sound right? Can you imagine reading it for several hundred pages? Again this is a matter of personal taste; unless you like the writing you are unlikely to finish the work, and that would be a shame.
And if you can't find a translation you like? Don't read the book. A bad translation of the best book will be a terrible read. Wait for a better translation. There are thousands of books worth reading in the meantime. Of course you could always learn the original language . . .
Finally, here are three translated works that I can enthusiastically recommend:
The Master & Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
translated by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O'Connor
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevasky
translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
translated by John Ciardi
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