Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A New Translation Please

Over the last few years a number of classic European novels have gotten new translations, some to widespread acclaim and excitement; War and Peace, Doctor Zhivago, The Death of Ivan Illyich and Other Stories, Madame Bovary, and The Tin Drum to name a few. This got me thinking, what book would I really like to see newly translated?

The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch. The Death of Virgil is a story about the last day or so in the life of the great Roman poet Virgil (think Tinkers, only instead of off-their-rocker woodsmen, the man dying hung out with Caesar Augustus) as he grapples with his unfinished Aeneid while thinking about the nature of poetry, power, and love. Occasionally his thoughts break out of structured prose and into verse. The book opens with Virgil being carried from a ship on a litter through the back streets of the port city to the hut where he will be staying and it ends when he dies.

I’ve written about how brilliant this book is before but there were many times when I was reading that I could feel the prose straining against its own translation. I’m not entirely sure how to describe the sensation, but I could tell that Broch said more in German than was translated into English.

In the end, Broch turned from the novel to philosophical writings, but before he did he produced two of the great novels of the twentieth century. A new translation of The Death of Virgil (and maybe one for the Sleepwalkers too, since I’m pondering this) might go a long way in generating the kind of attention that Broch deserves.

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