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To Read or Not to Read?
Some Notes on the Perils of Translated Texts

"Evola should be read in Italian to understand him, translated texts are always harder to understand."


Thanks, for bringing this up, Jacob.

I am currently reading Ernst Junger's The Forest Passage, obliquely referenced by Evola [or so the translator informs me], writing within the same few years. I once found a copy of Philostratus' The Gymnastika in German. I used a German-English dictionary and spent 40 hours translating a paragraph and was unsuccessful in constructing even a sentence that made near sense, even after comparing it to my translation of the Greek, which was quite hideous I am sure. These languages did not seem to abide the same rules, and I don't even have a command of English rules. Should I spend years learning German, and, since I never passed an English test in 10 failed years of school, what would my chances be of picking up a language I am told is more difficult? My attempt to learn Spanish for a series of novels over two years with dictionaries and numerous bilingual speakers helping me amounted to me almost being able to say, "much good butt," without causing the listener to cringe. I settled for only having Spanish spoken by characters who were retarded or illiterate Anglos.

So, should I spend years learning a language I can never master, as I have not even mastered this one, or should I depend on someone who was selected for their skill in translation and depend on their effort?

Ideally I would read two translations and compare them.

I find myself dealing with subjects where the first translation has been awaited for decades.

I have been told the same thing about Musashi, Junger, the Church fathers, all of the ancients—and I find myself a half dozen languages short.

However, I know, through experience, that I have been lied to by Japanese and Arabic readers about the contents of their sacred books, which they said I could never fathom through translations, as I have checked them via numerous translations and compared the claims, with the texts and with the actual behavior of the characters involved.

I did find, through a crude parsing of Attic Greek, that the Loeb verse translations and even some epigrams, were way off the mark, was expected to believe that "the high-hander" meant "mister fingertips." This was informed by my firsthand experience fighting with wrapped fists and bare hands. However, in the realm of high-thinking, such efforts on my part would generate many more mistakes than depending on a translator.

Does it therefore follow that I should only read British, Canadian and American authors writing only in their first language and reading only similarly limited authors?

That would sink me much further into the abyss of ignorance I was born into.

Who do we trust more, the translator with an axe to grind or the commentator with an axe to grind working from the translation of a first language commentator with an axe to grind?

We have only our choice between shades of ignorance unless we be towering intellectuals like Richard Francis Burton.

It took me 20 years of English until I felt comfortable commenting on English literature.

How many decades for me to be qualified to understand Evola in Italian? Based on my experience with English, it would take me roughly 80 years, provided my mind is as flexible as it was as a youth.

Thanks for listening to my hopelessly ignorant opinion—for that is what everything based on second language translations I extract must be. Because, you are right, I am in no position to judge the translation.

So, in terms of the Koran, which I read in English in two translations three times, should I only trust the English words of a first language Arabic reader—while utterly ignorant of his true perspective or the second language Arabic reader, whose perspective I might judge via his forward to the reader or other published works?

What brand of translation should I settle for?

The passive or the active?

Should I have a man reading in his second language and translating to his first language speak to me or a man reading in his first language and translating to his second speak to me? This latter figure might be lying to me to conceal his folk's sins or intentions.

The only purely rational answer from the passive perspective is that I should not read anything translated from another language and should remain ignorant and unseeking rather than ignorant and seeking.

That said, who, would ever read anything written by one who refused to seek for fear of being wrong?

Thanks for listening in and commenting, Jacob. This has been a subject of much angst for me and I know of no satisfactory answer.

The Sphinx is ever silent at my deaf approach and it haunts the hollows of my mind.

A Well of Heroes

Add Comment
Alex NicholsonMay 13, 2018 11:15 PM UTC

The way to get around some of these objections is to read more than one translation when it matters and the work is short. Such a Beowulf. You can also listen to the original read aloud on youtube, such as I have done with the Iliad and a few others. But it's not realistic for most people to pick up many languages. It's good to pick one and slowly improve it over the years tho, if you have some ability to make progress.
responds:May 14, 2018 7:21 AM UTC

This is why Jacob's comment reminded me that I should have treated with this here earlier. I read 4 Gilgamesh translations, 2 Beowulf, 3 Iliad, 2 Argonautica and 2 Odyssey and came away less confident that I could trust translations than previous. This frustrates me too late in life for me to really do anything about it. The Loeb translation series was a real eye opener as to how little an aspiring English poet can be trusted to translate from an ancient poem.
JoeFourMay 13, 2018 8:43 PM UTC

James, you're in good company. Mark Twain once quipped: "German should be considered a dead language because only the dead have enough time to learn it." ... or words to that effect. :)
AnonymousMay 13, 2018 6:24 PM UTC

Best way to explain what I mean is to see some italian tv series, commissario Montalbano I think you would like but start from beginning (it is crime series).

I meant no offence, I look up to you alot.
responds:May 14, 2018 7:24 AM UTC

No offense taken.

I am so vexed by this issue that you reminded me to try and get it out there.

I stopped my look into the fall of the Aztecs and have halted The Song of Roland project because of these issues. My only real option is to use multiple translations like I did with Gilgamesh.
Tony CoxMay 13, 2018 6:17 PM UTC

The best I can hope for when reading translated texts is that somehow the overall concept will shine through. I tried reading ‘Being and Nothingness’ by Sartre and it was nothing more than a series of randomly repeating words, something was definitely lost in translation.

I also have an English translation of the Tao Te Ching that is written in rhyming verse....