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Classics in Translation

By Megha Alam, Jane Bentham, Lucy Clark and Rob Tomlinson

 

Classic literature represents a timeless cornerstone for each country, providing a great way to delve into a society’s history and culture. Here is a selection of translated works that have captured the imaginations of readers in both the past and the present.

 

The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni, translated from Italian by Michael F. Moore


A grand work of historical fiction, Manzoni’s The Betrothed has been credited as the first novel to be published in the modern Italian language and is widely celebrated in its native country. Set in the 1600s, the book follows the journeys of Renzo and Lucia, a young couple whose marriage plans are threatened by a rich nobleman. The protagonists are separated and swept up in the historical developments of their time, enduring the consequences of the war, famine and plague that spread across northern Italy. Manzoni skilfully combines detailed accounts of real historical events with intimate studies of a wide range of characters across different social strata, from esteemed priests and kindly peasants to corrupt aristocrats and disgraced nuns. Through diverse forms of language, the author conveys themes such as spirituality and justice, spanning both the tragic and comic genres. The heart of this story nevertheless remains as the love between Renzo and Lucia, fighting against all odds to reunite.

 

A compelling portrait of life in 17th century Italy, The Betrothed is a must-read for lovers of great historical epics.

 

Beowulf, translated from Old English by Maria Dahvana Headley

 

Expanding the remit of translation beyond the geographical, Beowulf presents us with an opportunity to translate across time, giving access to one of the foundational stories of British literature, told in epic, sonorous verse and from a time before the nation existed as we now understand it. Beowulf is the story of a hero who saves his people from three antagonists  Grendel, Grendel’s mother and a dragon  and frees his realm from their tyranny. Following a textual gap of many years, we return to see Beowulf become king and his land once again threatened by dragons.

 

Published in 2020, some two decades after Seamus Heaney’s classic translation of the poem, Maria Dahvana Headley offers us something quite different. Imbued with contemporary feminist politics and social media language, she updates the text, placing more emphasis on the powerful and terrible figure of Grendel’s mother, the only female character in the text with real agency. While the linguistic choices may be off-putting to some readers for example, the first word “Hwæt!”, which is an opening interjection translated by Heaney as “So”, is rendered “Bro!” by Headley  they nevertheless serve to bring a story meant to be told in the drinking halls of the 10th century kicking and screaming into the present day.

 

The Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov, translated from Russian by Michael Glenny


A political satire critiquing Bolshevik society and the emerging class of the new rich, The Heart of a Dog was written in 1925 but banned from publication by the Soviet Union until 1987. It was only published in English in 1968, translated by Michael Glenny. The story details the surgical transformation of a stray dog into a man by a prominent professor, who, despite being anti-communist, is protected due to his important work for the party. The novella serves as an allegory of the Russian Revolution, and the professor who undertakes this surgery in the name of the improvement of mankind is representative of the utopian New Man concept within communist ideology. On the surface, The Heart of a Dog is a comical story of a science experiment gone wrong, but it is layered with rich symbolism and critiques of not only the political situation of the society that Bulgakov was living in at the time but of the state of humanity as a whole, making this a timeless work of satire. 

 

Chéri by Colette, translated from French by Rachel Careau


Colette’s famous love story recounts a romance between an older woman and a younger man, and it’s a tale that is still relevant and relatable today through the themes of age, relationships and sexuality.


The name Chéri, meaning darling, is the nickname given to the main character Fred Peloux, and it embodies the relationship between himself and Léa de Lonval. She is a woman facing the end of her career and is twice his age, hence the pet name as Chéri and Léa embark on a relationship. Through this love affair, the reader can see the devotion that stems from desire, and it’s an honest account of human preoccupations with youth and middle age. However, when Chéri is faced with the prospect of an advantageous marriage that has been arranged for him, Léa reluctantly decides to end their relationship, yet neither of them could foresee how deeply they would be connected.


First published in 1920, this is an exquisite French classic written by an excellent and evocative French writer. In short, it is a must-read.

 

 

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