Great Translators’ Notes
By Kate Williams and Toby Smollett
When reading a translated book, the work of the translator is often invisible - their name is absent from the cover and the text is presented without comment. In some books, however, the presence of the translator is necessary to expand upon certain ideas in the text, or to explain a specific decision made when translating. In these cases, the translator will provide notes alongside the main text to offer context and clarification. In this article, we will go through four examples of translators’ notes which we feel are particularly praiseworthy.
Inferno by Dante Alighieri, translated by Robin Kirkpatrick and published by Penguin Classics in 2006.
Robin Kirkpatrick’s translation of Dante’s Inferno contains detailed and extensive notes. The introduction itself covers over 100 pages, detailing Dante’s biography, contextual information, critical interpretations and cultural references. He also discusses the challenges of translating the Inferno, which allows the translator to explain the reasoning behind his interpretation. Each canto is accompanied by additional notes and a short commentary at the back of the book which offers various interpretations. I like that these notes are separated from the text itself as they discourage the reader from relying too heavily on the translator for interpretation but can easily be accessed if anything is unclear.
This edition also contains almost everything you need to understand the fundamental ideas about The Divine Comedy. Translators’ notes, however, should not be seen as exhaustive, as one person’s interpretation of a text can differ completely from another. To prevent this, Kirkpatrick provides a long list of further reading at the beginning of the book, encouraging the reader to seek out other interpretations as well. In addition, his translation is placed side by side with the original Italian text, encouraging the reader to use the translation as a guide to understand the original Italian rather than replacing the original itself.
Poems and Selected Letters by Veronica Franco, translated by Ann Rosalind Jones and Margaret F. Rosenthal and published by University of Chicago Press in 1999.
Veronica Franco was a poet and Venetian courtesan during the Italian Renaissance. Her work was little appreciated at the time, and it was only during the 1990s that scholars began to take an interest in her writing. As a non-canonical writer discussing lesser-known ideas and themes concerning women in Italy during the 16th century, Jones and Rosenthal’s notes in this edition provide the reader with crucial information, filling in the gaps in their knowledge to better understand Franco’s writing. Footnotes are used frequently to explain references that the modern reader may not have come across. For example, in one of Franco’s letters, she mentions the Casa delle Zitelle, a charitable institution for unmarried girls which aimed to protect their chastity and increase their chances of marriage. The translators’ introduction also covers context relevant to the work such as the culture of courtesans, women’s writing in Italy, Veronica Franco’s life and more.
Writing and Difference by Jacques Derrida, translated by Alan Bass and published by Routledge in 2001.
Translating Jacques Derrida, the infamous French philosopher who introduced the concepts of deconstruction, différance and hauntology, is a near-impossible endeavour. The range of reference points, his affinity for wordplay and the complexity of his vocabulary and syntax make translating his essays an arduous task. Alan Bass himself acknowledges in the introduction the question of whether it is even possible to read Derrida in a language other than French.
The introduction also includes a guide to the chronology and recommended reading of all the works originally published by Derrida in 1967 (Writing and Difference, Of Grammatology, Speech and Phenomena). As well as a suggested approach to reading the essays collected in this volume: choose any essay then read it alongside the work it references and the notes provided. These notes are extensive and remarkably erudite, covering 66 pages at the end of the book and demonstrating a profound knowledge of the philosophical genealogy with which Derrida was grappling when writing these essays.
Tactics and Ethics: 1919 – 1929 by Georg Lukács, translated by Michael McColgan and published by Verso Books in 2014.
Georg Lukács was a Hungarian Marxist philosopher who worked as the People’s Commissar for Education and Culture during the brief existence of the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919. A prolific essayist and significant voice in post-World War I Hungary, this collection of essays offers a deep insight into his thought processes and the notes of Michael McColgan act as a perfect foil. The breadth of the historical context of Hungary provided by McColgan in his notes is so impressive that they almost merit a book of their own and they allow for even the most casual of readers to access this work.