Guest Blog: Seven Things to Remember When Translating a Foreign Classic into English

Interesting Literature

By David Gibbons

The early English translations of Alessandro Manzoni’s historical novel I promessi sposi are in many ways an object lesson in how not to do things. The six versions published between 1828 and 1845 are valiant attempts, but all of them include some pretty major clangers. Based on years spent looking, and laughing, at them, here’s a tongue-in-cheek list of tips I have compiled for aspiring translators.

1. Use the dictionary judiciously. The first of my translators, Reverend Charles Swan, when bemused by the Italian word “ceto” (meaning “social class”), did what most of us would do under the circumstances: he looked it up. Unfortunately Baretti’s dictionary gives only a secondary definition for the term, related to the more common “cetaceo” in Italian, which is … “whale”. Hence when Swan’s readers are informed that “besides having recourse to other methods, he assumed the livery of some potent family…

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