We asked professors of foreign languages and literature:
Thomas Pfau, associate professor of Germanic languages, says he’s fond of Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg, The Magic Mountain, translated by John Woods. “A study of European society on the eve of World War I, it focuses on a Swiss mountain sanatorium for patients suffering from tuberculosis,” says Pfau. The Woods version, he adds, is an achievement “infinitely more careful and readable than the old Helen Lowe-Porter translation.”
Assistant professor of Korean Hae-Young Kim recommends Land (T’oji) by the female Korean writer Park Kyong-ni. Park’s 7,000-page epic, published in serial form over twenty-five years (1969-1994), chronicles Korean history from pre-colonial times through Japanese colonization and liberation from Japan. “As you read, you feel transported. You experience it intimately,” says Kim. The size has intimidated translators, but the first two volumes have been made available to the English-speaking world by Agnita Tennant.
Poetry in India is not yet a bookish thing, says Satti Khanna, associate professor in Hindi. “It is sung.” Fortunately, someone wrote down the poetry of Kabir, “a weaver and a madcap mystic who lived by the Ganges 600 years ago.” Kabir “jams casual speech up against cosmic perspective,” he says. “His more mystical writing is difficult to translate, but Robert Bly has a very beautiful touch in The Kabir Book.”
La Celestina by Francisco de Rojas was among the many recommendations from Margaret Greer, professor of Spanish and Latin American studies. Only a Spanish-speaking audience will truly appreciate this one, she says. “No translation comes close! Rojas plays with and invents language as did Shakespeare.”
“ The Idiot—who could not love a title like that?” asks Jehanne Gheith, associate professor in Slavic languages. “Dostoevsky poses great questions about whether it’s better to act or not act in life.” The best translation Gheith is aware of is by David Magarshack. “You can’t get the same things out of the English, but you can get something equally good, sometimes better.”