How do you translate classic literature for contemporary readers?

“The idea of the classic is invested in a particular model of history, one that allows for a perpetual tension between the enduring and the transient, and for the survival of the past in ways that are comprehensible even to a radically different present. This comprehensibility is not immediate or unmediated, but involves acts of translation by successive generations of readers. Classics in translation thus epitomise a peculiar mode of historicity which consists of the co-articulation of the timeless and the historical: each one of these categories both sustains and endangers the other.”
“Translation and the Classic: Identity as Change in the History of Culture”, Alexandra Lianeri and Vanda Zajko

By its very definition, a classic is a work-in-translation-in-eternal-progress, its “pastness” examined and renewed by readers in each generation that it survives, making it comprehensible and relevant to a succession of “present”s. Arguably then, what forges a “tradition” is not that which is purportedly timeless, but these temporal interventions, these timely acts of interpretation.

When textual traditions close ranks and form “classical” canons, they withhold their contents from this organic process of translation over time, holding them in an ahistorical warp. This is often a prelude to the death of the classic, not a sign of its continuing life. For canonical texts can fall out of circulation in any real sense even while the halo of their timelessness persists, forfeiting renewal by changing contexts of readership and by juxtaposition with newer works that become their vital links to living, evolving traditions.

What, then, is the task that confronts the contemporary translator of the “classic”? Certainly not to transport through time – in an enchanted vial, as it were – the uncorrupted essence of a literary work. It is, rather, the careful recuperation of a fragile, porous text through the complex, layered history of its origins and interpretations, reframing it as a resonant cultural and political artefact for our times – no longer whole or unmediated, but capable of meaningful conversation with the currents, conflicts and concerns of the present.

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