All happy families ...

August 07, 2006

There's an old joke from the days when computers were young and bulky, about a super new translation program. Someone asked it to convert "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak" into some gnarled foreign language, and the resulting passage, translated back into English, came out: "The vodka is strong but the meat has spoiled."

Today there are actual digital translation programs, and they do a better job than that. But getting the words right isn't at all the same as getting the sense right, or the emotion right, or the music right. For that, the world still needs humans, but the thing about humans is that no two think alike. Publishers are stumbling onto that - and bringing out new translations of familiar classics. Anna Karenina, The Aeneid, Don Quixote have all been rethought and reborn into English. Yet, can a classic be a classic when it's not the same as it used to be?

For our money, the answer is yes. We've been trying to read The Magic Mountain since the not-so-latter years of the 20th Century. If we took up the new version, we just might make it to the end - assuming, that is, the vodka is still strong enough.

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