Literary Hub has a piece on near impossible to translate (long) novelsBerlin Alexanderplatz is not so much a challenge to the translator on length grounds, as in the way to handle contemporary Berlin street talk. It’s not short, but it’s no War and Peace. Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s Leg over Leg is more impressive in the length stakes. It comes in two volumes, and seems to me to be an odd performance for the middle of the 19th century. It’s a sort of Tristram Shandy-esque tour de force, metafictional in its persistent focus on the mechanics of what the author is doing. One doesn’t expect a book published in 1855 to kick off with a couple of pages of words for different types of sexual intercourse, but preserving words is one of Fariyaq’s passions, and you are going to get taken along with him on his journey through many, many lists. But most of the books discussed in the Literary Hub piece are difficult for reasons other than length — some are indeed notably short.

C. K. Scott Moncrieff began his Proust translation in 1919 and was still working on it when he died in 1930. Conrad opined that the translation was better than the original. Constance Garnett translated 71 Russian works, none of which she appears to have found “near impossible to translate”, despite several of them being those “baggy monsters”.

Also ignoring Lit Hub‘s apparent warnings about the difficulties of length, Damion Searls has just completed his 1720-page translation of Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries: From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl.

This novel, to be published in October in two volumes in a slipcase, presents the events of one year in the form of a chapter a day. It tells the story of “Gesine Cresspahl, a thirty-four-year-old single mother who is a German émigré to Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and of her ten-year-old daughter, Marie — a story of work and school, of friends and lovers and the countless small encounters with neighbors and strangers that make up big-city life. An everyday tale, but also a tale of the events of the day, as gleaned by Gesine from The New York Times.” Volume 1 of Anniversaries takes places between August 1967 and April 1968, Volume 2 between April 1968 and August 1968.

But don’t talk to me about translating long books if you don’t at least give a nod towards the oft-translated Bible. The King James version, called the Authorized version in England, was the third complete Bible translation approved by the Church of England. It took 47 scholars 7 years to do. King James instructed them to get going in 1604. They divided the work into six lots assigning each to a different group of scholars, and by 1608 all were done, and a General Committee of Review hammered out inconsistencies and set the tone. The New Testament was translated from Greek, the Old Testament from Hebrew and Aramaic, and the Apocrypha from Greek and Latin. The text of the earlier Bishops’ Bible served as a guide for the translators. They were conscious of walking a denominational tightrope, in a country fixated on the problem of having a king who had been born a Catholic. In their Epistle Dedicatory the translators wrote, in that orotund English which became so influential in British cultural history up unto the end of the last century, “So that if, on the one side, we shall be traduced by Popish Persons at home or abroad, who therefore will malign us, because we are poor instruments to make God’s holy Truth to be yet more and more known unto these people, whom they desire still to keep in ignorance and darkness; or if, on the other side, we shall be maligned by selfconceited Bretheren, who run their own ways, and give liking unto nothing, but what is framed by themselves, and hammered on their anvil; we may rest secure, supported within by the truth and innocency of a good conscience, having walked the ways of simplicity and integrity, as before the Lord; and sustained without by the powerful protection of Your Majesty’s grace and favour, which will ever give countenance to honest and Christian endeavours against bitter censures and uncharitable imputations.” That’s quite a sentence.

In this context one might mention the almost impossible task of translating The Qur’an — something that is expressly forbidden. Translations take the form of translations of the meaning, but just as an explication of the meaning of, say, Paradise Lost might tell you what it’s about, such versions emphatically do not give you any real feel for the character of the original. Here’s a case where you really should learn the original language in order to be able to appreciate the book. Like Pushkin, so they say.