War and Peace. So I set out for Barnes and Noble to make what I thought would be a simple book purchase. Two hours later, I emerged bleary-eyed and frustrated...and with no book.
So what happened? Well, that was the first time I had really seriously looked into War and Peace at all, and as I poured over the four or five different versions of the novel on the shelf, I couldn't figure out which translation was the "best." One version seemed to be several hundred pages shorter than others, there were some pretty major differences in the line-by-line prose, and one version even included long passages of untranslated French. I started to wonder how much those differences would affect my comprehension and enjoyment of the novel. Eventually, I convinced myself (rationalized?) that there was really no point to spending three months with a book and constantly worrying if I was missing something because I'd picked the "wrong" translation.
I know it's a touch xenophobic, but that experience pretty much put me off all books in translation for good. What if all translated novels only represent approximations of the author's tone and intent? Would the novel be nearly as good when I'm missing all the subtleties and "inside jokes"? What if these novels are really only the literary version of those terrible (and terribly funny) Japanese kung-fu movies over-dubbed into English?
The Club Dumas, which I read at the height of Da Vinci Code-mania. However, since I've started blogging and reading others' literary blogs, it's becoming increasingly clear that this fear of books in translation is a neurosis I need to overcome to really consider myself a well-rounded bibliophile. It's caused me to miss out on some pretty fantastic novels by non-English writers like Haruki Murakami (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), Roberto Bolano (2666) and Jose Saramango (Blindness).
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Explanation for that choice: Since this fear of books in translation isn't exactly reasonable in the first place, I'm going to overcome it by reading a Spanish novel in Germany. Take that, sense. I've also just purchased the first two books in Steig Larsson's "The Girl Who..." trilogy, and plan to read those Swedish-to-English books before the third novel The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is published in the U.S. May 25th.
So, what else have I missed out on? What are some of your favorite in-translation books? Anyone else ever have to overcome a similar silly, irrational fear of books in translation?
(Note: Wikipedia's War and Peace entry has a full list of translations. My copy — which, if you're reading this on the site and not on Google Reader or email, you see to the right in the "Dork at Work" photo — is the Anthony Briggs translation. I still don't know if that translation is the "best" one, so would welcome any input on any "reader preferred" translations.)