You Gotta Know These Translations and Translators

John Dryden, The Aeneid by Virgil: written 1st century in Latin, translated 1697 into English

A poet and playwright by trade, Dryden was the first to translate the Aeneid into English proper (a Scots version by Gavin Douglas appeared in 1513). Dryden wrote his translation in verse, a feat not done by any major English translation since, largely because Latin’s extreme grammatical economy cannot be rendered compactly in English. Dryden’s translation frequently expands passages so he can convey their precise meaning. Dryden rendered the Aeneid’s opening line as “Arms, and the man I sing,” which George Bernard Shaw borrowed for the title of his play Arms and the Man.

Seamus Heaney, Beowulf: written c. 8th century in Old English, translated 2000 into modern English

Affectionately called the “Heaneywulf,” Heaney dedicated this translation to poet Ted Hughes. Heaney, an acclaimed Irish poet himself, made the decision early on to render his translation in the same poetic form as the original: alliterative verse, in which the second half of each line uses alliteration to link it to the first half. Heaney unconventionally chose “So!” as his rendering of Beowulf’s opening shout of “Hwæt,” which is often typically rendered as “hark” or “listen.”

J. R. R. Tolkien, Beowulf: written c. 8th century in Old English, translated into English 1920–1926 and published in 2014

Tolkien’s version of Beowulf is in prose, not verse, and is often regarded as sacrificing ease-of-reading in the name of a truer and more faithful translation into modern English. Tolkien’s translation is done not through a poetic lens but a linguistic one, as Tolkien was a devoted scholar of Old English. Tolkien renders “Hwæt” as the archaic-sounding “Lo!”. In addition, Tolkien adapted the first 2,000 lines of Beowulf into a freer, inexact folktale version he titled “Sellic Spell.” Print versions of Tolkien’s translation often include his 1936 lecture “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” which revived interest in Beowulf as a beautiful poem rather than as a historical text.

Charles Baudelaire, the works of Edgar Allan Poe: written early 19th century in English; translated 1856–1865 into French, starting with Histoires extraordinares (Extraordinary Stories)

Baudelaire’s translations of the works of Edgar Allan Poe—rendered by Baudelaire as “Edgar Poe”—are the authoritative version of Poe’s works in French; thanks to these translations, in the 19th century, Poe was viewed much more highly by Europeans than by Americans. Although Baudelaire initially idolized Poe and strove to be Poe’s worthy literary successor, he soured on this opinion by 1865, when he wrote a letter confessing “I wasted a great deal of time translating Edgar Poe and all I gained was that some people accused me of taking my poems from Poe.”

Edward FitzGerald, Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám: written late 11th and early 12th century in Persian; translated 1859 into English

It is difficult to overstate how popular Edward FitzGerald’s translation of Persian polymath Omar Khayyám’s poetry was during the Victorian era. FitzGerald’s translations, revised five times until 1889, present a view of the Middle East as an exotic land of sensual (but refined) pleasures and emphasize Khayyám’s irreligious worldview, which was very pleasing to Victorian tastes. It also cannot be overstated just how loose FitzGerald’s translations are: scholars believe that some of the quatrains in the Rubáiyát may be total inventions of FitzGerald. Among the many works that take their titles from FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát are Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger and Eugene O’Neill’s play Ah, Wilderness!.

William Tyndale, the Bible: written at various ancient times in Hebrew and Greek; translated 1525 into English

William Tyndale’s translation of the Old and New Testaments were the first complete English versions published by printing press, and were the first to use original Hebrew and Greek sources rather than drawing from the Vulgate, which was the only biblical translation with Catholic approval. Tyndale’s New Testament was first printed in Cologne in 1525 (even in England, his work was deemed heretical). Tyndale’s versions coined countless popular phrases, including “the powers that be,” “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak,” “am I my brother’s keeper?”, and “the salt of the earth.” He was arrested and killed before he could finish his work on the Old Testament; the Matthew Bible, published in 1537, cobbled together his unfinished work. Tyndale’s translations were the main source for the King James Bible; modern scholars estimate at least 75% of the KJV is Tyndale’s work.

George Chapman, Iliad and Odyssey by Homer: written c. 8th century BC in Greek; translated 1616 into English

Chapman’s translations of Homer’s two great epics, published as The Whole Works of Homer, were the first in English and remained the definitive English version for centuries, rivaled only perhaps by Alexander Pope’s 1715 translations. Chapman found it too difficult to fit his translation into the original Greek dactylic hexameter, and thus wrote his Iliad in iambic pentameter and his Odyssey in iambic hexameter. He rendered the Iliad’s opening invocation of the muses as “Achilles’ baneful wrath resound.” Chapman’s translation, noted for its vivid beauty, was celebrated in John Keats’s 1816 poem “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.”

Arthur Waley, Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en: written 1592 in Chinese; translated 1942 into English

Waley was a specialist in East Asian literature; he translated Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji beginning in 1925, and two decades later he published his translation of the Chinese novel Journey to the West under the title Monkey. “Monkey,” which refers to the ape-like character Sun Wukong, is one of several Westernized names Waley assigned to the novel’s characters: the Buddhist monk Tang Sanzang is given the more Sanskrit name “Tripitaka”; the hog-like Zhu Bajie is renamed “Pigsy”; and Sha Wujing is renamed “Sandy.” Waley subtitled his translation “A Folk-Tale of China” and edited out or abridged many minor episodes to emphasize the humor in the novel, which, in its original form, contains many diversions with deep allegorical and philosophical meaning.

Constance Garnett, major works of Russian literature, including the works of Anton Chekov, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Ivan Turgenyev: written 19th century in Russian; translated 1890s–1930s into English

Constance Garnett learned Russian from the exiled Russian revolutionaries Feliks Volkhovsky and Sergey Stepnyak, the latter of whom was influential in the publication of her first translations. Garnett’s translations introduced the English-speaking world to Dostoyevsky and Chekhov; in addition to these authors, she created—for the time—authoritative editions of the near-complete works of Leo Tolstoy (whom she met while visiting Russia) and Ivan Turgenyev. While Garnett’s late-Victorian translations have drawn a fair amount of modern criticism—Joseph Brodsky notably accused her of being “the reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky”—her work was instrumental in popularizing Russian literature in the English world.

Richard Burton, One Thousand and One Nights: compiled in Arabic over centuries; English translation published 1885

Richard Francis Burton was an explorer and polymath who collected and translated stories from the Arabian Nights for many years before finally producing a collected edition—published as The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night—in 1885. The most notable feature of Burton’s translation is that he did not censor or cut any of the sexually explicit content in the stories; because of the morals of the Victorian society, this meant that Burton’s translation was at first only published privately by the Kama Shastra Society, which Burton co-founded with Forster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot. Arbuthnot and Burton also collaborated on a translation of the Kama Sutra.

This article was contributed by NAQT editor Danny Kristian Vopava.

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