Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

The purpose of reading a text in its original language

Although books such as The Iliad, The Odyssey and The Aeneid make up many of the required readings lists on many English Literature and Classics courses, they rarely feature in the original languages that they were written in. Is there anything to be gained from reading classical texts in their original language, or are translations a suitable replacement? I would argue that if you are able to read a book as it was written, you should, not only because translations are unreliable, but because of the contextualisation it provides.

Translations bring books to a wider audience, making them possibly the most important part of book publication. As languages have different words and rules, it is impossible for books to be translated word for word and still make sense. Therefore, the best approach is to first take the original language, decipher the meaning of a sentence or of a paragraph and find an equivalent sequence of words that give the same meaning in the target language. This system ,however, leaves much to be desired.

An author might have specifically and carefully chosen the exact wording and phrasing to convey their thoughts

Each translator will translate a phrase differently because of their own understanding of the original language and target language. They bring with them their own biases and weaknesses to the translation which affect the work. This results in inaccuracies and mistranslations and because the book is read through the filter of the translator, limited by their own understanding and knowledge of the target and original language, the author’s prose is lost.

An author might have specifically and carefully chosen the exact wording and phrasing to convey their thoughts. Although every effort would have been made to offer an accurate translation, there are some forms and manners which do not have an equivalent in English – for example, idioms and writing structures. In terms of classical works, many of them exist as epic poems which have a specific, metre, rhyme and rhythm, chosen by the writer to add to the experience of reading or speaking them.

There is a reason there are different translations for the same piece of work, because there are various ways to interpret the same sentence and each translator approaches the piece of work differently. Some want to make it accessible to the common reader, others try to stay as close to the original language as possible. The changes a translator makes can impact the context, and when taken out of context, a translated text can at times render the form or language meaningless.

Reading a book in its own language – the way that it was intended to be read – offers us a deeper connection between the reader and writer

Classical languages may be dead, but they still live on through the works of their speakers, and the stories they have inspired. Reading a book in its own language – the way that it was intended to be read – offers us a deeper connection between the reader and writer. We gain a greater understanding of both of the author and the people it was written for.

How can you tell Homer is a good writer when it is not his words you are reading? You are reading the translator’s interpretation.

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