Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

Publishing in Britain can often look like one long, sorry story of literary crimes, follies and misfortunes. Consider the vast stashes of unsold celebrity nonsense now waiting to return to the warehouse, and you will never underestimate the trade's capacity for crassness. Thus it counts as hard news, and good news, that one corner of the book biz surpassed itself this autumn. It has proved a staggeringly rich season for first-rate new translations of classic works - and, in one case, for a very old translation. The complete 1611 Authorised Version of The Bible (edited by David Norton; £14.99) has at last joined the black-clad ranks of Penguin Classics. So, as James I's tame clerics put it, from the Greek of St Luke, "on earth peace, good will towards men".

There have, for a change, been plenty of reasons for goodwill. Virgil's Aeneid shaped the political side of European culture as deeply as the Bible did the spiritual. The muscular rhythms of Robert Fagles's superb new version (Penguin Classics, £25) allow readers not merely to relish the epic's spectacle and adventure, but to grasp why this keystone of the Roman imperial mind has borne the dreams of poets and politicians.

Without Virgil ("that fountainhead/ from which there flows so broad a stream of speech"), Dante could never have descended into hell, and so tempted centuries of translator-poets to follow him. Sure-footed but (rightly) rough-edged, Sean O'Brien joins this august line in his Dante's Inferno (Picador, £15). The alien grandeur of the Inferno may be, as O'Brien argues, "the ultimate riposte to the banal tyranny of 'relevance'". Yet his own plunge into the mid-life wood makes Dante more thrilling than Dan Brown.

Don Paterson wrestles frankly with the newness of the work that arrives when one poet over-writes another's original. Orpheus (Faber, £12.99) is his "version" of Rilke's 55 astonishing Sonnets to Orpheus, composed in a lightning-storm of inspiration in 1922. Always aware that poetic translation might amount to a "fool's errand", Paterson succeeds 55 times in creating "a wholly new poem the target language would never have otherwise produced". The translated poem may be, like Rilke-Paterson's "Unicorn", "the animal that never was" - but, "not knowing that", its true believers "loved it anyway".

Although prose fiction may provoke less angst among translators than poetry, it can throw down challenges that call for just as much gymnastic skill. The great French Renaissance scholar MA Screech jumps gloriously through the hoops of Rabelais's scatological satire in his versions of Gargantua and Pantagruel (Penguin Classics, £12.99). Sadly, few non-specialists are ever likely to swallow the entire 1,000 pages, and so Screech advises beginners to take refreshing dips in this "wise world of kaleidoscopic laughter".

With a pair of later French monuments, the narrative will grip like glue. John Sturrock's fast-flowing version of Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma (Penguin Classics, £9.99) should recruit a new regiment of readers for the escapades of Fabrizio del Dongo, from the corpse-strewn battlefield of Waterloo to the bedrooms of Italy. As for Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers, dashingly re-translated by Richard Pevear (Penguin Classics, £25), it would be tempting to assume the ultimate swashbuckling romp needs no introduction. But, like all old books these days, it does; Pevear provides a useful one, along with clarifying notes. This counts as perhaps the most shamelessly enjoyable volume published in the UK during 2006. Pevear even dares to kick off Chapter 65 with "It was a dark and stormy night...". A Peanuts-inspired translator's jest? No, as it really begins: "C'était une nuit orageuse et sombre". Sometimes, fidelity can be fun.