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Interview with the Translator

Richer Resources: When did your work as a translator begin and how did you come to begin translating works?

Ian Johnston: Well, we did a lot of translating in school (mainly from Latin). I started up again when I was teaching college courses in the history of science and we needed some short excerpts from nineteenth century French writers on pre-Darwinian biology (e.g., Lamarck) for class readings. That got me interested in doing some other works in that area (e.g., Cuvier and Kant). Then, when my son died, I undertook the major task of the Iliad because I had promised him I would one day translate the poem. From then on (1997) Iíve been translating fairly steadily.

Richer Resources: From how many languages have you translated works?

Ian Johnston: Iíve translated from ancient Greek (Homer and the tragedians), Latin (Lucretius, Ovid), French (Cuvier, Lamarck, Rousseau), and German (Kant, Nietzsche, Kafka).  I make use of a good deal of help from dictionaries, commentaries, and other translations. My real forte (if I have one) is not so much a superior command of the original language as an ability to find the appropriate English style for a particular author.

Richer Resources: What do you find most rewarding about translating?

Ian Johnston: The best thing about the work is the constant conversation one has to carry out with the author, making all sorts of enquiries about possible translations and trying to get his opinion of the result. Some authors are quite communicative (e.g., Aristophanes) and others are no help at all (e.g., Sophocles).

Richer Resources: Do you have a favorite classic work?

Ian Johnston: Well the Iliad is a particular favourite. But the author I really like translating is Aristophanes, mainly because I used to be a writer of satirical plays myself, and I feel I have a better understanding of where heís coming from and what heís trying to do than with some of the others. Nietzsche is also a favourite because his style is so flexible and challenging.

Richer Resources: What do you feel is the value of these older classics to modern day understandings? In other words, how are classics relevant to today's reader?

Ian Johnston: The classic works are valuable, first and foremost, because they are fun to readóoriginal and often challenging. Beyond that, they do force one to think long and hard about oneís own beliefs, because many of them come from an imaginative vision of the world which is quite different from the one we are familiar with from our own upbringing and from the cultural works produced today. Thatís potentially very valuable, because if oneís imagination is stirred by an older vision of life, one has to rethink oneís often unexamined assumptions.

Richer Resources: Thank you very much for granting this interview, Ian.

Ian Johnston: It's been my pleasure. Thank you.

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