Interview with the Translator
Richer Resources: When
did your work as a translator begin and how did you come to begin
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
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
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.