ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
Later in the show, we'll open up a new book of maps. They're useless on the road, but in them, you can see all sorts of things about the world at a single glance. First, though, a different view of the world through some of its great literature.
Living in America, it's easy to forget that much of that literature is not written in English, so many of us have to rely on translators. But have you ever read a bad translation? You quickly realize how tough that job is. Rick Kleffel, from member station KUSP in Santa Cruz, California, spoke with three translators about the challenge of bringing another culture alive and doing it right.
RICK KLEFFEL: Bea Basso came from Italy to the United States in 2000 to study and work in theater. Since then, she's done a lot of translating from Italian to English and has discovered that the choice of a single word can determine the arc of an entire work.
Ms. BEA BASSO (Translator): There is no such thing as a literal translation. By nature of choosing one word rather than another, you in some way influence the next step.
KLEFFEL: But word choice is just the beginning. Translating poetry is particularly difficult because the sound plays an integral part in transmitting the meaning.
Mr. BURTON RAFFEL (Translator): There's a phrase from one of Baudelaire's poems, (French spoken). Never mind what it means, none of those sounds exist in English.
KLEFFEL: Burton Raffel has translated "Beowulf," "Don Quixote" and most recently Geoffrey Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales." He's worked for decades in over a dozen languages.
Mr. RAFFEL: When I translate Indonesian poetry, the sentence we all learn at Cornell when we learn to speak Indonesian is the following. (Foreign language spoken)
I can rip it off like crazy now, but when I first met it and when we all first meet it, it broke our teeth.
Ms. BASSO: Every region in Italy is so dramatically different - the dialect, the customs, the food.
KLEFFEL: Which is why Bea Basso, who's from Venice, found it odd when she was asked to translate plays by Neapolitan author Eduardo De Filippo, and that wasn't all.
Ms. BASSO: Eduardo De Filippo uses an old dialect - it's from the late '50s. So not even my Neapolitan friends would always know. They would have to ask their grandmothers.
KLEFFEL: Sometimes translators are challenged by those who have come before. When Julie Rose took on Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables," two previous English translations dominated bookstore shelves. The first was by a contemporary and friend of Hugo in 1862. More than 100 years later, the novel was translated by Norman Denny. Julie Rose consulted Denny's text only after she began work on her own translation.
Ms. JULIE ROSE (Translator, "Les Miserables"): I was amazed when I read Norman Denny's preface at the sort of contempt that Denny felt for a man that he says couldn't always write that well, which is not actually my experience of reading Hugo.
KLEFFEL: Rose found herself sympathetic not just to the work, but to the writer himself. She says she felt like she was channeling Hugo.
Ms. ROSE: I was very worried about losing my hair and becoming fat, which Hugo did, you know, by the time he was writing it.
KLEFFEL: Burton Raffel has a straightforward and strict policy about translating works already available in English.
Mr. RAFFEL: I will not do a translation if, in my opinion, one of the extant translations is a good one. I don't want to do the 150th recording of Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto. If there are 149, that's enough.
KLEFFEL: And there are still plenty of great works in other languages that have never been translated. Bea Basso was asked to translate a comedy by the renowned 18th-century Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni into English for the first time, introducing his words and culture to an American audience.
Ms. BASSO: All of a sudden, I was a translator of gestures, traditions, customs, ways of behaving, even how many kisses do you give to people when you enter a room.
KLEFFEL: The differences between cultures can be a challenge. When working on "Gargantua and Pantagruel," Burton Raffel translated Middle French into modern English. Written in the 16th century, the novel was set in a time of filth and squalor. Raffel found he had to overcome the limits of the English language.
Mr. RAFFEL: Rabelais, the author of this very strange book, ends a chapter with a sputtering iteration. I believe it's something like 43 different words in French for (bleep). You can't avoid that. My problem was finding 43 different words because English is not so plentiful in these things.
KLEFFEL: A good translation needs to be true to the original and able to stand on its own for a new audience. Reconciling language and culture is both a science and an art. For NPR News, I'm Rick Kleffel.
SEABROOK: You can compare passages from three different English translations of "Les Miserables" on our website npr.org.