Don’t Get Lost In Literary Translation

Why The Translator Involved Is Important

Image courtesy Phil Dowsing via Flickr

In the world of Classics, you will find many books that were written originally in a language foreign to you. For the sake of this post, I would define a foreign language as one other than English. Thanks to the magnificent work of translators, the magical stories and wondrous worlds from those foreign authors are accessible to us. I think that is the most important thing to keep in mind regarding a translated tale. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to experience it. But another important thing to keep in mind is that you are at the mercy of the translator to pass along the true intent of the original words.

I know many folks don’t give a second thought to the edition of a book they read, much less concern themselves with the translated version of a foreign tale. But lets put it this way – if you agree that there is a difference between two movie versions of the same story, or that the narrator can make or break an audio book experience, then you should care about your translation.

The translator can really go one of two ways. They can be what I would call a Traditionalist – aka a Sitckler – or they can be an Activist – aka a Builder. The Stickler wants to interpret the vocabulary, flow and sentiment as purely as possible, even if that leads to a less than enjoyable reading experience on the receiving end. The Builder wants to take the common interpretation and turn it into something they feel the reader will find easier on the brain. They will keep the plot the same but change the way the words flow or even put a twist on the emotions behind them to spice things up a bit.

Finding a perfect balance between the Stickler and the Builder is my ideal for a translator who does their job well. I don’t want to be presented with a jumpy hodgepodge of text that sounds terrific in the original language but equates to stilted words in English. But I don’t want a translator getting cocky and taking liberties with the original work just to dumb things down for me either. I want as close to the original meaning as possible, presented in a realistic, but readable, way.

If you have tried to read a foreign novel in the past and just couldn’t get into it, even though a friend or family member raved about it, compare your translations. Maybe you are reading a translation that does a disservice to your reading tastes. Maybe you got a hold of the Stickler when you are more the Builder type. Or maybe you find the writing to be too modern sounding or flowery. You are in need of a Stickler translation rather than the Builder version.

If you are presented with options at your library or at the bookstore or via a sneak peak from an online vendor, go ahead and compare the first paragraphs and see which one is more readable to you. If you aren’t presented with options to view directly, ask the librarian, the store owner or read the review comments for their thoughts on the translator’s style. Or just Google the translator and see what the world wide web has to say about their techniques or what people fluent in both languages felt about the translator’s results.

It might seem like some work, but really it is a brief exercise that could make or break that book for you. The only way to avoid the translation issue is to become fluent in the book’s original language. And that would certainly take a lot longer than a little translator re-con. If you are going to put the time into reading something, why not make sure that you at least have a translation that best matches your preference in style?

Have you ever felt that the translation was the reason for your let-down of a foreign book? Would you rather read the work of a Stickler or a Builder?

About thebumbles

In addition to online Freelance Writing, Molly blogs about books on Quirky Girls Read and about everything else on The Bumbles Blog. Visit her often and let her know what you think! Unless you are a Yankee fan - then there might be a problem ;0)
This entry was posted in Bookish Thoughts, Classics, Posts by Molly. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Don’t Get Lost In Literary Translation

  1. jehara says:

    When I was in college I got my hands on a copy of Le Petit Prince in English. Everyone seemed to love that book, but I didn’t know French yet. I had a hard time getting into it. I ended up losing the book one day at play practice so I never finished it. However, a couple of years later, after learning French, it was the first book I read in French. I absolutely loved it. I think there is definitely something to say for translation.

    • Bumbles says:

      I remember reading that book in French class several times over the years. I love the French language – even when I don’t know what it means it still looks and sounds so beautiful ;0)

  2. Margot says:

    Although two of my three children had a Classics education, I am not a big reader of translated books. I found your thoughts here very educational. I’m hoping in future posts you can help me work through a translated classic. I’m game to try.

    My only personal understanding of translation come from studying the Bible. When I was a kid the King James Version was considered THE Bible. But as I grew older I began to try-out other translations that made my favorite passages come alive. After all, I reasoned, the Bible was originally written in Hebrew or something similar. King James was simply one translation. I’m guessing that version would be what you are calling the Stickler. So, I guess that makes me a person who prefers the Builder as a translator. I’d rather understand and truly enjoy what is being said.

  3. Bumbles says:

    Margot – interestingly enough, in poking around online for information about translation discrepancies/differences, the majority of the links, articles, posts and research relates to the Bible. The way passages are interpreted and presented can be so different that the meanings behind them change drastically. It has always been a highly interpretive work – with different faiths pulling different pieces to suit their arguments/claims. And with so many unknown people relating the different stories and writing the chapters to form the complete work, it really is fascinating. An excellent example to study in the world of translations.

    • kaye says:

      interesting thoughts on the bible translation, I read the King James Version.

      • izzybella says:

        Chauceriangirl and I were just talking about this the other day. Both of us were raised on the King James version, but CG has been lately reading some of the more “Builder” variety of books.

        Though it can be argued, I think, that some of the writing in the King James version is actually rather poetic and beautiful.

        If it’s a story I’m already in to, I bet it would be interesting to read a few different translations to see what I could get out of it.

        Thought provoking post, bumbles.

  4. kaye says:

    Great post Molly, of course you are the one who brought translations to my attention recently (War and Peace). I have read “The Count of Monte Cristo” but I think I had “a builder version”. It was quite a bit shorter than your read. I’ve also read “Phantom of the Opera”. Do you know if that was originally written in English? I enjoyed that book very much. Both CoMC and PotO were paperback editions that my kids used in college lit classes. I enjoyed the notes included as well. When I read classics that have been translated I’m going to do as you recommend and research the translator before starting–such good advice.

    • Bumbles says:

      I didn’t know that Phantom was a book – I always thought it was just a play. A play I enjoyed seeing very much. I wonder how different that would be – translating a play for live performance into a different language….

      • izzybella says:

        Phantom is a book-the play and musical were based on it. I want to say the original is French. Hold tight! I’ll check…

        Back. Go me! It was originally a serial published in the early 1900s by author Gaston Leroux (or as we say in Texas, Gaaston, leeeroy). 🙂

  5. Kimberly says:

    This is really interesting, as I’d never thought about translations in quite this way before. When I’ve not gotten into books that were translated into English from their original language, I always thought that some of the things that I weren’t getting were culturally missed, as opposed to being missed on the language side of things. I’ll definitely keep this in mind from now on.

    • Bumbles says:

      It was never something I gave thought to either before being exposed to a more involved discussion about it during a Goodreads book group. Having compared passages from the same book from different translators I have now found that a translator’s style can certainly make a difference in my reading preference of the same story.

  6. Kathleen says:

    I’m ashamed to admit that I was completely ignorant of this whole translation issue until I started reading book blogs. Now that I know about it I have been left to wonder if some books I didn’t enjoy might have been due to a bad translation. I am also intrigued to reread ones I did enjoy but a different translation if it has been recommended to me. I loved The Master and the Margarita but don’t think I read the translated version that so many book bloggers rave about. I have it on my list to reread so I can see how this whole translation issues works out in real life. Great post!

    • Bumbles says:

      I hope that more bloggers or readers on sites like Goodreads share the edition/translation that they have read in their reviews of foreign work – it makes it a lot easier to try to replicate their choice before delving into the book.

  7. Heather says:

    Fascinating topic. I’ve read Les Mis! I wonder how that is in French. I took a class on translation and interpreting in college and the things you have to do in order to translate well is simply amazing. I wrote a report on different translations of Don Quixote and focused on some specific passages. It was amazing how a few tweaks here and there made such a big difference from the original.

    • Bumbles says:

      I think that class would have been very cool. I imagine a large part of a translator’s job is accurately interpreting the mood of the story and the author’s intent before they can even begin to find the translated words to match that feel. Do you still have your paper? I would love to read it!

  8. lynn says:

    This is a really intriguing post, Molly. Like many of the commenters, I had never thought about who was doing the translating before, or how different translators might put their own spin on a book. I just finished reading Suite Francaise, and enjoyed reading the preface by the translator — she explained how she changed a few things for clarity (like names that were inconsistent) but kept other minor inconsistencies in the text to underscore the times in which the book was written (it was written in the 1940s by a Jewish woman who was carted off to Auschwitz when halfway through the writing; so in essence, the translator was working from a draft the author never lived to finish). Anyway, very interesting topic and interesting post. Thanks, as always, for your enlightening take on it.

    • thebumbles says:

      One of my favorite books, Lynn. I think that Irene Nemirovsky would have surely been the next Tolstoy had she survived. Her writing was incredibly beautiful and powerful simply by developing incredible characters in every day life. I was lucky enough to see the original text at an exhibit in NYC – you can read about it here and there is lots to learn from the museum’s website.

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  11. Annie says:

    I just read your post today and find it very interesting !I’m French and I read a lt of translated books : this summer I read , in French, Thoreau’s “Walden”. After reading a few pages I thought I couldn’t read this book : it was an old translation and… a bad one. But I wanted to read tne book and ended it happily… just at this time I learnt that a new translation was published and bought it, just for the pleasure to red easily.

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