Books in Translation

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Disclaimer: I’m talking about books translated into English, but the same things apply to books translated from/to any language.

When I’m reading, I usually don’t notice the writing style unless it is awkward or incredibly fluid. The latter usually only stands out to me if the story fell flat because I couldn’t help but keep reading for some reason! Otherwise, I think really good writing often goes unnoticed for me unless I consciously think about it. As it should! I think writing style, unless it’s doing something unusual, like design, shouldn’t be obtrusive or really noticed… (Maybe that’s controversial? I don’t know. What do you guys think about that?)

But every time I read a book in translation whose writing style I love/hate, I think…should I be praising/criticising the author for those smooth/awkward sentences and beautiful/nonsensical metaphors…or the translator?

Haruki Murakami is fluent in English and, apparently, he proofreads and approves all English translations of his books. To me, that means I can praise or slate the writing style all I want knowing that the author was not only intimately involved in the process, but also put his final seal on it basically saying “Yes! That’s what I was saying and that’s how I intended to say it.”

But what about non-English-speaking authors who can’t provide that kind of quality control? Should I blame them if their book was badly written or the translator? (Well, there doesn’t have to be any “blame” at all, but I’ll probably mention it when reviewing if I think the writing is noticeably great or horrible…Who made it that way?) After all, there are so many ways to translate something. For example, it could be:

  • A direct/word-for-word/literal translation
  • A translation of the overall mood/feel where events aren’t always completely true to the original..almost translating the culture into English equivalents too
  • A modern translation (or older books/or classics) using contemporary terms for older/antiquated language

None of these translations are better or worse than any others. But if you’re reading a conversation that seems stiff and awkward, is it because the source material was that way or because the translator did a bad job? Is it really a translator’s job to cover up an author’s bad writing? How much creative license does a translator really have? When translating for an audience with a different culture, how many changes are needed? Should nothing be changed at all and the audience just be expected to look into the culture rather than the translator finding an acceptable cultural equivalent??

Obviously the answers will all change depending on the circumstances under which the book is being published and there’s no across the board answer… But these are things I sometimes wonder about when reading books in translation…

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7 Responses to Books in Translation

  1. Pingback: Claire x Nikki Review August 2015 | Bitches With Books

  2. Grace says:

    I’m generally opposed to straight literal translations, because I think a lot can get lost that way if you don’t pick up on cultural nuances. I studied Russian back in undergrad, and read a lot of literature in translation. I’ve found that a translator can make or break a book, and that if I’m not feeling something, sometimes switching translations can help.

    • Nicole says:

      Oh! That’s interesting! I actually think literal translations sometimes can be more poetic or accurate. I was just talking to a Japanese friend the other day who was describing the Japanese idea of “retributive justice” which might be translated in English to “karma” or “just desserts” but I think “retributive justice” has a different kind of feel; a stronger and more righteous feel. Maybe it sounds like super harsh/intense language to some English speakers, but then I’m on the fence about whether it’s a translator’s job (or, indeed, an author’s job in general) to communicate the context in which the book was written? I mean maybe that’s the job for an afterword. If someone picks up a Russian novel, for example, and there are things they don’t know about the culture or time it was written and so on, is the book obliged to guess and fill in their gaps in knowledge? I’m not convinced…even though more context definitely helps wider accessibility and understanding siiigh. I know a lot of classics have been doing this in their newer editions though which is great..but, in exchange for that focus on context, some editions opt to ignore more ‘academic critique’…So it’s kind of a layman’s version of the text.. Which means you’re still missing out on stuff.

      It’s also interesting how much editing can be done in the name of translation! For example, I wonder if in cultures where touching is very out of the ordinary the French double cheek kiss might be translated in some other way–to a bow or a nod perhaps–doesn’t that change the perspective of that other culture? I imagine a book of many cultural subtleties would have its text heavily altered to make it understood by a culturally different audience. That translates some of the feeling, but you don’t then come across that other culture. Then you won’t ask questions about it and you may never find out about the lesser known intricacies of that other culture? (Or maybe these are the ramblings of someone who always feels she’s missing out on understanding some aspect of things!! haha)

      After correcting other people’s English essays over at italki for a month or so, I don’t think it’s always that clear what to do with translations. You may have three different English speakers correct the same thing with different possibilities. Some more literal, some (most? all.) *assuming* what the original poster *meant* and assumptions always carry some heavy results with them..

      I agree completely, though: A translator certainly can make or break a book. I don’t often give books a second try (since I’m on the slow side for a reader and have so many books I want to get to it’s hard to find time!), but if I’ve read something in translation that doesn’t sit right I probably should look for a different translation and see if I still despise it or not…! hah

      • Grace says:

        One of my favorite examples of the power of translation comes from the opening lines of Dostoevsky’s “Notes from the Underground.”

        “I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased.”


        “I am a sick man … I am a wicked man. An unattractive man. My liver hurts.”

        The second one gives me a much better understanding of what type of person the main character is, even though the meaning is pretty much the same, and I find it much more readable.

        Footnotes and annotations can solve a lot of problems when translating culture–for example, Russians have patronymics, which are like a middle name that’s based on the father’s first name. So if someone is named Sergei Petrovich, it means that Sergei is the son of Pyotr, and that’s independent of Sergei’s actual last name. And then there are diminutive nicknames, so close friends would call Sergei “Seryozha” instead. Having a good forward explaining how the naming works can avoid some serious confusion later in the book.

        • Nicole says:

          Terrible confessions: I hate reading forewords (especially if they’re ‘long’…4+ pages) and I find footnotes in fiction jarring >_>;;;;;
          I think many cultural/contextual issues/misunderstandings in reading translated works are ‘solved’ (sort of…) by simply reading more books from different authors in the region since it builds a picture.
          And I think even things like unfamiliar naming conventions could be understood without explicit explanation. In the same way that I think I would catch on that “-ito/-ita” is a diminutive Spanish suffix from just continuing reading and realising that it has been added to the ends of certain characters’ names (often children) by certain other characters (often adults). Or if one character is always referred to more formally, except by one character, you eventually will probably piece together why.

          For me, those Dostoyevsky translations have little difference between them besides a very subtle tinge that might only really be noticed by an eye academically studying the work.

          As opposed to, say, this correction from italki:
          original: “I’d like to know if we are an Envy’s subject.” (This person is practicing English but this is the source material from which the intention must be extracted.)

          1st English correction/interpretation: “I’d like to know if we are an interesting subject.”

          2nd English correction/interpretation: “I’d like to know if we are envied by anyone.”

          Very different interpretations with the latter implying much more than mere “interest”. Which one is right? It’s hard to know. Maybe neither.. maybe both. I think the second would be considered the more literal of the two, but I think it’s also the most interesting…

          None of these translation differences are as bad as this though: ! :’)

  3. Holly says:

    This is such an interesting discussion! I recently read a book that was translated into English from its original German, and I found myself wondering out of curiosity how different it was from the original. Perhaps someday translators will be as well known as authors!

    • Nicole says:

      I’ve found some of them actually are pretty famous (in their own circles)! They win prestigious awards and everything. I was looking for a recommended edition of The Odyssey and accidentally got a different one so, to find the main difference(s), I ended up looking into the two different translators. Since there are different ideas for how certain works should be translated for their purposes, and publishers will pick translators based on their previous translation work and depending on what they want to put across with the translated work. It’s interesting in a niche, obscure way…? haha

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