Lost in Translation?: On Reading Foreign Works in Your Native Tongue


Photo Credit: linguagreca.com
Photo Credit: linguagreca.com

When you study literature, they often tell you that you should not read texts in translation. It is best to read them in their original language because the purity of the story or word choices can be lost or muddled in the translation. For this reason, if you pursue a PhD in Literary studies, you often have to pass examinations in 3 foreign languages. To be considered a legitimate academic writer, if you choose to write about a text that was written in a different language, you had better be able to read it in the original format.

From my experiences with a strategically placed translation project in graduate school, I completely understand this mode of thinking. The project details were as follows: translate 250 lines of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from Old English. It was only Old English—very Germanic, but with a few subtle hints of the English I know today (If you’re interested in checking out some details, click here. I had to do the first 250 lines of the poem/story). That project was perhaps the most difficult I ever encountered in my entire career as a student and I studied Latin and participated in translating pieces of the The Aeneid. But through this project, I learned how many different synonyms could be chosen to translate a single word and that each word alters the meaning of the sentence in some fashion. Even the most subtle change can be significant when it comes to the story as a whole. Accompanying this project, was a lengthy term paper in which I had to explain the reason behind each word I chose as I completed the translation.

Despite the fact that academia frowns on the use of translations, in the mass-consumer publishing industry, selling the rights of your book to as many foreign publishers as possible is the standard. You must get your book printed into as many foreign languages as possible. I’m sure that some books translate very well. But for as many that do, I am also positive that there are a number of books that don’t translate so well. Language is so complex and the way people use it can be so individualized with idioms that do not translate well to other languages or cultures. Also, you have the added issue of plot or characters. The characters may not be as easily relatable or appreciated by a different culture. Lastly, the point of reading in the original language is to connect to the author and to decide for yourself what the author intended as he penned his tale.

Although I was trained as an academic, the art of translation is something by which I am consistently fascinated. When I read, sometimes I wonder how much the original story was changed to please my American mindset or aesthetic. At times, I can turn off the analyzing portion of my brain and truly enjoy a piece of literature for what it is: a conglomeration of words and phrases, a story meant to entertain or to teach. When you have a good writer (and translator), this is something that can transcend language and cultural barriers.

One of my favorite current writers I have read only in translation. I know a small amount of Spanish. But there’s no way I could read a whole novel and comprehend what is going on with my miniscule vocabulary. Carlos Ruiz Zafon is a beautifully Gothic-inspired writer and Lucia Graves, the person who does his translations, maintains a rich and luxurious vocabulary to tell the story so that I can enjoy it. And while I probably would be expected to read the books in the original Spanish in an academic setting, I have the luxury of choice at my disposal.

My first encounter with Zafon came when I picked up his book, “The Shadow of the Wind.” It is beautifully crafted story with a multitude of Gothic elements. Zafon and his translator have a way with words that make me swoon. His is a style of writing to which I aspire. Beautiful to read, but incredibly difficult to follow in practice. I struggle staying in the same voice for some reason when I write. But when I do it correctly, I am infinitely proud.

One of my favorite quotations from Zafon comes from a different book, “The Angel’s Game.” In this story, Zafon tells the tale of a writer who gets wrapped up in a project that is much more than he ever conceived it to be. He also has a lot of vices. “I’m not talking to anyone, I’m delivering a monologue. It’s the inebriated man’s prerogative,” the author in the story cries. It’s fabulous. I laughed aloud when I read this.

With all the beauty to be found in Zafon’s work, it is hard to think that I may miss something being a reader of the story in English. But, as to the question of whether or not things are lost in translation, my analytically trained mind must admit: it is very possible. There may be a character whose name has been changed or a plot element that has been re-crafted for my American mindset. And this may not have happened in any of Zafon’s work, but in the works of other authors that are translated. My experiencing of the story may not be exactly as it was originally intended. But I believe that Graves has an unmatched talent and ear for language. I don’t feel as if I have lost anything when I thumb my way through Zafon’s books in English. And I suppose, that is what matters most. Besides, I’m no longer in the treatise writing phase of life. So I get to enjoy reading whatever I wish.

In conclusion, I say go for reading a book in whatever language you choose. But what might be a really cool experiment would be to read the same book in two languages (if you have that sort of capability). Then you can answer the question that inspired this post: Are meaning, story and other elements lost in translation when a book is revised into a different language?

What do you think of reading texts in translation? Have you ever though about how the experience may differ from the original text?

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