Translation matters

I generally tend to focus on books and book reviews here in my blog, but as some of you might know, I am also passionate about translation. I study Translation Studies in university and also work part-time as a freelance translator. However, what I feel most passionate about within the sphere of translation is – surprise surprise – literary translation. So I thought that I’d share with you a bit about why I think translation matters and also few of the things that matter in translation.

The world of book publishing is full of actors that work behind the scenes and are rarely credited for their effort. Think about cover designers, layout designers and publicists booking events and talking about the book to various medias. In case of foreign fiction, a translator is also one of them. The style, the idiomatic expressions, and the beauty of the writing is often credited to the author, but more often than not, it is the translator who has worked hard to make that text as great in another language as it was in the original.

Translated fiction provides us worlds outside of our immediate surroundings. If books let you travel back to the past of to another country, a translation might let you to travel into the shoes of someone living in a completely different culture. Today English is often used as a lingua franca and the bestsellers and canon of English language fiction are also widely read in different countries – more often in translation than in the original language. English is one of the dominant languages in the world and consequently countries in which English is the first official language tend to export more literature than to import – the marginal 3% of translated fiction is still a reality.

My first language, however, isn’t English. I grew up in Finland speaking only Finnish and most of the books I read as a child were translated from other languages – such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the Harry Potter series, the Anne of Green Gables series. I read authors such as Astrid Lindgren, J.R.R. Tolkien, Roald Dahl, and Louisa M. Alcott – all in translation. Naturally I also read Finnish books and Finnish authors, but translations were a big part of the fiction and non-fiction that I consumed in my early years. It was only later when I went to school and started learning other languages that I also began to read books in the language they were originally written. However, I never stopped reading books in translation.


© LinguaLinx

When reading translated books I naturally expect the translation to be faithful to the original. It’s not that I want to read translator X’s interpretation of author Y’s book. No, I want to read author Y’s book and – perhaps not being able to read the language – trust translator X to convey the story. The question of faithfulness is not, however, simply black and white because to convey, for example, a specific style or irony, the translator might have to make some necessary changes to the text. Let’s take an example. If a character in a novel would unexpectedly say: “Good day, axe-handle!” you’d probably think that he’d either a vicious axe murderer or a carpenter who is bit OCD about his tools, right? Nevertheless, this would be an exact translation of what the character says. What you probably didn’t know is that this is a Nordic idiom (based on a Norwegian folktale) and it means that the person is either ducking a question by giving a nonsensical answer or pointing out that the two parties are talking past each other. Thus if we were to translate what the character means, the translation might be something like: “Wednesday, you say?” So you see, a faithful translation always requires more background knowledge on the culture and the customs from the reader, whereas a fluent translation allows you to read the story without previous knowledge of the culture or history of the country where the story is from. This is one of the reasons why many readers find academic translations – often representing the more exact and faithful translation strategy – much harder to read than the more popular ones. Both have their pros and cons, but having no knowledge of ancient Greek literature I’d personally go first for the popular translation of Iliad instead of the academic one.

As stated in the beginning, a fluent translation is often very much the work of the translator, not the author. And as shown in the example above, the same goes also for other areas of translation. One that I’ve come across and always find interesting and amusing are product names that change from one country to another. For example, did you know that the deodorant known as Sure in the UK is Degree in the U.S. but Rexona in the Nordic countries? Or that the dishwashing liquid Fairy is also Fairy in Finland but Yes in Sweden? Some of these are because the joke or pun in the name doesn’t work in the target language and some due to different marketing strategies. Nevertheless, aside from fiction and marketing texts, there are also texts, such as user manuals, official documents and so on, that do not require or even allow as much adaptation. These, too, might require some cultural-specific changes, but for the most part it is business as usual.

Often translators work on either literary texts that require a lot of changes and adapting or on technical texts that require larger knowledge of terminology and textual standards in specific fields. The later also often use translation tools and software and translation memories that help to keep the terminology consistent and, in the case of repetitive phrases, remember the previous translation. These tools are a great help for translators translating 100-paged documents under tight schedules, but in the case of literary translation, they are often useless. Literary translator needs to translate more than just the words – she or he needs to recreate the sense and the feeling of the original. A bad example of this was the “Amazongate” about a year ago when Amazon was selling translations of popular classics that had been translated by a machine – think Google Translate, for example – without any post-editing. Needless to say the result was horrendous, and the translations were quickly drawn back.

I will give another quick example to illustrate my point. Think of the sentence “A black cat crossed the road”. The meaning is simple enough and people usually learn to form such sentences quite early on when studying a foreign language. Translating it wouldn’t be hard task. However, the sentence doesn’t stand on its own in the text – it is part of the context, that is, the book. “A black cat crossed the road” would carry a completely different meaning in a paranormal mystery or a science-fiction novel set in space than in a novel about the suburban life in 1950s. Hence even such a simple phrase could be translated differently depending on the context. And that is a fraction of the magic of language. In a column published last year in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik describes translation as Word Magic. If you are interested in the subject, I highly recommend that you go and read Gopnik’s wonderful piece for it really does explain the challenges of translation even to those who are unacquainted with the field.

So what is translation for me as a translator, a student, language learner and an avid reader? Translation can be magical or it can be something completely ordinary. It can be awfully frustrating trying to come up with an colloquial expression that would carry the same meaning as the original or trying to hunt down a term that you’ve never heard before. But it can also be very rewarding as upon researching the use of an idiom you also learn something new every day (that’s right – I didn’t of the etymology of the “Good day, axe-handle” idiom before I looked it up for this post). It is understandably harder to translate the witty nonsense verses of Lewis Carroll than, say, Gillian Flynn, but both have their own challenges and require time, skills and effort from the translator. Thus it would be more than amazing if these people were to receive more credit for their hard work than they currently do. Because sometimes it takes a translation to make a decently selling book a bestseller.


12 thoughts on “Translation matters

  1. Thank you for this beautiful article. I have learnt to appreciate translation even more this year because it taught me a lot of things about British and American culture — as you said, some sentences or expressions cannot be literally translated because they wouldn’t mean anything in the target language —, and made me see my native language quite differently. I take it almost as a game, trying to find the right word, looking for specific terms or expressions that are maybe not used today but that would fit perfectly in a translation of a 18th or 19th century text for example.
    When I want to read a book that has been written in a language that I do not speak, I always go for the French translation… But now, come to think of it, I noticed that some of the French translations are not that good or that faithful to the original work. Maybe I should try the English one for some novels. But how do you choose? You cannot read all the translations available! Always the same dilemma :). Anyway, I’m going to stop now, I’ve talked long enough haha.

    • Thank YOU for your lovely comment! 🙂 Translation is a great way of learning about the culture, but also about how the way we speak sometimes affects how we think. The best example that I remember from Gopnik’s article was how a ‘liberal’ politician in France is completely different from the ‘liberal’ politician in the U.S!
      Ah yes, the dilemma of choosing between the translation and the original! I honestly don’t have an answer for that. I usually try to read classics (especially English ones) in the original, especially if the book is a classic because of the writing style or language use. In the case of books in other languages, I go with what’s more easily available – often it’s the Finnish translation. However, I’ve noticed that especially books that are heavy on either plot or characterization often translate better than those that are focused on the style and the constructions of language. For example Virginia Woolf’s works read a bit differently in Finnish than in English.

      • Actually, the meaning of “liberal” in French is almost the perfect opposite of the American definition of the term haha. It’s not always been the case — I’m thinking about the Enlightenment and what liberalism was at the time. I will definitely check Gopnik’s article on translation!

        I also try to read English classics in English but sometimes I cannot be bothered… However, I’ve noticed that in 2 or 3 French translations some passages of the original works were missing — in Pride and Prejudice or The Mysteries of Udolpho! And of course, they do not tell you about that. I felt a little bit betrayed.

        It’s very interesting that you find Finnish better to translate plot and narrative than style :). I don’t know about French… But I guess it also depends on which language family your language and the original language of the text belong to.

  2. What an interesting article. I liked your explanation of the difference between fluid translation and faithful translation. The former requires a deep understanding of the rhythm and pattern of the author’s writing and their voice doesn’t it? In a sense there is some interpretation going on but you still have to remain true to the author’s original intent.

    • Thank you for your comment! Indeed, there is a lot of interpretation going on because all readers read books slightly differently and take from them different things. A translator naturally has to acquaint him-/herself with the text and analyse its intentions and note even the smallest details, but, in the end, the translator is also a reader. You have to consider both the author as well as the reader of the translation.

  3. I finished reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt yesterday and I was surprised how many typos the Finnish translation had. No typos don’t bother me I still get the point, yes they bother me because I lose my concentration and repeat the typo many times in my head XD In have some favorite translators, for example Helene Butzow who sometimes even make the reading experience better than in original (don’t know if that’s the point of their job but no complaints from my side)

    I didn’t know that you studied translating! How cool! 🙂 I have done fair amount of translating with different web pages and press releases, it’s hard but rewarding to get the information out in several languages in stead of just one.

    • Oh dear. Typos are awful, and it’s sad to hear that the translation had many. With so many different stages in publishing a book and so many readers, typos seem such an odd thing to end up in the final product. It could be that the typos are due to mistakes in typesetting? And yes, translating is hard work and can be very tiring at times, but it has its perks too 🙂

      By the way, did you like The Goldfinch? I’ve been meaning to read Donna Tartt, but I think I want to start with The Secret History and maybe then read The Goldfinch.

      • True! Yes it’s not translator’s fault of course…more like hmm editor’s. Both are good. I enjoyed The Goldfinch more though. It was longer, more raw, more human somehow 🙂 great book. Hope you’ll have time to read them both during summer 😉

  4. Great post!

    I’ve always wondered if I was missing something when not reading a book in its original language.Luckily for me not so many books I’ve read were in another language.

    I live in Mauritius where the official language is English.Yet we speak Mauritian Creole which is closer to French.Then everything we have is in French: news anchors speak in French,movies are in French,and newspapers are written in French.Only on radios do people speak Creole – though the main news bulletin is in French as well.As a result,I’m bilingual since I was a kid.

    Thus when I read something deep in French or in English,I can be very touched.However if I read an English translation of a powerful French sentence,I’ll be somehow underwhelmed,provided that I know how the original looks like.The same thing happens when I read a particular English sentence in French.So I think people who’re reading the story for the first time don’t really notice whether the translation is good or not; they’ll just try to go with the flow – I can only detect flaws in a French-dubbed version of a movie if I’ve watched the movie before in its original language.Borges’ translation was hard to read at first,and I had to seek another translation on the net,but I got used to it when I learned that even in Spanish his prose does not read smoothly.

    Also,as you said,the beauty of translation is not really about finding the exact words for those to be translated.Translators also consider feelings.As such,The Great Gatsby becomes ”Gatsby le magnifique”,and The Unbearable Lightness of Being becomes ”L’insoutenable legerete de l’etre” (I’ve not put the accents,because my laptop don’t have them).Both titles sound incredibly beautiful in French.In fact,while for the latter the title was translated word by word,the French title of The Great Gatsby has a particular charm since the translators could have gone for ”Gatsby le grand” or ”Le grand Gatsby” which are technically the same as ”Gatsby le magnifique”,but they knew they had to go for a word that would evoke magnificence and grandiose,so they opted for ‘magnifique’,a grand word for a grand man.

    I know that’s long,but I’ve meaning to share my thoughts about it since I saw it! But I was studying for the exams,and even if I could have commented on your post,it wouldn’t have with such a clear mind. 😉

    • Thank you for taking the time and writing such a wonderful comment!

      I knew you were fluent in both English and French, but I wasn’t aware that you also spoke Mauritan Creole – that would actually make you trilingual 😀 Having grown up in a monolingual environment I’m slightly jealous of your bilingual (trilingual) background because of the ease with which you are able to grasp the sense and feeling that underlines the language. For me, it has taken years of studying and reading a variety of texts to slowly develop that sense of the English language (and I still go on making silly mistakes).

      What you say about the knowledge of the original text is very true. If you do not know that the text has been translated, you are more likely to consider the oddities a stylistic choice of the author and, as you said, go with the flow. But if you do know the text is translated and have sufficient knowledge of the original language, you might also be able to hear and sense the original text behind the translation. This happens to me a lot when reading “poor” Finnish translations of English texts – I begin “back-translating” in my head which mean that I translate the Finnish words back into English.

      I studied French only for a year, but even to me ‘Le grande Gatsby’ sounds off. Now that I think about it, the adjective ‘Great’ in the title is very ambiguous, because it can used to describe greatness, superiority or volume. Moreover, it can also be seen as ironic – Is Gatsby really that great? With French and English having such a long history together, both languages have borrowed words from the other (‘le weekend’, ‘to regard’ etc.). But there are also some false friends (faux amis) – expressions that would appear to mean the same, but don’t. I think the great – grand and grand – magnifique distinction could very well be one of them.

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