I recently wondered what happens to a story if it is translated? Will it loose something or will it gain something?

Just recently I got hold of an english copy of a book of which I already have read the german translation one week earlier. I sat down and read one chapter from the english original and one of the translated one - btw. translating a novel has to be the most painful work I can imagine right now, at least for someone like me :wink:. Up to now, I do have the feling that the whole story is coming along very well in both versions but… well, the details, the careful crafted words, turning a mere sentence into something with several implied meanings, are much more intriguing while reading the english one. Perhaps thats due to the languages’ different structure. But then - as I wrote earlier, the story itself is coming along just as well.

I do wonder if I should stop caring for the subtle meanings of words…

I think it would depend on a few things.

(1) What language is it originally in and what language is it being translated to.

(2) Who is doing the translation.

(3) Is the story one that uses a lot of regional references that may “lose” a foreign reader?

I’ve done a fair bit of translation, and this is something I’ve wrestled with a great deal.

My eventual conclusion was that a piece of writing will absolutely always lose some things and gain others in its transition to the second language. It’s inevitable, because of the differences between languages, idioms, and the cultural context woven into the meanings and implications of so many words. This is something I consider a fact, but I also don’t feel it is a negative thing necessarily, and I am certainly not one of those who think reading books in translation is a waste of time. As you said, the track of a story can be conveyed in translation, and the second language can add its own flavour or interpretation, which is sometimes ‘better’ than the original in various vague and unmeasurable ways. For example, my partner was born abroad, and first read many Western children’s classics in translation. To him, the original English versions lack so much of what he loved.

I think every reasonable person understands that when they are reading Constance Garnett’s translation of Dostoevksy’s Crime and Punishment, they are not really reading Dostoevsky, but Dostoevsky interpreted by and distilled through Garnett. The story is the same, but tone and mood can differ immensely. Many people lament the differences as distortions, and there is truth to that with many translators, especially those practicing censorship or attempting to graft their own moral or social values onto the literature of another culture. But not everyone has time to learn Russian, Arabic, Korean, Portuguese, etc…and translation - even bad translation - is valuable because it allows people to experience the literature of another place and/or time.

As a complete aside, I love translating and I often feel that attempting to translate a work into another language is the best way to really ‘know’ a work. After you’ve pulled apart the sentences of a poem or novel in a maddening quest to decide precisely what the meaning of every phrase is, and then attempted to rework that into a language which lacks words for half the concepts you want to convey…then, when you realise the impossibility of saying precisely the same thing in any words except those used by the author, you realise what an accomplishment the original work was, and what a fragile house of cards a sentence is, and how much changes when you swap a single word, nevermind all of them.

An original and a translation can never be the same, for reasons that have been given. I am both a theoretical linguist who was required to teach Translation Theory – the less said the better! – and, although not a translator, over the last eight years I have edited reams of texts translated from Chinese into English by native Chinese speakers. I think the real key to the issue is that the translator/translation editor has to have a real insight into and love of both languages. Then, although the translated version is inevitably different, it can be equally valid as a text in its own right.
My most cogent example of this came about some 18 months ago when I was asked to edit and record a script for a short video. I was given the Chinese original – I always insist on having that! – and a translated version, which I edited – which means rewrote in large part – and then recorded. A week or so later, a Chinese colleague of mine – with excellent English – wanted to know if it was me who had been asked to do that particular recording. On my saying that I had done it, she asked me for a copy of my text. I inquired why she wanted it, and she told me that she had been asked to arrange for the translation and had got a visiting scholar from another university who was attending my and other courses to do the translation, which she had then edited herself, and what I had been given was her edited version. I was therefore worried that my version, at three removes, was going to be too far from the original text.
When she had read my version, my colleague rang me up and said that it was much closer to the original Chinese than the version she had produced, and could I explain. My answer was that, as a native speaker, I had a very much larger scope of expression than she did and could therefore find ways of saying things which represented the original more fully than she was able to do.
The kinds of translation that I work on are far removed from novels of any standing, but I still think my position is valid, that given a translator with deep insight into and love of both languages, the translation can stand as a work in its own right. But the academics and pundits will argue over the question until the cows come home … it is their meat and potatoes.


I’m just getting around to reading this thread… old, slow, and confused, eh?

Anyway, Mark, your comments certainly hold in the area of Bible translation, from Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek to English (or any other contemporary written/spoken language). The added problem for many Bible translations is that it also must read well orally. That is, the NAS can be considered a fairly accurate translation, but tough to read publicly (try Ephesians 1:3-14!). Thus, God’s Word (GW) translation team was the first to hire an stylist who was also an oral specialist to concentrate on the public reading effect of the translation. I had served as pastor of three different congregations that were test congregations during the entire translation process. Good experience for me, and humbling, too; it taught me not to be too quick to sound “authoritative” when judging translations.


Which is why, 400 years after it was published, some people still prefer the King James Version.


Absolutely. And it’s something that I tell my students all the time … that a good translation must “read” well. Actually, any writing to be good must read well in that sense. And that is one of the problems with translations into English produced by native Chinese-speakers; in general they range from “almost impossible to read” through to the very best of them being “OK to read”, but no more.


After decades as a technical translator, after a short preliminar test with a small but important publisher, I’ve recently been assigned a philosophical translation. It’s something exciting, since the author, who is one of the major architects of the XX century, is still sending me new hardwritten materials. I’m in the middle of his creative process, and manipulating sheets of paper that smell like fresh bread.

I know my text will sound very different from the original. But my assignement is to make it as literal as possible. Without sounding unnatural. You can guess the anxiety when you may choose among several words (or locutions) in the target language, and you discover the one with the most convincing meaning, or the best sound if the meaning is equivalent, is also the less similar-sounding to the original word.

While translating is a continuous walk between detail and the whole image*, I feel the most important moment is when working on full sentences, rather than on single words or syntagma. Meaning and sound come out clearer, and it is easier to (musically) translate them into my language. Translating is probably being able to sing the same song, but with different words.


  • Which, incidentally, is the theme of the book I’m translating…

As this thread has been revived, I thought I’d point you in the direction of:

Apologies for bumping my own thread, but I think it is somewhat pertinent to this one and so might interest you all. Any contributions to that thread will be most welcome.



I often think that translators are “forgotten heroes” in a way. They toil for months or years over someone else’s text, taking pains to get a turn of phrase just right and agonising over whether an equivalent colloquialism would be better than a literal translation here, a paragraph break retained there, only to have their names squeezed onto the bottom of the “about the author” page, over which the eye of most readers will skip - and then a few years later, Penguin will bring out a “New Translation”. And yet without their work, my reading would be impoverished.

Milan Kundera covered the issue of translation in his arrogant Testaments Betrayed; in his view, an artist is “betrayed” by a translator who does not manage to convey every last subtle double-meaning and ambiguity. But then he also thinks Max Brod betrayed Kafka by not destroying his works as suggested, and at the same time cites Kafka as one of his favourite authors. It’s a book that makes you want to slap the author while shouting in his face, “Get over yourself.”

So I hereby salute David Magarshack, translator of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev and Chekhov, as it was his translations of these Russian greats for Penguin that introduced me to them. And I still prefer his translation of The Brothers Karamazov over subsequent translations - for the reason Xiamese gives, that the translation has to be readable and flow off the tongue in the translated language, that this is as important as anything else (something ignored by Kundera’s chiding). Consider Magarshack’s “everyone is really responsible for everyone and everything” when compared with the later translation of the same sentence by David McDuff: “each of us is guilty before all for everyone and everything”. The latter is much clumsier (although I bet it is more literal).

I also salute Geoffrey Wall, whose translation of Madame Bovary is surely a work of art in itself, and Jay Rubin et al who have enabled me to read Haruki Murakami, of course. :slight_smile:

Which is a long-winded way of saying: for those of us who are ignorant and monolingual, translators are unsung heroes to whom I for one am eternally grateful!

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Here! Here!