Bookish Thoughts: Books in Translation

I recently came across Smartling, a company that has a really cool cloud-based translation software program, and started thinking about books in translation and the importance of certain aspects of language while translating. This is a fascinating subject for me as I have always been interested in culture and how certain things are easily interpreted (or not) between Translationcultures and languages. I started thinking about my favorite books and the parts of them that I would hate to be misinterpreted if they were translated into another language. There are even times when I’m reading a book in English that’s from the UK and there are certain aspects that don’t easily translate (words used in the UK that don’t make sense here or cultural norms – school, living, etc. – that are different. For me, I usually know what they mean, but I always imagine someone who’s never been to the UK and if they’d get it. Like how “pants” are what they call “underwear” in the UK). It’s hard to imagine a book about a girl in high school in America obsessed with her looks or any number of selfish things translating into a language in a country where girls aren’t allowed to flaunt their looks.

On the other hand, there are some books that would easily translate into multiple languages (maybe. I’m not a translator. Haha). Comics like Batman and Robin or Iron Man are probably able to be understood in several languages because who doesn’t want to believe in superheroes? Again, not a translator, but I think fantasy books are probably the easiest to translate because they are mostly (if not completely) based in other worlds and most of the elements are made up. I feel like contemporary, real-life books would be the hardest to translate because there are so many things that are culturally important or relevant that wouldn’t make sense in other countries or languages. How do you explain Groundhog Day or Presidential Turkey Pardons or Tailgating to people who have never heard of Thanksgiving or have never seen an American Football game?

Maybe this won’t make sense with what I’ve said so far, but personally, I think this is why books in translation are so important. I LOVE to travel and learn about the world and the people who live in it. Reading books in translation allows me to better understand the world. No, I’m not able to read it in its original language, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get something out of it or learn something new about other countries and people. I tend to read a lot of crime novels in translation (for example, Jo Nesbø) but I’ve also read incredible books by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez, Niccolò Ammaniti, Albert Camus, and so many more. I mean, who hasn’t read The Little Prince? Whose life wasn’t touched by that one?

Imagine how small our world would become without books in translation. Reading books originally written in another language and set in another country allows me to learn more about the amazing, fascinating, strange, beautiful world we live in.

What do you think about books in translation? Have you read any? Did they make sense or were there confusing moments?

After writing this, I actually really wish I spoke/read another language well enough to see if all of my favorite parts of my favorite books translated well. Hmmmm.

By the way, make sure you go check out Smartling’s software – they translate websites, apps, and documents for businesses in a quickly and efficiently using REAL people and not the one-size-fits-all translation of some other sites. Check out their website to learn more!

24 thoughts on “Bookish Thoughts: Books in Translation

  1. Pingback: Weekly Recap| Jun 7-13, 2015 | Oh, the Books!

  2. I read a lot of books in translation, and I am fortunate enough to even translate novels myself, from English into French! it is hard, challenging, but so much fun as well to struggle with words across languages and cultures

  3. It’s interesting that you brought up this topic because I just finished a book last week from a English author that had a LOT of English slang or things I had no clue what they were. From context, I was able to figure most things out and it didn’t ruin my reading experience in any way. But it was still strange and made me wish I understood more of their language.

  4. I agree, translation books are great and important even though it is hard to do sometimes. I enjoy reading books from other places, it may take a bit to get my mind in the right set to understand the translation/language but it is worth it. How else are we supposed to understand each other?

  5. I just read this today in an old translation of some Tolstoi stories. I couldn’t find the translator’s name or a date, but since it is in public domain, I am guessing it is pre 1923. The translator wrote:
    “On comparing with the original Russian some English translations of Count Tolstoi’s works, published both in this country and in England, I concluded that they were far from being accurate. The majority of them were retranslations from the French, and I found that the respective transitions through which they had passed tended to obliterate many of the beauties of the Russian language and of the peculiar characteristics of Russian life.”

  6. I speak Russian so I have first hand experience with reading things in translation. I always feel odd reading most things I read in Russian originally in English. There are certain classics like Sherlock Holmes that for me crosses languages because Russian translation captures the English tone so well. I really feel that it really depends on the novel.

  7. Most of the books I read are actually translated. English is not my first language and I read a lot of books that are translated from English to Croatian. I don’t agree with you on the part where you said that some stuff wouldn’t make sence if the book is translated. I don’t know how it works in US, but here in Croatia we know a lot about other cultures and we know very much about American lifestyle and culture so it doesn’t really matter if the book is being translated or not. From experience, I can tell you that translated books are often written a lot better that books originally written in Croatian, but when it comes to reading both original and translated version, there is really not a huge difference. However, it also depends on the translator and how good writer he is. But the thing which bugs me the most about translation is the fact that dialogues very often suck because translators are trying to interprete different slangs and that often sounds very stupid in Croatian. They should just use words normal people would use, and not invent some new words just to sound cooler (this especially bugs me in YA because teenagers turn out stupid).

    • When I said some books wouldn’t make sense when translated is for the very reason you stated people in Croatia wouldn’t have that problem: some people in the US (especially where I live) know next to nothing about other cultures, people, or customs. For me, I try to learn as much as I can about other people, but some Americans don’t and they wouldn’t understand the translated works for that reason.

  8. I’ve read hundreds of books in translation, mostly by 19th Century French authors. My favorite author of all is Balzac (see collaborative blog at ) and I’ve read well over 200 stories of his, including short stories.

    Since most of my reading in translation consists of 19th Century books, slang is often a problem, especially if it was translated by an English translator. I’ve read enough 19th Century books by English authors to understand it a good bit of the time but even when I do, it is very jarring as I’m reading along, especially when I’m thinking “a Frenchman would never use that phrase.”

  9. *raises hand* I haven’t read The Little Prince O_O
    I don’t think I’ve read any translated books (although I did read Night School which was written by someone in the UK and there was a distinct difference in the writing! The author used many “UK words” and sometimes I got a little confused lol) but I did just read The Wrath and the Dawn which contains a LOT of words that I had no idea what they meant! But since it was an ebook, I got the definitions immediately, and it was so fun learning new words and about the culture of the people in it. I appreciated the diversity of what I read and want so much more!
    Honestly I am so bad at learning languages. I wish I were better at it. I took four (FOUR) years of Spanish in high school and only retained the basics (we didn’t have very good teachers at our small white hicktown lol) and in college, I flunked out of German (also going through a rough time at that point, but it was HARD). Maybe someday I’ll have to time and patience to do the Rosetta Stone thing – Spanish, maybe another go at German. It would be pretty cool to learn Arabic too 🙂

    • DUDE. Read The Little Prince!! It’s not long at all and it’s wonderful. Definitely recommend reading that one.

      Wasn’t The Wrath and the Dawn good?! I loved reading about that world and the people.

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