Lost in Translation.

No, I’m not talking about the movie; I just thought it was high time I talked about my field of expertise. What brought this up now? An excellent translation of a German novel that made me wonder whether I would’ve enjoyed the story as much if I’d read it in its main language, and a translation of a Swedish novel that is supposedly hilarious but has so far failed to make me crack a smile.

Back in university, the one thing professors often drilled into us was that translators are mirrors. A good translator would create a perfect reflection of the source text in a different language, while a bad translator might just as well be doodling all over the mirror with a black felt-tip pen. I may not have much experience under my belt, but I do recognize a bad mirror when I see one.

The tricky thing about translation, you never know if it’s good or bad unless you read the original text. For all you know, what could be considered an insult in one language might be a compliment in another. I’ve come across bad translations before, where Professor Snape becomes Professor Snab and wine becomes grape juice. Some people might intentionally do the latter to cover for cultural differences, but wine is wine, and you cannot become drunk on grape juice. Some translators might take the liberty of changing or omitting a few things,

I understand your pain, Woody!

The expression on Woody’s face says it all.

A literary translator needs to be a writer as well. For example, Arabic is a rather poetic language. We Arabs like our analogies, rhymes, metaphors… you name it. Without them our novels tend to be dry. I’ve read some English novels in Arabic, and while some are pretty good, others feel like reciting a lesson from a text book – completely abstract and lifeless.

I feel miffed when I hear someone saying that translation is not difficult, you can just grab a dictionary and line words neatly along the line. Anyone can do it! There is so much more to translation than dictionaries. In fact, dictionaries play a small part. There is a lot of research to be done, we sometimes have to coin new words, we have to find a suitable alternative for “throw in the towel” and “pull someone’s leg”, we may need to elaborate where cultural matters are involved… and the list goes on.

Why am I telling you this? After all it might put your mind off getting your books translated. I just thought it’s important to be wary of this. I would personally hate to see a novel get degraded through a bad translation; it’s unprofessional and sends one’s hard work down the drain. How can you pick out a good translator? Well, for starters, they never sell themselves short, they don’t make promises they can’t keep, and they ask questions.

Next time you read a translated novel and dislike it due to language or structure issues (because the author’s plot is all his own), give the author the benefit of the doubt. After all, they might just have a bad translator.

Have you ever read a badly translated novel? Would you consider having any of your work translated?

Or you never know, the author might just have a sadistic streak. ;)

Or you never know, the author might just have a sadistic streak. 😉

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33 thoughts on “Lost in Translation.

    • Ooh, you’re Arabic? =D I think this must be the first time I’ve come across an Arab since I started blogging! Where are you from?
      And I understand what you mean – translating Arabic novels to English usually strips away all beautiful prose. =[

  1. JezebelAurora says:

    What you’ve written is so true. I feel translation is a rather tricky job because if the one doing it must be careful not to interpret it in his own terms. I am from Nepal and I read a Nepali book translated by Michael J. Hutt, and it did not feel the same. It felt bland. Lost it spices, so to say.

    PS: the comic strip is funny!

    • “Lost its spices” is a nice way to put it. 🙂 When I’m translating and fail to understand what the writer means, I try to ask them directly or else I translate it the way I understand it and highlight the selection so as to let the client know that I couldn’t capture the true essence.

      And I know right? Human sauce, haha.

  2. Translation is indeed an art form. I majored in French (long ago!), and one of my favorite courses was an advanced class where we had to translate French books into English and vice-versa (well, not the whole book, but parts of it). As you say, it’s not a matter of just looking things up in the dictionary. You really have to try to capture the nuances of the passages.

    Excellent post! Have a great weekend!

    • I’ve tried some translation from French to English and I found it to be relatively easier than the Arabic-English combination because French shares a lot of words with English, but it was still tricky just the same!

      Thank you, Carrie. You have a lovely weekend too. =D

  3. My English IB curriculum in high school required that we read three works that were translated from another language. Obviously, we only had time to read one translation of each work, but I would have been fascinated to look at the differences between different translations of the same work, even if they were only differences of nuance or what have you. It falls into what you say about how you can’t just move things over word for word. There are idioms and slang, and even words that have different connotations or cultural baggage when used in another language.

    Such a fascinating topic!

    • Exactly! I’ve read some things that really do not make sense when translated, or else they are translated so literally that they lose their true meaning. It’s important that people become more aware of this.

  4. I agree that a good translator manages to translate the culture as well as the story. It’s a tricky thing and it requires more than a simple understanding of the language or as you’ve said more than a dictionary. I wonder how many readers have been motivated to study a language just to be able to get at the original language work?

    • Hmm. Well, you know, most of those who were in my batch weren’t studying translation because they liked languages or thought it was interesting; rather, they did it because they thought it was easy and when it turned out to be difficult it was too late for them to back out. I guess that explains some of the lousy translations out there!

  5. I respect a well translated book so much; it’s truly a wonderful talent! I always try to read a book in its original language when I can (or at least glance at the original if it’s in an alphabet I can pronounce phonetically), but unfortunately I don’t speak all the languages of the world!).

    I like the idea of the translator as a mirror… that’s hard to do, but wonderful for the reader when it happens!

    • Languages are really fascinating, but it’s difficult enough having a grip on two languages let alone more! However, I too try to read books in their original language.
      And it’s a great way to describe translators. 😀

  6. I haven’t read a badly translated novel, but I’ve definitely watched really badly translated subtitles. I was watching the Korean drama City Hunter, and one of the episodes … eek. I’m pretty sure the subtitler just stuck the Korean script in Google Translate and crossed their fingers. It actually made for a really entertaining show, except not in the way the filmmakers had hoped, lol.

    • Subtitles can be even more tricky to work with, especially because sometimes you don’t get any transcripts. For example, I once had to provide subtitles for an episode of Paula Deen’s cooking show, and I really struggled to catch everything she was saying because of her accent!

  7. I know a smattering of Brazilian Portuguese, and having watched some movies with subtitles I was a little bit frustrated that they weren’t as accurate as I would have liked them to have been. I knew what they were saying, but how to translate that accurately in English?

    • I understand your frustration about subtitles! It shouldn’t be that difficult to translate it accurately if you’ve got a script, but without it one can be completely lost. =[

  8. Well, I wrote a book as a ghostwriter, finished my job and got paid. I write in Portuguese. Now I hear that the book (not yet published) is already translated into English, French, Spanish and Italian. My role is very little at this stage. I can only wonder about those translations. Anyway, it must be a lot less painful when it’s not our name on the cover.

    • Oh dear. Did the translators at least get in touch with you about the book? They should talk to the person who wrote the book! But yeah, I guess it’s a relief that your name won’t be on the cover.

  9. The very worst translations come from instructions on how to put things together (like chairs or tables of swings) that are manufactured in a different country. They ‘literally’ translate and you end up with some garbled message that makes no sense at all 😀

    • Oh god yes! I’ve read those “translations” before and I can almost never make head or tails out of them unless they’re translations for some fancy brand, haha.

  10. I can honestly say I’ve never really noticed. I’ve read many children’s books that were translated, but I suspect those were much easier to capture the essence of the story rather than a “meatier” adult work.

  11. Translation is definitely tough to “translate”. It is about so much more than the words…it is about the pulse beating behind them.

    The human sauce cartoon at the end of your post was epic by the way. : )

  12. I do not work in the area of translation. But a friend of mine asks for my help in perfecting the grammar when translating Mandarin to English. Along with the grammar in mind, one has to not forget the goal of the original writer…so that nothing “gets lost in translation”.

    • True! It’s easy as a translator to forget that you’re there to translate, not to take the words and make them your own. Unfortunately some translators end up interpreting things however they want and the meaning is lost. =/

  13. Reblogged this on everydayfangirl and commented:
    This blog article compliments my “Lost In Translation” series of blog articles that compares an original North American novel written in English with the manga version of the novel translated back to English. This blog article discusses some of the issues with translation from a different point of view than mine. Some very interesting information on the translation process and how it is not as easy as picking up a dictionary.

  14. What an interesting point of view! I am multilingual and I do translations for the fun of it sometimes. However, I never considered the issue of poor translations from an author’s perspective – maybe because those classic writers I used to favor rarely had a say in that matter.
    Still, I prefer to linger on nice examples. Hesse was one of my absolute favorites back in school. His novels were so enthralling in Russian translations. Years later, his “Glasperlenspiel” was the first German book I bought, looking forward to gobble up the original… How disappointed I was by dry, endless, seemingly soulless structure of Hesse’s sentences in his native German! His original style didn’t make it to the Russian translation and I was immensely grateful for that. I would have missed out on so much otherwise because I’d probably close the book after a few pages.

    • That is interesting. What you said about Hesse goes with what I was wondering about. I enjoyed the German novel so much, but I had to wonder if it was the author’s style or not, and the same goes to the Swedish novel. I always try to read things in their original language when I can, but when I can’t… well, I’m grateful that there are some really good translators out there. 🙂

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