Reading Other Languages

…Is not something that I can do as I was reminded today when I was on a trip to IKEA earlier today. As I was mooching, funnily enough at the bookshelves which I wasn’t there to buy (honest) I noticed all the books on the shelves which are Swedish best sellers or other well known editions translated to Swedish. This made me think about translated books, again…


Even though I knew I wouldn’t be able to read any of these, because I am one of those lazy people who have never learnt another language, I wanted to have a flick through them and even borrow them. I do this when I go abroad. I head straight to the bookshops (well maybe after I have been and seen some of the main tourist sights and treated myself to some of the cuisine) and have a look at the books by authors that are completely new to me and the books that I know in their new translated international guise. I was slightly saddened to realise I don’t own any of my favourite books in translated editions, I feel like I should. Anyway as I said it made me think about translated fiction again.

Firstly it reminded me that here in the UK we barely get the tip of the iceberg of books translated from around the world, which is rather scary if you think about all the amazing books that you might be reading but are missing out on. When I was writing my thoughts on Byrd earlier in the week it was playing on my mind how many books I must be missing from America, Canada, Australia etc and they are all in my own language. What about the books from everywhere else in the world?

This of course reminded me that I don’t read as much translated fiction as I should. I follow wonderful publishers like Peirene, Europa Editions, And Other Stories and many more who either solely publish in translation or do so in abundance. I also follow the wonderful blog of Stu’s, WinstonsDads Blog, which is one of the most wonderful promoters of translated fiction that there is. (This reminds me I really should do a post on all my favourite blogs!) Stu has also just reached 1,000 posts so hoorah to him. Yet still I feel I don’t read or know enough, am I the only person who feels like this?

I also wonder if when I do read them, am I missing something by not reading in their original language? Am I missing out on subtle cultural inferences or social observations that people might miss if a book from the UK is translated elsewhere. Do you know what I mean? It isn’t that I don’t trust the translators, as I am very grateful to the people who translate novels and simply don’t get paid enough or enough credit frankly, it is just something that as I cannot answer definitely I always ponder. Maybe I should finally get around to learning a language, which I’ve always wanted to do, and then I could read some of them in both. But would I want to read the same book multiple times and which language would I start with? I like the idea of learning Italian and/or Spanish, maybe this is the kick I have needed.

What are your thoughts on translated fiction? Do you ever worry that the book is missing something from the original language? Have you ever read a book in the original and the translated and what was the comparison? Where do you hear about translated books and who are your favourite translated authors? Finally, have you ever bought your favourite book in another language just because you needed to own another copy?


Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness

21 responses to “Reading Other Languages

  1. Many thanks for kind mention Simon it is just right time to try more translated fiction as we are seeing more out all the time I like you wish I could read in another language unfortunately my German is too rusty now to read more than a short article

  2. Kat

    I lam a former Latin teacher, and my background is in classics, so bear in mind that I have a special emphasis on reading classical languages in the original.

    I love reading books in translation, but it is a very different experience from reading in English. Many foreign languages are inflected–endings on the words determine the meaning rather than position of words (for instance, subject doesn’t have to be before the verb, direct object doesn’t have to go after, verb can be anywhere, an adjective modifying a noun can be anywhere in the sentence, and only the ending will tell you what it modifies), so the entire style has a very different effect and flexibility from English. But I enthusiasticlally read novels in translation (poetry is much trickier, beause of language differences) , and also admire Europa, the Dalkey Archive, etc. Some of my best experiences have been reading French and Russian literature in translation.

    We should all learn more languages, but I am not about to learn any more either!:)

  3. Col

    I’m a bit shallow here I guess so if I’ve enjoyed the book I don’t think about whether it might have been better or consider what it might have lost from the original language version. It’s only when I don’t enjoy it, perhaps it doesn’t live up to reviews and my expectations that I think I’d have preferred to read it in original language. I get a lot of my recommendations on translated fiction from Winston’s Dad blog too – and if not there almost always other blogs!

  4. I read a fair amount of book in translation, mostly from the French, but also from the Japanese, and recently one form the Dutch. I’m French, and an English-French translator myself (novels included), and for the most part, the books I read translated from the French sound very good translations to me. But of course, it can never be the same as the original. I wish I could read Japanese, especially since I heard that the translator of 1Q84 skipped lots of pages…. ouch!!

  5. I read a few books in French when I was studying and you definitely do get more from reading in the original, but I haven’t done that in a long time. Mostly now the only translated work I read is crime!

  6. Annabel (gaskella)

    Most of the time I feel it is the translator’s job to make a text feel as if it is entirely natural, yet still retain the author’s voice. I am a recent convert to Pascal Garnier (being produced by the wonderful Gallic Books), and his very dark yet comic tales.

    However, I am reminded of the Asterix books – which we read in French in a class I did many years ago to improve my French. The jokes in French are totally lost to those who haven’t grown up there, so the translators put in English equivalents which work…

    I also own the first HP, Winnie the Pooh and assorted other books in Latin, which I can still just about decipher on a good day.

  7. Oooh, Simon, you’ve got me started on one of my favourite topics, so you may have a hard job getting me to shut up…

    I studied languages at university and I can read books in my native Romanian, English, French, German (used to be able to read Japanese but would struggle now), so I was a bit snobbish about translations. ‘I never read translations when I can read the originals’. But of course there was so much great literature out there that I couldn’t read in the original – Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Russian (I did attempt to learn Russian for Dostoyevsky, with disastrous results). So I thought of translations as a ‘necessary evil’ but was always wary of misinterpretations.

    In the meantime, however, I’ve learnt to appreciate translators’ work much more. They are really ‘reinterpreting’ the book, co-creating it, and the best translators are fantastic original writers themselves (Anthea Bell’s translation of the Asterix comic books – Getafix, Dogmatix- pure genius!). With classics of world literature, you can even compare translations – that’s a fascinating job in itself. Pablo Neruda’s poetry has been translated so many times, and each translation gives you a different facet of Neruda himself but also an insight into the translator. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky – there are some translations I dislike, others that I heartily recommend (even without knowing the original, it just sounds ‘right’). Finally, I love all the translations of the Japanese classic Tales of Genji: they are all sooo different as to be almost unrecognisable.

    I’m a big fan of Stu as well, plus Tony Malone, plus Jacqui, plus Caroline, Dolce Belleza, Lizzy Siddal, who all put me to shame with how much literature in translation they read every month.

  8. N@ncy

    Language reading is relaxation and hard work.
    I’ve learned Dutch, German and French .
    If you are interested in learning French reading skills here are some experiences I had. Be prepared to spend hours struggling at the beginning….but in the end the rewards are worth it!

    As Shakespeare said in Act 2 scene 4 Romeo and Juliet:
    “The excuse that you make at the delay….
    is longer that the tale ( learning a language) you do excuse. ”

  9. themodernnovel

    As someone who is fortunate to speak several languages and reads many books in these languages, I am grateful for doing so. I find that there are many books written in languages I cannot read that have not been translated into English but have been translated into a language I can read. I cannot tell you how many books I have read in French that have been translated from other languages. Having said that, I always think of what Salman Rushdie said when asked if he could fully appreciate A Hundred Years of Solitude when he could not read Spanish. His response was that he could appreciate it much more reading it in English than not reading it at all. Yes, you may well lose some nuances but you can still appreciate a fine novel in translation if the translator has done his/her job well.

  10. Yes I read lots of books in translation and my “physicist” French just isn’t good enough for me to enjoy (for example) Colette in her own language. Translators generally do a fantastic job and when I think of all the fabulous writers I have been able to read (Colette, Grass, Bulgakov, Murakami, Mann etc.) even if imperfectly then I have no hesitation in jumping into non-English fiction at every opportunity.

  11. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I read a *lot* of translated fiction and regularly give thanks to all the wonderful translators. I *am* a bit fussy about which ones I read (for example, Tolstoy was translated by the Maudes, knew them and approved their work, so that’s good enough for me). I think it’s most often a case of finding the version of a work that you find you like to read most. And like Dark Puss, thinking of all the fabulous works out there I couldn’t read if someone else hadn’t done the hard work for me, I wouldn’t be without translated books even if they’re not perfect.

  12. Jen

    You are definitely missing stuff when you read things that have been translated. I have read a lot of Murakami in both Japanese and English, and the Japanese inevitably has a load of things that just can’t be conveyed in the English at all… but that doesn’t mean that the English translations aren’t excellent! In fact, I’m pretty sure they’re improved sometimes as books published in Japanese tend not to be edited as much as those published in English, so I know that quite a few Murakami books have had chunks cut out of them in the English translation and have ended up reading better because of it.

    But in order to read a book in another language, you have to not only have extremely good language skills, you also have to know a lot about the culture of that country, and know the language well enough to pick up on the subtext and subtle nuances of the book to actually appreciate them fully, which takes years of study. It would be impossible to learn enough languages to read whatever you wanted in the original.

    I think the best translations do a really good job at not just conveying the words that are on the page, but at recreating the same kind of atmosphere and nuance as the original and making the books accessible to readers. I think the fact that not everything gets translated also means that books that do get translated are generally the most interesting/best books written in that language, which means that you avoid reading a load of rubbish.

  13. I don’t read nearly enough translated fiction. I went to an interesting talk in May on translated poetry by Modern Poetry in Translation, and it was so interesting. I think I must miss something not being able to read the original language, because – as I learnt at the talk – translations can vary. One of my favourite novels is The Reader by Bernhard Schlink and if I could get another translation by a different translator I would be so interested to see the difference in interpretation of language.

    Translators really don’t get enough credit for the work they do, their almost a second author. I wish I were fluent in another language, being a translator of literature would be a dream job.

  14. Great post, I look at the books in ikea too even though I have no knowledge of Swedish! I can only read English German and French, Italian a bit in the past but that is almost forgotten now sadly. I tend to read almost everything in English now though, even German books I tend to read in the English translation now to my shame. I read a lot of translated fiction in the original when I was a student, and I read what I can now, and agree imprints like Peirene and Maclehose are great for giving us the chance to do this, and many great blogs like Stu’s and Jacqui’s and yours and others spread the word about the books. I think there is always the risk that something can get ‘lost in translation’ but better to read the translation than to miss out on the whole experience.

  15. Rachel

    Great questions. I love lit in translation, but definitely think the translator can make a huge difference! So sometimes I feel like reading translated fiction is even more of a gamble than picking up a new book. Not only is it an unknown story, but it’s also filtered through an additional person before you can read it, which can have a huge impact on the book overall.

    Also, thanks for the blog recommendation. I would love to see a post or even a Readers episode about your favorite blogs and bloggers.

  16. Translated fiction is definitely something I need to read more! I know about Europa but I will have to look into those other resources. Thanks!

  17. Very topical post. The situation with reading foreign languages in English-speaking countries is rather dire, so translation is the way to go for most of the motivated readers. However, it is common knowledge that most of translated literature is not as popular as the original in said countries, so it is a wonder that such publishing houses as Dalkey and Archipelago exist at all. Besides English, I can read Russian, Spanish, French, German, and Italian, and whenever there is an opportunity I would choose the original over the translation, of course. I did try to compare some of my favourite novels and their translations and was left terrified for days after this. It’s better not to know! I would recommend you to try and learn Spanish because in my opinion it is the easiest language to learn for a native English speaker, and the literature written in Spanish on several continents is so vast and so rich in marvels that having a chance to read at least some of it in the original will be a true bliss.

  18. I am French and I mostly read in English. My pleasure is to read French books in English.
    I am blessed in ability to speak German, Italian and Spanish, Latin and Greek as well. I am currently learning Russian. It is a gift and knack. Languages are logic in a way and when you start learning one, the whole “family” related to this language comes easily. My father is working for the French equivalent of the British FO, so the whole family followed him when we were younger in the non dangerous countries where he was sent and of course it helped learning languages and cultures and civilisations. I am very lucky.
    When I want to read in one of the languages I know, I hate using a translation: I feel it even when it is good.
    It is not just a question of a good or bad translator. It is just that there are subtle meaning under the words and sentences in each language that cannot be translated. So you never get to the depth of the text. There is something missing that you cannot share with the native-speaking reader. It is difficult to explain. For example, while I am writing right now I am not thinking in French and translating my thoughts into English. I am thinking in English and I would have to work about my translation of it in French.
    I belong to a virtual reading group about French literature and I have re-discovered Balzac and Alexandre Dumas or Zola. At the same time, I have been surprised by the reactions of my English-speaking co-readers: they were far from the meaning if the authors and the French customs.
    I am learning Russian now because I am a Russian literature lover (as much as English!) and I feel I miss Tolstoy’s and Gogol’s and Dostoievsk’s and modern writers’ deep meaning.
    So, yes, learn other languages. It is opening a whole new world and this is so rich and interesting!
    One last thing: I like Winston’s Dad Blog and I follow yours as well. I follow quite a number of blogs but yours is different and I enjoy it a lot.

  19. I’ve been trying in recent years to read more in translation. I subscribed to And Other Stories three years ago and I just signed up to Peirene Press as well, but as you say there’s so many other books that just don’t make it into English translations. But I am hugely grateful to the wonderful translators doing such a marvellous unsung job.

    Once upon a time my French was pretty good and some of my favourite authors are French so I have wondered about brushing up enough to read them in the original, but I’ll admit I’m put off by the idea of turning reading into a chore. Maybe in that hypothetical one day when I have more time.

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