dicussion: are some books lost in translation? + blog news

I noticed something a few years ago, after I put down Les Miserables three-fourths of the way through and never came back to it. After I couldn't get into Anna Karenina, never read past the 50th page of The Count of Monte Cristo, and quickly grew bored by Madame Bovary.

What do all these books have in common?

1)All have been translated from their original language into an English version.
2) I've never finished reading any of them.

Which is pretty strange, since usually I'm an extremely determined reader. I rarely put down a book once I've started it. I mean, I finished Twilight while wanting to rip it to shreds the whole time. But in all honesty, all the classical literature I've enjoyed or loved--whether it's Great Expectations, Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, or Dracula--were originally written in the English language. For the purposes of this post I'm only including the older tomes. I don't think modern literature* should apply here since what turns many people off from classical books is the relatively stifled language, dense writing, and sometimes archaic terms that are mostly gone from literature published from the 20th century onwards.

That is not to say that originally English books can't be dense or boring as well; that's not what I'm claiming at all. Or even that English-translated books are always dense or boring. It's just that this is a consistent trend that I've noticed in my reading for at least four years running. I can make it through pretty much any original classical English text, but can count on my five fingers how many books that have been translated that I actually read and enjoyed. And it bamboozles me. It really does.

At first, I thought this was the case for everyone. I remember asking my sister after realizing this, and was quite confused when she told me that she actually thought English-translated books made for easier reading. And my Mom, (who grew up in China) told me that the classics she read when she was younger that had been translated into Mandarin were wonderful.

So I'm left thinking I'm the odd one out. And I've since avoided most non-original English books. I try again every once in a while. The last classical non-English book I've read was Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne. I got one edition from the library; it was pretty boring and took me a long time to read. Then I went to my local B&N, read the first ten pages of the book with a different version of translation, and was immediately spellbound. The voice shone through, and the dialogue was great. On the other hand, the library-borrowed version had been pretty dull. So now I'm thinking that a lot of the times the translation falls short of the true greatness of a book. That some of the originality of prose has been lost in translation.

So, what set off this post?

It was my very latest English-translation reading failure: Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I so wanted to read this book, but I couldn't read past the first twenty pages since the prose just did not appeal to me and seemed stilted, in my opinion. And I find it hard to believe that Marquez's original Spanish version was not absolutely beautifully written; just the book I was reading seemed to lack the magic, the feeling. I got that all too familiar feeling that I get when reading an English-translated text and stopped reading. Maybe it was premature of me to give up on it**, but it happens to me so much it might as well be a law of my reading habits:

While choco loves literature, she doesn't love English-translated literature.

I hoped this would be something I would grow out of as I grew older. But this trend of mine hasn't changed in the least. Even now, when I read more literature than I do YA, after I've learned to love literature after the ordeal of Literature Week. And I'm not attempting to pigeonhole English-translated books--I'd love to be able to love them. It's just that I'm curious why this applies to me, or if it applies to you too.

I might be the wrong person to be writing this post--I've never read an English version of a book and then the untranslated version to compare since I don't read more than one language. This is where I'm hoping that some of you bilingual readers will put me in the wrong; will tell me that the English-translated version of a classic is a much better read than the original text. Or maybe I'll find some kindred souls out there?

So, valiant readers: have you noticed any difference in quality between books originally written in English and English-translated books? Do you prefer one or the other?

And now the blog news:

In accordance to survey results and my desire to interview some lovely people, I'll be holding a series of teen writer interviews starting this Friday. I'll be inviting some very talented teens that are seriously pursuing publication over for a spotlight. Make sure to tune in*** tomorrow for the first post!

*I'm not including children's books either--but I have to say Anthea Bell is AMAZING. If you've read Inkheart or The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke, they were both translated from German to English by Bell and were still well-written with a lovely voice.

I don't know if I've entirely given up on it, I'm just not that eager to read it anymore.

***or maybe this should be read in? link in? Hehehe.


molly said...

I read Anna K for my AP Lit class. It was extremely difficult and I barely finished. =D

It appears that you have won an award on my blog =D

in which a girl reads said...

THANKS molly! *huggles*

And I feel like I should give Anna Karenina another try, since I LOVE the movie. But--*sigh* it's so, so long. It can imagine how difficult it would be in AP lit with a deadline & a close reading!

Allie said...

I have been going through the classics, so I can relate wholeheartedly. The first edition of Crime and Punishment I purchased was difficult to get through. I made it to page 18 and stopped reading it because I was completely lost. So when I came time to read it again, I went and bought a different translation, and you know what? It was much easier. I have been making it a point to look at the different editions of these books very carefully. The translators can try and do it word for word, or they try to make it easier for an English speaker. I am finding that if I open up a translated book and read the first few pages in the store, I can get a feel for whether I can stand it.

I will say that the Barnes and Noble Editions seem to be well done. I also really like Penguin Classics and Signet. Bantam is sometimes difficult.

My best suggestion, especially if you are going to read more current novels, is to see if there are alternate translations available and see if those work for you instead. It might make life easier.

ninefly said...

I personally try to read as many books in their original languages as I can. this only applies to Chinese books though (since I'm only fluent in Chinese), and for Japanese books (of which I'm only semi-fluent in) I like having a translation alongside the original text so I can imagine the dialogue in my head =D
basically I see translation as a story being rewritten by a second author who either has better literary skills or (most of the time) worse, and who may or may not have an understanding of the cultural influences and references made in the text
just like how asian names completely lose meaning when "transliterated" into English, so does a lot of the writing styles

Liz @ Cleverly Inked said...

Interesting I never even thought about this

Amelia said...

Wow, I think you might be on to something with the non-English classics! Pretty much LES MIS is the only one of those that I could get through (and enjoy) but that was probably just because I was crazy-obsessed with the musical :P

Anna Karenina, though (and Crime and Punishment - come to think of it) can just die in a hole as far as I'm concerned!

Rebecca Chapman said...

This is a really interesting question.

I don't have a problem with translated books usually. I really enjoyed Anna Karenina and finished it off without a problem. I haven't tried any of the other first few you mentioned though.

I wonder if it is the translation, or if it's the other problem you mentioned about the books being old and stuffy language, which is then compounded by the fact that it is old and stuffy language in another language that then gets translatde - all of that can't help but create some kind of barrier I think.

It's funny though that you mention Love in a Time of Cholera. I was going to say that I LOVE books that re originally written in Spanish and then translated into English. I thinkt he Spanish language is really lovely. it is so descriptive, and it takes a lot longer to say something than it does in English. For me the result are books that I absolutely love, ones that palce a lot of emphasis on the characters and the setting, stories that are told not through dialogue, but by description of events.

I absolutely loved Love in a Time of Cholera and all of Gabria Garcia Marquez's books that I have read. Same goes for Isabal Allende.

I haven't read different translations of the same book so I can't compare really in that sense.

Having said all that, I'm glad that you seem to have had a breakthrough about not liking translated books. I think that's fine. Everyone has different reactinos to different books, that's what's great about reading.

I love this post - I am going to leave a link to it at my blog.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post! I hadn't really thought about it, but it might be true for me. I've tried Anna K. two or three times and I can't get through it. And Madame Bovary draaaagged. But I can read most classic English lit with no problem. Hmmm. I'll have to think about it some more... -Cori

Astrid (Mrs.B) said...

You really have to pick the right translator. I had the same experience with both books you mentioned, Les Miserables and Anna Karenina. There's a new translation of AK out that's supposed to be excellent. Before buying a translated book, check reviews for the right translation. I read a mystery book in both English and Spanish. It was originally in English and the Spanish translation had chapters missing. Very annoying.

Anonymous said...

I've been forced to read translated literature my entire life - Spanish is my first language - and there are things that definitely get lost in translation.

Sometimes it's not that it's wrongly translated (though that has happened) but that, sometimes, the voice just isn't right, the translation can be too literal or too technical and it just doesn't work.

So I guess a lot has to do with the translator and I think that, in a way, you always end up with the version of how the translator feels about the book.

Angie said...

Interesting post. I've never really thought about it before. It's been a long time since I read Les Mis, but I do remember that the Hunchback of Notre Dame was a lot easier to read. Haven't tired AK yet.

Your puppy today looks like a fox. Hehe. Just thought I'd point that out. :)

Unknown said...

Great honest post. I enjoy reading YA translations. Toby Alones was fab.

Mrs. DeRaps said...

I've found that different translations of the same text can be so far apart that they almost give a totally different meaning to what I'm reading. This has happened with Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse. I don't remember which translation I liked better, but one was SO horrid I thought I might never finish it!

But, I would stick with Love in the Time of Cholera. It's one of my personal favorites! Thanks for the great question!

Tales of Whimsy said...

I speak Spanish but struggle with reading it. It always amazes me whats lost in translation when something is translated from Spanish to English.

Nina said...

I also read Love in the Time of Cholera, but then translated into Dutch. I couldn't read it either, I didn't like it at all, it was to hard! :)
I don't know what the deal is with translated books, some are great and some are jut NOT.

Sandy said...

Why must you bring up such interesting topics, you brilliant person! ;)

In my case, I find that reading a book in another language is vastly different from when I read something in English. For example, I read The Host by Stephenie Meyer (Have you gotten the chance to read that btw? I promise you it's way better than Twilight)and absolutely LOVED it in English. Then I started rereading the book in Spanish and sure, it felt different but I found the writing to be more richer and I paid close attention to every little detail. Usually when I read in English, I read quickly and sometimes that makes me skip over minute details. (which means that sometimes I need to go back and reread) In contrast to Spanish, I read more slowly, soaking up every word. I think it just depends on how your brain is wired-and how you read internally. And also how you feel about the language you're reading in. I'm comfortable with English but I admire the Spanish language... so I pay a lot more attention to the grammar and such. :)

Oh, and OF COURSE it depends on who's translating. You could have a sucky translator that gets EVERYTHING wrong orrrr you could have a fantastic one that gets everything right. (Yes, I'm referring to The Host-the woman who did that book did a phenomenal job.)

Anonymous said...

Gabriel Garcia Marquez?! I learned about that guy at school! Or I was taught about him, since I'm not so sure it qualifies as learning if I can't remember anything. But I think he was from around here.

As for translations, I actually can't recall ever reading a translation, BUT since I've been trying to translate some of my stuff, I know for sure that the entire writing style/voice/whatever changes drastically, because translating exact word for exact word is practically impossible.

twipippi said...

I usually don't have a problem with translated books but sometimes I think that a translation can ruin a book. I don't think I have read a book translated to English since it isn't my first language. I recently read a new book translated from English to Swedish and the translation was horrible. I could have translated it much better myself. The book used words in a way you can use them in English but you can't use them like that in Swedish. I nearly gave up but the story was good and if it wasn't because I wanted to know how it would end, I probably never would have finished it. I'm not going to read a book translated by that person again. Ever. (I've read a translation by this person before, but I think that that book was so weird that I didn't have time to notice anything about the translation. Maybe i would notice it if I read it again...)
So I think a book can loose much when it's translated, if it's done in a bad way. Sometimes the translation works fine, sometimes small things get lost in the translation (it's sad but usually not noticed) and sometimes it can destroy a book.

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