Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

The World-Changing Magic of Books in Translation

As far as unsung heroes go, the world of literature has plenty, but there’s one group in particular who are too easily and too often overlooked: the translators. Think about how different (and dull!) our reading lives would be without Don Quixote, or One Hundred Years Of Solitude, or The Little Prince, or Anna Karenina, or Kafka On The Shore, or The Odyssey, or Waiting For Godot, or any of the thousands of other translated works. What’s more, imagine of those classic works of languages other than English weren’t accessible to later writers, as sources of education and inspiration – it’d be a very bleak literary landscape indeed. So, that’s why today I want to take a look at the world-changing magic of books in translation: how translation works, why it’s important, and some great translated books worth reading.

The World-Changing Magic of Books in Translation - Text Overlaid on Image of Open Language Dictionary with Magnifying Glass - Keeping Up With The Penguins

How Book Translation Works

So, if we’re talking a bare-bones definition, book translation is the translation of prose and poetry into languages other than that in which the original work was written. That could mean translating older classical works, like Dante’s The Divine Comedy, or more contemporary books, like The Invented Part (which won the award for Best Translated Work of 2018). The most obvious reason to translate a book, of any age, is to help it reach a wider audience of people who wouldn’t otherwise get to read it. That said, the true value of books in translation is much, much greater than that. Translation expands and increases a book’s longevity, it helps readers access stories of places and people who experience life in very different ways (which has been shown to increase empathy and basically make us better people), and it has great educational value beyond the field of literature – to linguistics, to history, and to other social sciences.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but books are long and translating hundreds of thousands of words’ worth of a story takes equal parts talent and tenacity. And the act of translating a creative work is very different to that of translating, say, a technical manual or other more straightforward texts. Translating books is a delicate balancing act between faithfulness to the original work and creating a good book in and of itself.

Ultimately, translators aim to evoke the same feelings in the reader and stay true to the artist’s vision, while also creating what is effectively new work in a different language, one that can stand alone as a great read without the reader ever needing know it was written differently (unless they cared to find out). The translator doesn’t just interpret the text word by word into a new language; they also need to find ways to communicate humour, irony, and other idiomatic forms of expression, and that’s not always a one-for-one equation (take a look at any list of idioms translated literally into English, and you’ll see what a job they have cut out for them).


The translator can’t necessarily rely, the way a writer can, on shared or assumed knowledge in the reader, given that language is so closely tied to geography and community. Culture, customs, and traditions that are a given in one part of the world might be virtually inexplicable in the other, and it’s the translator’s job to find an explanation that makes sense. This ain’t just plugging six hundred pages word-by-word into Google Translate; it’s a unique creative process, whereby a translator creates a book with the same spirit and energy, changing and interpreting as need be without corrupting the original.

And pour some out for the translators of poetry, for crying out loud: their work is extra complex, focusing as they must on staying true to the way a story is told and its ideas communicated through verse, not just the story itself.

The Role Of Translators in Literature

This is why I make a point of naming the translator in my reviews of translated books. I mean, aside from anything else, they deserve recognition for their work, but also we must remember that no two translators will approach a work in the same way, and that can give very different results. Take, for instance, Crime and Punishment; I loved the version I read, which was translated by David McDuff, but I can’t really attest as to whether the other translation are as engaging and funny as his. What if they interpreted key passages differently, or chose different words to describe something, and in so doing communicated a completely different meaning?

“There’s not a single word in any of the languages I translate that can map perfectly onto a word in English. So, it’s always interpretative, approximate, creative. Anything that is, itself, a ‘linguistic’ quality will by definition be anchored in a particular language – whether it’s idiom, ambiguity, or assonance. All languages are different.”

Daniel Hahn (Former chair and committee member of the Translators Association, also on the board of modern poetry in translation)

And, by extension, all translations are different. All translators produce a unique work of literature, even where the original-language text is the same. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention here the #namethetranslator movement, which has brought much attention over recent years to the art of book translation and the role of the translator in expanding our literary world. Be sure to look into it if you want to know more, and support the growing recognition of the role of translators in the publishing industry.

Why don’t people read more books in translation?

Well, I think it’s abundantly clear already why book translation matters, but that’s not reflected in the book sales: books translated into English are notoriously difficult to sell, which makes publishers reluctant to take on the additional cost of acquiring a foreign-language novel and paying someone to translate it (and then paying someone to edit it, and so on). This leads publishers to sometimes (allegedly) attempt to obfuscate the fact that a book is translated, burying the translator’s name deep in the fine print of the inside jacket. Only 633 newly-translated fiction books were published in English in the U.S. in 2016, barely even a drop in the ocean of 300k new books published each year. Less than 3% of books published in the U.S. each year are translations of any kind. So, fewer sales, hidden labours: despite book translation’s long and vital history (see The Oxford History of Literary Translation), we seem to be collectively forgetting why book translation matters in our reading lives, and we’re not supporting it with our consumer dollars.

But with the growth of Amazon, and the wider accessibility of literature more generally, appetite for diverse and balanced literature is growing – and, with it, demand for translated books. Readers are increasingly pressuring publishing houses to provide books, fiction and non-fiction, that expand their horizons and reflect the diversity of authors and stories that are now accessible by the click of a button on other online platforms. So, perhaps we are on the verge of a renaissance of sorts, where we remember why book translation matters and vote with our consumer power to show much we value it as an art form.

Translated Books Worth Reading

Given that a lot of the titles for the Keeping Up With The Penguins project were drawn from the Guardian’s list of the 100 best books written in English, I haven’t reviewed all that many books in translation (yet!). However, of those I have read, these ones are the stand-outs:

And drawing upon my reading life prior to this book blogging project, I also really enjoyed Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert and translated by Lydia Davis, and Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche and translated by R.J. Hollingdale. You might also want to check out some of the recently-translated award winners and short-listed titles: Remains Of Life, The Beekeeper, and Flights. I’m also super-excited to read the forthcoming translated title The Eighth Life.

Which are your favourite books in translation? Drop your suggestions in the comments (or tell everyone over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

15 Comments

  1. I absolutely loved the original Millennium trilogy novels by Stieg Larsson, translated from Swedish by Steven T. Murray (who used the pseudonym β€œReg Keeland” for those works). The translations I read used British spellings (even though Murray was American), but still incredibly captivating to read. Murray died in 2018.

    • ShereeKUWTP

      September 6, 2019 at 4:10 PM

      Ohhh yes, of course! I’ve not read any Larsson yet, but a lot of people have recommended his work to me – thank you for the reminder!!

  2. Another fascinating blog post, Sheree. I have to admit that I don’t usually pay too much attention to who has translated a novel. But I will from now on.

    • ShereeKUWTP

      September 6, 2019 at 4:13 PM

      Ohhh I’m glad Jane, that’s what I was hoping the post would do! I feel like we all subconsciously appreciate the work that translators do, but don’t really think to put that gratitude explicitly, front and center. Thank you so much!

  3. Awww, this is so wonderful to see, especially since we just finished Women in Translation Month and are now in regular old Translation Month. I have to say that I am one of the readers that had to be very slowly persuaded to try more books in translation — I still find them intimidating, but I think I’ve become a lot more open to them. Two of my fave nonfiction books of the last few years were actually translated, which made me feel fancy as hell!

    • ShereeKUWTP

      September 6, 2019 at 4:14 PM

      Oooh, which non-fiction titles, Jenny?? For the most part, I think I lean towards translated fiction, so I’d love to bolster up the ol’ TBR with some non-fiction titles, push my comfort zone a little πŸ˜‰ And thank you!

  4. I made a conscious decision about 5 years ago to read books from a wider geographic base. I’ve now read books by authors from 41 different countries (many of them in translation) and it’s been a fantastic experience because I learned about cultural practices, history and geography.

    • ShereeKUWTP

      September 8, 2019 at 8:56 AM

      Yes, isn’t it magical?! When we broaden our bookish horizons, we expand our understanding of the world along with them. Thank you, and happy reading!! πŸ˜‰β€οΈ

  5. I take my hat off to translators. They are sensitive and magical people who so often don’t get the credit they deserve, and the reasons you give sadly show why. I’m glad to learn about the #namethetranslator movement, since they probably put in even more painstaking work than the original author, in many ways. One of my favourites might be Constance Garnett, who translated the versions of The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina that I read.

    • ShereeKUWTP

      September 16, 2019 at 12:45 PM

      Oooh, I think Garnett translated my copy of Anna Karenina, I’ll have to dig it out and double check. All hail the translators!! ❀️❀️❀️

  6. I’ve just more recently begun to branch out into translated classics (the French and Russians at this point) and I put time in before even starting to research which translations are best which has been interesting to say the least and certainly helpful. Great post on the topic!

    • ^^Sorry if that sentence doesn’t make much sense. A severe case of insomnia has me catching up on your posts and commenting at 2 AM my time. πŸ™ˆπŸ˜‚ I meant to say I do my best to research which translation to read before purchasing or starting a translated work.

      • ShereeKUWTP

        September 26, 2019 at 9:51 AM

        Bahahahaha no worries Hannah, I completely got what you meant, I think it’s an excellent approach! (and I don’t know whether to be glad or worried that you’re turning to my blog in moments of insomnia? Hahaha. Hope you get some shut-eye soon, doll, either way!) ❀️

        • Ha! I’ve been meaning to get caught up for a bit now so turning to your blog was not an attempt akin to counting sheep, I promise! πŸ˜‚πŸ’›

          • ShereeKUWTP

            September 26, 2019 at 4:44 PM

            Hahaha glad to hear it!! 😜 But hey, I’ve been called worse than an insomnia cure πŸ˜‚β€οΈ

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