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.
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:
- Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, translated by David McDuff – read my full review here.
- Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, translated by John Rutherford – read my full review here.
- The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, translated by Rod Bradbury – read my full review here.
- My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein – read my full review here.
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!).