To Like or Not to Like: That Is the Translation.

I used to try my hand at translating my own writing from one language to another, then I noticed that the stories changed quite considerably through translation. Not that I was getting carried away writing a completely different story, but it almost seemed like it. That got me to thinking about the books I’ve read. Up until the moment I started translating, I hadn’t paid particular attention to the book translations I’d read.

When I switched from reading children’s books to reading novels in my teens, I did so indiscriminately – I’d read Spanish writers in English or English writers in Spanish or just writers writing in their original language. I think I’ve read The House of the Spirits and Like Water for Chocolate in both English and Spanish repeatedly throughout my life. (They have a special place in my heart because they were the first ‘novels’ I read by myself and I was glued to the page until I finished them). And another thing, I didn’t notice any difference in how the stories touched me as a reader. They were the same, just as enjoyable. The author’s voice transfered successfully through the language barrier.

But, and this is an important but, there are some books that I can’t even get through in one language; but I can in another. I’ve noticed that the difference sometimes lies not only in the translator but also in the medium it is portrayed. After all, isn’t making a movie out of a book, very much a translation?

To make it a bit easier I’ll give a little example.

One of my favorite epics is The Epic of Gilgamesh. One boring day I ran out of audiobooks to listen to, this one was available, so I listened to it. I loved it ( I actually   l-o-v-e-d it, with spaces in between, for more love). I never imagined that a story so old could be so new. It was like a whole world opened up before my eyes. I was aware of the concept, mostly text and reference books saying how Shakespeare or Homer were great because they were universal. But like any version of love, you must have once fallen in love to understand the concept.

Then I bought several translations of the book (they were gifts for my husband, but I ended up reading them too) and I loved them, just like I loved reading Like Water for Chocolate and The House of Spirits. If you have ever re-read a book, or re-watched a movie, then you know what I’m talking about: that feeling of excitement at knowing what will happen while still discovering new details.

I didn’t understand why, to me, The Gilgamesh was so special, but not The Odyssey, for instance. Perhaps it has to do with the translation. I’ve never read either of these epics in the original language. My mastery of ancient Greek and Sumerian are rudimentary at best (ok non-existant, but wouldn’t it be fun to be fluent in any language so as to read the original form of any book?), so I have the translations. And there are so many translations of these books for me to choose from.

But not to make this post any longer than it needs to be: Would it be possible to like a story only in a translation but not the original? Or, is it like what happens to me, once you understand the story (thanks to the original or the translation), you can just read and re-read it in any language (or translation) and still love it?


10 thoughts on “To Like or Not to Like: That Is the Translation.

  1. To add my own experiences to this topic, I find that most works are probably better in the original language. However, one does need a pretty good knowledge of another language to be able to make good use of it, and that is not always possible. I have read the Finnish epic poem in English translation, and it simply does not work effectively. Still, that’s better than never gaining access to the story at all. (Even Finns struggle with this). On the other hand, and on a rather lighter note, there are times when a translation seems better than the original. I refer here to the Donald Duck comic books – so much more satisfying in Swedish than English. I can’t tell why.

  2. I’ve noticed this in poetry and philosophy. On rare instances, poetry benefits from translation – though I’m sure that damages the author’s intent. It’s just that sometimes the sounds of words might happen to work better. The vast majority of times, the reverse is true.

    In philosophy, it happens that some meaning is lost in translation – or, at least, I think so. For instance, I’ve noticed passages in Nietzsche that were direct quotes from (or at least allusions to) the Bible. In English translations these are often so altered as to be unrecognizable to a reader.

  3. Very thought-provoking. I read Le Petit Prince and Camus’ L’Etranger in the original French. I never attempted the English. Makes me want to take a run at it. Though I do think there is always something lost in translation. Language is so much more than a bunch of words. It’s how an entire culture expresses their thoughts. There are sentence structures in Chinese that we just don’t have in English.

    1. If you make an attempt at them in English, I’d love to know what you make of it, knowing what you already know of the originals.
      You are right, Chinese must be doubly hard to translate, especially because I think you loose so much already in the translation of the writing system; the characters already carry so much cultural weight.

  4. I have often wondered the same but more in reference to poetry! I’ve found that when reading a translated novel the essence of the story remains somewhat the same but when it comes to poetry, like the great Pablo Neruda’s or Mario Benedetti’s, it just doesn’t have the same “feel” to it and in some instances it doesn’t seem to even have the same meaning! Take for instance La Mala Racha by Eduardo Galeano. It has a way of resonating with me in Spanish but in English it sounds a bit off and almost like random non-sense! >.< I'm sorry to bombard you with my comment, I was just too excited to see someone else writing about something that 's been on my mind for a long time!!

    1. I agree with you Mari, Neruda just doesn’t feel the same in English. Some words that sound beautiful in Spanish, might sound corny and over the top in English. Your comment reminded me of the time i took Latin American Lit at university, the professor said that writers like Neruda and García Márquez became internationally acclaimed because they translated well into other languages without loosing too much in the process. Thanks for commenting!

  5. I wonder if it’s a greater issue with poetry. I have read some translations of the Tao and of Rumi that I absolutely love and others that leave me completely flat. In both cases, the poetry of the language is so important that I think it makes a difference.

    1. Hi Cynthia! Perhaps it’s dependes on the translator ethic, how far the translator is willing to go to make the work flow or in any way be like the original. Do you think the translations you love (or don’t) are closer to the originals in any sense?

  6. Well, that was an interesting post! I’ve never considered that, and it’s been a looong time since I was any good in German or French (forget about it, now…), but I’ve never read a translation of anything I’d already read in English (short of Texte und Ubungen!)….

    Huh, you pose a great question, but I think, yes, it is possible! :-]

    1. Thanks fpdorchak!
      Texte und Ubungen… I think there the meanings in translation are not that different from the English ‘texts and exercises’ (yes, I had to use Google translate for this one 😉 I hope nothing was lost in the translation. Cheers!

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