Translated Literature Special: Just how worthwhile is reading literature in translation?

Two Bubble writers express contrasting opinions on translated literature

English literature, black holes. Surely two concepts that have never before been placed side by side? And yet, the idea of endlessly sucking in material is so applicable to anyone’s desire for intellectual growth, easily referring to the domain of literature. Across time, the general reader’s want for new ideas has forced us to beg, borrow or steal literary works from foreign horizons. For this reason, the average Waterstone’s customer is distinctly unsurprised to note Camus’ novels nestled by Conrad on the classics shelf, or the poetry of Pushkin squashed in by Plath. The idea of thoughts being “lost in translation” is easily noticeable when conversing with others that speak a different language to ourselves – so why has this far less readily related to our cosmopolitan tastes in literature? Are we doing the foreign author a disservice in reading another’s interpretation of their original text, or does its intellectual value remain unchanged because the core idea is conveyed? In our new debate format, two opposing viewpoints are pitted head-to-head in order to help you make up your own minds.

Motion: translated literature is inferior to that written in the reader’s own language

Justina Crabtree argues for the motion:

In order to begin at point one, we’ve got to consider the bare bones of the very concept of language: it exists in order to express an idea through a universal medium for many to understand. This leads us to a conclusion which may be blindingly obvious: you’ve got to be able to comprehend the medium in order to reach the core idea. Literature makes things more complex, being the figurative manipulation of language in order to imply a particular thought. This subsequently makes it as much about the usage of words and syntax to express, as the central viewpoint itself. Surely this renders us unable to truly appreciate foreign literature, as a translation is, in effect, an interpretation of an interpretation.

One example of literary techniques undergoing the vanishing act performed by translation can be found in what is arguably one of the greatest novels ever written, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. The book’s adulterous title heroine is used by the author to throw into question the importance of family values, and the best way in which to nurture domesticity within the changing politics of Russia in the run up to its revolution. Anna Karenina’s famous opening line (according to the translators of the Penguin Classics edition), “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” is frequently quoted, yet its significance is significantly underplayed in the English translation. What the Western reader is unaware of is that the Russian word for “family” has interchangeable meanings; it can also imply the ideas of “house” or “household”. Thus, Tolstoy reiterates this word multiple times throughout his opening paragraph, subtly conveying to the Russian reader through a kind of dripping-tap technique what his following novel is to focus on. Inserting the idea into our minds suggests how inescapably central the idea of family is to everyone, and despite the proverbial first sentence implying a universal pearl of wisdom, the concept of family is also shown to be intensely personal and able to spark the cataclysmically strong emotions which ensue in the novel. Punning and wordplay, a writer’s witty use of their key tool – language – is inevitably lost through translation. In sacrificing the very bag of linguistic tricks at an author’s disposal, we both lose the significance of their work and an appreciation of their skills, thus rendering the translated text inferior to works originally written in English.

Furthermore, the cultural significance of language varies greatly, having a marked effect upon our readings. This was drawn to my attention when attempting to look further afield with my personal reading and chanced upon an anthology of Chinese literature. Expecting great things from a mighty and highly sophisticated ancient civilisation, I was instead met with oddly simplistic, almost nursery-rhyme like verse. However, the Chinese language itself ought to be considered if any kind of explanation is to be reached. Chinese characters are largely pictorial and based on images which resemble the meaning conveyed. This system has enabled calligraphy to become a highly respected art form associated with fine cultural development, in which the calligrapher becomes a mixture of both writer and artist, taking an immense amount of care to depict the characters. Naturally, this painstaking skill was associated with wisdom and intelligence, and is completely unlike English, where characters merely imply sounds, and it is the sound-association which leads to meaning. Rather, the spiritual aspect to literature and the sharing of knowledge is emphasised, thanks to the intertwining of language’s aesthetic presentation and its literary value. Thus is a simplicity of words afforded.

I must acknowledge that it feels incredibly wrong – almost blasphemous – to discount so many fantastic works of foreign literature that have seeped into the consciousness of the Western reader, becoming the unquestionable favourites of so many. An enduring popularity is often the most accurate measure of a piece’s literary worth and success, and it is undeniable that novels such as Madame Bovary, Victor Hugo’s poetry or plays by Chekhov have become household names. Perhaps the nature of the very literary forms themselves – prose, poetry and drama – ought to be considered. The former, being chiefly about the artistry of language itself arguably risks losing the most linguistic worth. Novels and plays generally focus on presenting a simulation of reality, where language, as a tool for characters to express their thoughts and emotions, adopts a more subsidiary role. Foreign literature is undeniably interesting on an idealistic level – if literature is a way of exploring life itself and finding answers to fundamental questions of existence, we’re all going to be perplexed by the same things, as we’re all human. However, translating literature moves it a step away from the creator’s original idea, rendering texts as ultimately impure and no longer a direct expression of raw thought.

Anni Pekie argues against the motion:

I read every work of literature in its original language, whenever my ability permits me to do so. However, a vast amount of both classical and contemporary literature is written in English and since English is not my native language, I grew up reading translations. Retrospectively, not all of them were particularly good.

When I read The Lord of the Rings translated in German for the first time, I did not especially like it and gave up after the first volume. A few years later I tried again – this time in English – and it instantly became my favourite book. In the first instance, I happened to come across a fairly modern translation, the language of which seemed unsuitable for a tale of such magnitude. Having come across older translations, I now chose to read these instead of the original. They are very close to the original version, but there are some passages that I find sound exceptionally beautiful in German when read aloud. Therefore, when my friend wanted to read The Lord of the Rings in German because her English is not good enough, I naturally gave her this copy. She returned it to me after a few weeks, complaining that it was too hard to read and that she had not been able to enjoy it due to the high level of concentration that had been required. So I gave her the translation that I disliked so much. Although The Lord of the Rings may never become her favourite book, she was able to plough through this one. I do see that older translations may come across as rigid and old-fashioned, usually because their language is closer to that of the original and sometimes the syntax and grammar too. No-one would ever actually write like this in German. At the same time the new translation opens up one of my favourite stories to a whole new audience, who otherwise would have thought The Lord of the Rings was just a film. Still, when spoilt for choice, I would almost choose to read the original first and following that, perhaps a translation.

But what if I am not given a choice? One of my first year modules required me to read dramas by Ibsen and Chekhov. Since I am unfamiliar with neither Norwegian nor Russian, I was obviously forced to read the translation. This was the first time I had read anything by these authors and retrospectively, I may have instinctively shunned writers from less common literary traditions because I am able to read languages that claim a vast amount of Western literature for themselves – English and German – instead. However I found myself enjoying them very much and realised what I missed out on before. Unless you boast fluency in the more widely spoken European languages, you are likely to miss out on much of Europe’s important cultural inheritance, let alone all the oriental and Asian writing which you would not be able to access at all.

I am aware of the fact that to some extent it is impossible to translate puns, wordplay or even irony. Translations can be horribly inaccurate or so exact that they feel artificial. Wrong meanings can be implied and therefore mislead the reader. When I saw Ibsen’s A Doll’s House sitting on the bookshelf of my German friend, I barely recognised it. The German title literally translates as Nora or a Doll’s Home. To my mind, structuring a title around “or” is common in German children’s literature. Nevertheless, German is one of the major languages which Ibsen’s works have been translated into. Thus Nora or a Doll’s Home has enabled people to read Ibsen in the first place. Ibsen wrote in a less widely used language, so it is even more astonishing that he has become so widely known and appreciated. This is proof that the hard work of translators is indeed worthwhile. There may be minor mistakes or changes in meaning. For example the line, “Nora, Nora, you are such a woman!” was translated as “Nora, Nora, you’re so ignorant” in the Chinese version. Although a small change in words, this is a large change in meaning. Ibsen’s plays are now translated into 78 languages, and imagine what not only the Chinese, but us too, would have missed out on! It is certainly better to not fully understand small parts of a translated work, than not to read it all.

Translations may change certain aspects of a text, but they also stress others. This makes it possible to view a translation as a kind of interpretation in itself. I have found it quite interesting to read German translations of Shakespeare alongside my course reading. Sometimes a rewording will emphasize something I had barely noticed before and offers different perspectives on parts of the plays. You are certainly spoilt for choice when it comes to translations of the classics. When looking at different versions of Anna Karenina, I compared the first pages of several editions in both English and German. I eventually chose a somewhat old-fashioned translation to read. I am unsure how accurate it is, but found it to be the most appealing.

How far are we able to understand foreign texts at all? When I read British or American fiction, I am often unable to understand jokes, puns or irony. This is not because of the language used but my lack of background knowledge. Sometimes they only work for those from a certain cultural or social background. However, I believe that literature is a great way of learning about foreign cultures or times from an insider’s point of view. The market is already so dominated by English and American writing that more variety can only be for the better. We may get some details wrong, whether it is due to the translation, our lack of vocabulary or a lack of inside knowledge – but it’s worth giving a try. You may miss the next Ibsen if you don’t!

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