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Books--Are translations enough?

So, the basic question is--do translation processes change the essence of books?

My favorite books are Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, No Longer Human  by Osamu Dazai, and The Kite Runner by by Khaled Hosseini  (*cough and Harry Potter *cough). I also love love love Kobo Abe's works.

Although I read the Abe, Dazai and Hosseini in their original languages (Japanese and English), unfortunately, I don't understand Russian (for Anna Karenina). I've read it a couple of times in English. Although I do realize that I wouldn't fully understand culture without the language and vice versa, I would like to believe that I'm not missing out on too much of Tolstoy's masterpiece.

I do think that it is always best to read the original if you can, but that's not always possible.


So, what's your take on it?

To everyone: Do you think that you understand or "get" the essence of a book even if you don't speak the language? Are good translations enough? (I'm aware that there are different qualities)


To the wonderful people of Russia: Have you read English translations of Anna Karenina before? Do they miss a lot of things?


To those who just can't answer generalized questions: What are your favorite translated books, and were you satisfied with them? Did they make you want to study the original language so you can read the original one day? 


Hoping to get some insight and book recommendations :) 

Mar 22, 2018 4:54 PM
Comments · 43
@Dragana

"because I was able to compare it while reading some books in both languages. Sometimes I am reading it simultaneously in two languages and I am satisfy with the result. I was thinking mostly on languages that are familiar to us (European languages, including North and South American)." 

Oh, sure, if you know the language of the original. I do that sort of thing myself from time to time: I compare the original text (usually in French or Russian) and a translation (usually into English). And I've found the quality of translations to be highly variable. Some translations capture the author's style very well. Other... not. But how could I possibly judge a translation of a book originally written in (say) Spanish or Czech when I don't speak those languages? At best, I could tell whether or not I liked the style (but I'd have no idea if it accurately captured the style of the original), or I could rely on authority (there is something to be said for that, but I guess I prefer checking things by myself). And on the whole, I simply prefer sticking to the originals! (The downside of that is that I hardly ever read books originally written in languages that I don't speak/read.) 
March 25, 2018
@Dragana

Why do you have to be so aggressive? Geez. 

Anyway, the point is that I've seen quite a few bland (and in some cases, downright terrible) translations in my life. And nobody said you "shouldn't" read translations. I merely said that I, me, myself would rather read originals. Time is limited after all, and there are only so many books I can read. Besides, for me, the main purpose of learning languages is to be able to read literature written in that language in the original. 
March 25, 2018
@Dragana 

How do you know if a translation is good or not if you're not able to compare it to the original? Certainly, you can tell whether or not you enjoyed the translation, but how do you know how much got lost (or added!) in translation? 
March 24, 2018

Translations are never good enough. There is no way to translate the exact nuances of foreign words  while keeping the author's chosen style of language musicality and psychology.

Sometimes, translators modify the vocabulary and every other choice the author has made. The results can benefit or damage the book. I've read books I thought they were bad, but when I reread them in the original, I discovered a wonderful, totally different book. The opposite is also true.

Some languages don't mesh well, though. Their translations sound weirdly unnatural in other languages. Sometimes, I can guess the original language of a book translated into a third language by the awkward turns of phrases and the monotonous, oversimplified rhythm. Just like a dubbed TV series, where you hear the voices but the actors' lips are not following.

A talented translator, however, will be able to keep the "essence" of the author's structure, rhythm and style, without resorting to literal translations or nonsensical sentences in the target language. The reader will enjoy a nice book and be able to think about the book's message and structure and to appreciate the work of art.

That's a gain, compared to no access to foreign literature.




March 22, 2018
@Jun 

About Anna Karenina: Tolstoy's Russian is very much textbook Russian. (Fun fact: the first Russian novel that I read in the original was War and Peace. I chose it because the language was quite accessible, and so even though my Russian was only intermediate or so at that point, armed with patience and a dictionary, I managed to make my way through that book.) Anyway, my point is that Tolstoy is a fairly easy author to translate, and assuming the translator is competent, not much will be lost in translation. Someone like Dostoyevsky is much harder to translate (and also much harder to read in the original). 

Poetry is a whole different matter. It's incredibly hard to preserve both the style and meaning of a poem in translation, especially if the language of the original differs significantly from the language of the translation. (That's especially true if there's rhyme and metric involved. Some poems sound more or less like prose, and those are presumably easier to translate.) So, it's a matter of what you're after. If you want a poem that sounds good in translation, then you'll almost certainly have to settle for a relatively significant loss of meaning. And if you want to know what the exact meaning of the original was, then you're unlikely to get something that sounds good. 
March 28, 2018
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Jun
Language Skills
English, Japanese, Spanish
Learning Language
Spanish