Lost in Translation

December 19, 2012 Classics 32

Hi there, Bookworms.

I’ve had some thoughts rattling around the old brain cage for a while now, so I’m going to attempt to write them down. Once upon a time I had a blog commenter give me a hard time for flippantly dismissing the work of Hakuri Murakami. I tried and failed to keep myself conscious through all of 1Q84 and gave up. I was offended and angered by the comment. I remember thinking to myself, “Oh yeah?! Well, talk to me when you’ve read his work in the original Japanese, Ms. Fancy Pants.” Really, it’s just that my ego had suffered a blow. The truth is I probably SHOULD give Murakami’s work another shot, because I’m sure he’s completely brilliant. It’s just kind of been soured for me by a random stranger on the internet. But it got me thinking. A lot of world renowned literature isn’t written in English.

I speak for myself in saying that I (shamefully) only think, speak, read, and dream in English. I’m all kinds of monolingual. And while I’m sure there are plenty of avid readers out there who speak more than one language, they certainly don’t speak ALL the languages (even in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxythe babel fish only worked for auditory things. And who can trust a fish in their ear anyway?!) The odds that you’ll find someone who can read Kafka in German, Hugo in French, Murakami in Japanese, Cervantes in Spanish, and Tolstoy in Russian are pretty slim.

I don’t think translators get enough credit, dagnabit. Seriously. You buy a copy of Les Miserables and you see VICTOR HUGO in big fat letters. Then in teeny tiny print you see “translation by…” Usually not even on the cover. Sure, the translator didn’t birth that puppy, but can you imagine how tough translating a great work would be? Not only is there incredible pressure to get it all right, but you’re not dealing with “see Spot run” sentence structure. It’s complex stuff! It’s flowery and full of adjectives (and parenthetical asides!)


The fact that this was made into a (completely brilliant) musical is more important to the book cover than the name of the French to English genius who translated. Sad trombone.

Can we all just take a few moments to shower some appreciation on the polyglots of the world? Can I get a slow clap going for literary translators? I’d miss out on so much if it weren’t for them. I’d like to present the literary translators of the world with this CERTIFICATE OF AWESOMENESS for being awesome and bringing me ALL THE WORDS. In English. Because I’m too ignorant to learn other languages.


Oh yes, I know “translators” is plural and “is” is singular. Cut me some slack, I SUCK at these things! A for effort, yes?

32 Responses to “Lost in Translation”

  1. Ashley F

    Translations are very different depending on the quality of the publisher. Penguin is usually pretty good. Some of the Russian author’s have HORRID translations.

    • Words for Worms

      I don’t even know whose translations I’m reading most of the time. Then again, I don’t read a lot of Russian translations, because Russian work makes me cold and depressed. Lots of snow there, in Russia.

  2. Shana London

    I agree!! I speak French, and it is STILL very difficult for me to read the language sometimes, because just like in English, there are so many plays on words, slang phrases, etc that just don’t translate the way we might want them to. I have great respect for people who are able to translate a work from one language to another and keep the integrity of the author’s original words intact. Love the certificate, btw!

  3. Leah

    Agreed! Translators definitely deserve more credit than they are usually given. Yay translators for enabling me to read many amazing books that I wouldn’t be able to understand in their natural language!

    (If you someday do decide you want to try Murakami again, I’d recommend Norwegian Wood. I (mostly) like his work, but I don’t think I have the brain energy to tackle IQ84. Norwegian Wood, however, is realistic (no weird supernatural stuff), fairly short, and really lovely. I’m supposed to be reviewing it right now, but I got sidetracked catching up on other people’s blogs! But I should have the review up today or tomorrow, if you’re interested.)

    • Words for Worms

      I have a hard time with magical realism. I’ve read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but it’s still not really my fave. I’ll try Norwegian Wood, a bite sized sample will do me good. If I hate it, I’ll write a blog about how dumb I am and anger the book trolls. It should be good fun.

  4. Quirky Chrissy

    Awesome job with the art! Love it! I hope that my future books are published in all languages. I will thank the translators in English, though…because 5 years of Spanish classes were not enough to teach me anything.

  5. Jen and Tonic

    You make an excellent point. The hardest part about translation is making sure the author’s vision is understood by people in another language. There are so many idioms or cultural references that don’t directly translate; additionally, there are words which exist in one culture which don’t exist in another.

    *slow clapping*

    • Words for Worms

      It makes me giggle to think of what a translator would make of my blog… Like, how does “douchebag” translate? Thank you for joining me in the slow clap, it feels more genuine if I’m not the only one clapping.

  6. liese0409

    Maybe, if we see a book as a baby, the author is the mom and the translator is like a dad. And I guess the dad is never as important as the mom, but he is also important and he deserves some attention. I am totally with you. I am german and I love the english language but otherwise it is very hard to read a whole book in english. so i am very glad that there is someone who does this for me.
    but still, if i would get paid, i would be a translator 😉

  7. didibooksenglish

    I say here here to god translators too. I speak French but I must admit because I do I find myself only wanting to read orignial French works in French, no shade to translators. English and French contain enough confusing slang and expressions to make good translating a serious job. However, there are excellent translators out there. Thank God! As for 1Q84, that huge hardback book which contains all three books has gone untouched on my bookshelf. To be continued on my opinion of it. Maybe I’ll get around to it in 2013. So how about learning French? You seem to be quite the Les Miserables fan? 😉

  8. Kelly

    I wish I was a literary translator so I could print that out and hang it on my wall. Seriously though, I completely agree. As I trudged through War and Peace, it occurred to me many times that it must have been MUCH harder to read this in the original Russian and figure out what the heck it meant in English. Oy.

    Also, don’t feel bad about Murakami. I DNF’d 1Q84 too. That book ruined half my summer.

    • Words for Worms

      LMAO! I’m glad I only gave 1Q84 two weeks! Certificate of Awesomeness is so going to be a thing. It must. IT MUST. I shall purvey them. What would YOU do for a certificate of awesomeness? I feel conditions are in order…

  9. Sarah Says Read

    Yes, hooray for translators! I do NOT envy their job of making big important literary works readable to people like me who can’t speak or read anything but English.

    BTW, I read Norweigan Wood by Murakami and it was TERRIBLE. So don’t feel bad about giving up 1Q84, maybe he’s just one of those super-popular authors that people love and you can’t figure out why.

  10. Darlene

    Hurrah for translators!! I’m pretty sure I would not have gotten through The Brothers Karamazov without them. (And I enjoyed it very much).

    If you want to learn an easy new language, I suggest reading Watership Down. It has an entire glossary of rabbit terms in the back that appear throughout the book. Even the word for poop.:)

  11. Darlene

    And I appreciate all these comments on IQ84. Think I’m gonna scratch it off my ‘To Be Read” list…..

  12. Megan M.

    That is a great point and one that I haven’t thought about much at all. There was a post within the last few months on Mystery Writing is Murder’s blog about a publishing company translating French books into English, and it sounded quite challenging. Language is so nuanced! I’m especially jealous of people who can create languages. I would LOVE to create my own language.

    I learned both French and Russian in my elementary school’s gifted program. I know a few words in French and enough to fake my way through pronouncing it. The only thing I remember from Russian is how to sing their version of Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes. Then I studied Spanish in high school. Like you, I can speak phrases but nothing that I would likely ever need to say.

    • Words for Worms

      You know what they taught us in my elementary school’s gifted program? How to make butter. No lie. Heavy cream. Shake shake shake. Where did you go to school?! I feel cheated!

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