On Translated Literature

     If you read the last post here about the beautiful language collage, you might notice that many of the excerpts were from books translated from another language. Not as apparent in the 2017 collage, but I would estimate that more than half of the literature I’ve ever read was originally published in another language.

     This fact has recently been on my mind. Translated literature is generally encouraged quite a bit as a method for understanding the culture of societies outside the vacuum of the language understood by the reader. It provides new literary styles, and a conception of life in a different region; in foreign countries, translations are even more present, as non-English speakers do not experience the same degree of universal accommodation.

     In regards to the general story One can perfectly convey it through a translation. This is of course the most important part of any novel, but not by a large percentage. So much more goes into what makes a novel good (pacing, rhythm etc.), still these are generally well translated. However, in the case of language’s relative beauty, so much is determined by diction and phrasing—the aesthetics. This is what worries me: how can I claim the beauty of a selection as the expression of the original writer? Although some words have definite translation, the individual sound of any word has a less tangible impact in the it’s own pleasantness, syllable count and much more. In lots of Asian literature too, I imagine quite a bit is lost in the choice of different characters: the subtitles which will never be seen by those who use alphabet based languages. Even worse is the problem of interpretation, which became clear to me upon reading two different translations of The Death of Ivan Ilyich. An excerpt I thought well put and profound sounding was rendered drab and lifeless upon reading a different translation.

     The solution to this problem would be to consider the translator in the citation of any piece of writing with the comprehension of the significance of their contribution but it still leaves the reader with a feeling of not truly understanding the piece. Another solution is to provide translator’s notes in the text itself, but this can only do so much. Thus, maybe when reading foreign literature, it is best to consider situational beauty rather than the aesthetics of the language itself, yet this is a limiting approach.

     I don’t have an answer to this issue, it’s mostly just an opportunity to write about something. I think that from this point on I’ll start citing translators as well as the original author. If anyone here has thoughts on the matter, I’d love to hear them. Just drop me a comment on my neocities profile.