October 3, 2009

Lost in Translation by J.C. Montgomery of The Biblio Blogazine

I am out of the country at my sister's wedding in India with a quick stop in London on the way back! While I am gone some lovely bloggers have stopped by with guest posts! Woohoo!

This week I would like to welcome J.C. of The Biblio Blogazine. During BBAW I gave her a Confucius Says Award because she is a blogger who writes thought-provoking posts and who dares me to look deeper & use books to expand my brain, not just occupy it. Today she does it again. Thank you, J.C.!

Lost In Translation by J.C. Montgomery

You probably read that and thought of the movie?

Or maybe that old saying, which in many ways is true.

When translating from one language to another, things do get lost along the way. English is my native language, but I’ve always been fascinated by communication – literally. Hence, why I’ve studied French and Spanish; and have dabbled with German and Italian.

One thing was abundantly clear through every experience. There is something lacking. Something was indeed lost in translation. This is not a mechanical issue as much as it is a cultural one. Many subtleties and meanings are missed if the person translating does not completely understand how to convey an idea and thinks too technically about the result.

You may be wondering why I bring this up. What does have to do with literature, literacy, and reading?

Modernity has opened the doors to many things; culture benefiting the most. Through art and literature, we are truly a global society. But those cultures need a way to travel so they can be studied, understood, and appreciated.

For those of us who love to read, we do this through the art of storytelling, whether it is fiction or non-fiction.

And since there is no global language, it is imperative we have those within our society who are able, help us comprehend those cultures and all that they have to offer, including (and especially) their nuances.

Do you read translations? If not, why?

Ask yourself if the story really wasn’t that good. Or maybe you were judging the text against your own cultural definitions. There are some bad translations, but the excellent ones far outnumber them.

For myself, I prefer the translations of Latin writers such as Laura Esquivel, Carlo Ruiz Zafon, Isabel Allende, and Jose Saramago. However, I will be making an effort to read more Asian authors such as Gao Xingjian and Haruki Murakami.

Another reason I’m writing this essay in order to draw your attention to translated works, is because of Martin Riker’s Notes Regarding the Editing of Translated Literature. Here I learned about the challenges facing translating, editing, and publishing translated works.

To quote:

Making the best book possible, a book that evokes the spirit and particular energy of the original, has to take precedence over making a book faithful (literal, word for word) to the original.

Translators sometimes worry that steering from a literal word for word translation will “corrupt” the original text. The fact is that a work in translation has already been corrupted by the act of translation itself. The new work, the translated work, is always already an interpretation of the original—unavoidably so.

This is exactly the concern I had about reading these types of novels – at first. But not long into one of my first read, I discovered I was missing out on quite a bit. These novels that open our eyes to new ideas, concepts, and culture are a treasure all of us should learn to cherish.

If you don’t read translations, or have never considered it, please, do yourself a favor and try one.

Here are some recommendations to get you started:

Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende
Blindness by Jose Saramago

For the more ambitious of you who like modern literature, Kafka On The Shore by Haruki Murakami may be just for you.

Do you dare to take the plunge?

I hope you do. Our world is immense and diverse. And closer at hand than you think.


Thanks so much, J.C.! I have taken the plunge and I will testify that it is not just a fascination with cultures that attracts me to these books, but also a love of reading a good story, and a love of learning. I have studied French and Spanish, speak basic Spanish, and I want to learn some Hindi as well (which I imagine I am doing right now as you are reading this!) I can read in French better than I can speak it. If you are not familiar with my Take Me Away Saturday posts, please visit for recommendations in genres from fiction to poetry to cooking that take you and transplant you into another culture. Some of my favorite translated books include Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. Both of these authors other books are on my TBR list. Thanks again, J.C. for a wonderful topic and for guest authoring on my blog!

Come back tomorrow for another fab guest post! See you soon!


  1. When I read The Reader, I remember being annoyed because the translator didn't tell me if the main character used the formal "you" when addressing the older woman/love interest or the informal.

    In a perfect world, we could all learn bunches of different languages in order to read books in the original; but sadly, we can't.

  2. I've always been fascinated by languages, too. I studied French for years and took classes in Italian and German as well. In my off-time, I studied a bit of Spanish, Welsh, and Russian, and now I want to learn Arabic. Sadly, I have few ways to practice any of this. :(

    I do think a lot is missed in translations. I find Russian literature very frustrating because of that. I keep trying to read it, but it never gets any better. Except Nabokov books, and that's because he does his own translations.

    Anyway, I could go on, but I'll stop now.

  3. I am somewhat anti-translations and avoid it as much as I can (hence my reading mostly books in English in the last years). This is mostly because I think there aren't that many really good translators out there (and I happen to have seem pretty bad translations at one time or another).

    As a somewhat funny tidbit, when I read War and Peace I read it half in Romanian (my native language) and half in English. The Romanian version has about twice if not thrice as many lines in French as the one in English had (I'm guessing that whoever did the English translation got bored with so much French and cut some of it out). Also, in the English version there was a character with a lisp (but in the Romanian version he talked just fine), and to this day I am left wondering which approach matched the original Russian one.

  4. Translations are indeed tricky. I have completely stopped reading certain English books in Portuguese, because quite frankly all the mistakes drove me crazy. I read a lot of children's books and fantasy, and I think that sadly, because those books aren't taken seriously, translation agencies here have their least experienced translators do the job.

    But of course, I have no choice but to read a translation when the book is written in a language I don't speak. I have no idea how they compare to the original, of course, but I never feel that anything is lacking when I read Murakami. Anyway...I love reading world literature and being exposed to different cultures, and without translators I'd never be able to. I'm grateful they exist and do what they do.

  5. I will be reading Shadow of the Wind sometime in the future. Thanks for a very thought provoking post!

  6. I recently read Shadow of the Wind and enjoyed it greatly. I'm am slowly branching out and reading more translations. Thank you for the wonderful post.

  7. I'll repost my comment from her page:

    translations are tough to read for some people, but I think that begins with the translation itself. Whether the translator understands the nuances of the language and whether they have access to the original author to ensure that the translation accurately conveys the message the artists expects. I recently attended a translations reading in which both the poet and translator were present…and the poet insisted on changing some of the translated lines, that although accurate, did not convey the proper message in English. It’s fascinating.


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