Little reviews on little (and big!) books

Thinking about Translation

on February 23, 2015

I recently came across Smartling, a company which translates website content and it got me to thinking about the importance of translation. Without it, we may never have been introduced to great works of literature that were not written in English. I’ve written a couple of pieces on the French novelist, Émile Zola, and it’s on him I’d like to concentrate.

Without being overly gushy and dramatic, I couldn’t now imagine not reading or in fact being unable to read his books! 🙂 They are some of the grittiest pieces of fiction I have ever read – if I feel that way about them in the 21st century, I can’t imagine how the Victorians must have reacted! But when I think about it, how lucky are we that we even notice his novels in the first place? Primarily written in French, there could always have been the possibility that his works remained untranslated. Luckily, this wasn’t the case, and his works have been published in several languages all over the world.

His style of writing and language are also important. He addresses political and social issue that many would have been too scared to write about (as see in my reviews on L’Assommoir and Therese Raquin. The dirt and grime of which he writes not only transcends well over 100 years, but transcends a language barrier as well. This is what I regard as the most impressive – Zola’s works lose not an ounce of shock factor by simply being written in English. His tales of adultery, murder, alcoholism, and the rest are not made any less dramatic by changing the tongue in which they were written. The value of this is tremendous – it means that we get to read these amazing stories the way they were meant to be read! 🙂 To translate a work, it is vital that the true meaning of the novel (and the shocks!) are 100% preserved. Granted this can be difficult when, for example, language grammar can be drastically different. This is not to say that there have not been translations of novels where they miss out major parts – I just haven’t come across any!

Ideally, novels such as Therese Raquin need to maintain the feeling of psychological analysis and essentially the claustrophobic aspect of the world closing in around the murderers, and I really picked up on that concept. To me, this is where the ability to translate adequately and accurately plays the biggest role. Without an accurate translation, we could miss vital ideas or points, and in literature, this is simply something that we can’t have. Imagine trying to read a story where we couldn’t really get a definite idea of a character, simply because important details had been consistently left out.

We take a good translation of a book for granted – we need it to actually make sense of things. Literature loses all value without meaning. Next time you read a translated work, just remember how important it is that that translator does a good job; think about how much you enjoyed a book, and then it being able to be shared the world over. That is the real joy and value of literature 🙂


3 responses to “Thinking about Translation

  1. alexraphael says:

    Reading 100 Years of Solitude is one of my reading highlights.

  2. bookarino says:

    Such an elegant and important post!
    The impact of translation – especially literary translation – is quite uncredited, but the truth is that a good translation has the ability to bring new concepts to the culture it is translated into. For example, in Italy the crime detective genre did not exist until they started translating American novels into Italian! I couldn’t imagine my childhood without all the translated books that I devoured, such as The Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
    “To me, this is where the ability to translate adequately and accurately plays the biggest role. Without an accurate translation, we could miss vital ideas or points, and in literature, this is simply something that we can’t have.” The question of accurate translations and loyalty to the original is a big one. The truth is that in every translation, be it literary or technical, something is lost. It can be small things, such as phrases that don’t make sense in the other culture, or larger things, such as the rhythm or sound of the original. The translator along with the editor have to decide what must be transmitted and then work that into the translation. This is also why there can be several different translations of the same text. In the case of Zola, the psychological elements must have been ones that the translator found vital to the text and I’m glad to hear that you found the translation to be good. Do you know who was the translator?

    • emma says:

      Thank you very much! I completely agree – naturally we will always lose some aspect of the original novel simply because phrases just don’t translate over. The only hope we have is that the translator does his/her best to make sure that we can still follow the story when these phrases or nuances have been omitted. This particular translator was Robin Buss I believe – his work on this novel has mixed reviews on Amazon but I thoroughly enjoyed it!

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