Beyond Books: Lost in Translation

I am afraid I am going to get all English Major on you guys today. I have to say that one of my favorite things about my current position as a Librarian are the research questions that I get to assist with every day. We often have a lot of trouble in the library when trying to find novels for bilingual patrons. Although there is a definite need in the library for novels that have been translated into different languages, due to budget constraints this rarely happens.This got me thinking about the value of literature, language and their working relationship. What resources are there for those who need things such as websites translated? As a research librarian, I clearly embarked on a journey to find answers to this question! I found many resources but was especially impressed by the translation software provided by Smartling. From what I can gather, based on the needs of the customer, Smartling uses human translation and the translation software platform so that the best quality and accuracy is provided. I am sure you all have experience using Google translate, and I am sure that you have found that sometimes their translation just doesn’t make sense. Smartling strives to preserve and carry over the original intent and purpose of the text, without losing anything in translation.

It is no question that much is lost in translation. Though we are provided with the gist of a story, it is not reaching to say that we miss the essence when missing out on reading in the original text. One of the greatest examples that I can think of is when looking back to my days working in a high school when my students would ask for “No Fear Shakespeare.” I have to be honest, this is a great resource as some really struggle with the language used in Shakespeare’s original works but the flow of the story is lost. We go from “For never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo,” to something like, “there was never a story sadder than of Juliet and Romeo.” It doesn’t flow as well as the first one, it doesn’t rhyme, and is far from lyrical. Imagine then, what we miss when we have actual translations of classical literature.

So my question to you is this, if your favorite piece of literature were to be translated into another language, what would be the most important aspect you would like to remain consistent between languages? How does the language of the piece bring the story to life? Or, do you think that we would have the same ideals and values if certain classic literature had remained only in its original language?
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6 thoughts on “Beyond Books: Lost in Translation

  1. You get all English major on my and I will get all language major on you ;D (In a good way)
    I absolutely think that things are lost in translation. Of course, translators do what they can to keep a story intact from one language to another but there are things that just don’t translate. There are several different things that vary from one language to another, from idioms to sentence structure to things like German where there’s a whole specific word for a phrase or feeling that might take a whole sentence for an English-speaker to describe. It does make a big difference! The general idea is there but it’s not quite the full story and each time a work is translated, you lose a little bit.
    With translation also comes interpretation as well. Some sentences or scenes may hold deeper meaning, but the translator may interpret it differently or add a different spin on that sentence just by choosing a different word. Do you keep the integrity of a passage or keep the meaning of it and then lose some fluidity? I think sacrifices have to be made sometimes when translating.
    I also fear that MUCH older works (like pre-printing press) lost a lot from the original story because I’m guessing that too much was simply written down in another language and then we lose the original. Once things get passed down so many times, so much has already been lost.
    I mean, I’m definitely glad that things are getting translated into other languages so everyone can enjoy them! But I also think it’s a very tricky thing to do and really preserve the original work in its entirety.
    Smartling sounds very interesting! I definitely like what it’s aiming for and I hope they are able to preserve the integrity of the original piece! Google translate is pretty terrible and interprets words and not sentences so it’s a quite literal translation that doesn’t always make sense.
    Really interesting topic! This was a great discussion! 🙂

    • I love when you get all language major on me!! Weren’t we just talking about these German phrases the other day?! I think the “interpretation” aspect that you spoke of is exactly true. There is so much that goes into certain parts of a story when even being narrated by the author – the inflection and so on that is used versus how we the reader interprets it! It is so tricky to interpret things correctly, as I am sure you know from your language courses. What a slippery slope…!

  2. This is brilliant and I love your question. My favorite pieces of literature are The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck and As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. The language here isn’t as lyrical and flowery as Shakespeare, obviously, but it is important for different reasons. There is a ton of symbolism all over the place in the Steinbeck and there is a dream-like, almost nonsensical quality to Faulker’s writing because it is very ‘stream of consciousness’ and thoughts along with narrative, if I remember correctly. I LOVE the way these two books show the state of some American families in the 1930’s: to me these books feel like heat and dust and economic hardship and desperation and even violence. The families in both of the books are on a journey in a vehicle, both of these books have an interesting sense of family, and both families do some crazy things both when they’re pushed and because they engage in some non-normal behaviors. What I think these authors excel at, my favorite parts of these books, what would be such a shame to lose: the way it is so easy to SEE these books in my head while I’m reading. Great, great imagery of this period of American history, I guess? And to me, that comes with the language the authors chose. We can’t go back to this time and experience the Depression Era, but we can visualize it through these books. Particularly with the Faulkner, this family and their experience would be different if the translation was altered even a little bit, and while the story would still be a good one, I’m not sure it would pack the same punch.

    I’m not sure that I answered your question, but I PROMISE it makes sense in my head and I feel super strongly about it. I love that you’ve shed some light on this because I’ve never really thought about this before.

    • Ohhh THE SYMBOLISM in Steinbeck!! That is all I remember…THAT DANG TORTOISE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD AND WHAT IT REPRESENTED!! I am sure that we miss out on so much with these novels being translated as symbolism just cannot come over the same way, it’s impossible when words are directly translated! I was just thinking about how this also changes when you hear the author read their own works (hello Gaiman) it is different than translation of course, but the inflections and so on? They’re so important!

  3. As someone who enjoys Shakespeare, I definitely loved getting to read most of his work in the original language. It’s difficult and, more often than not, it took some time for his true meaning to sink in for me – but I feel like having my mind work towards the understanding was important in adding to its overall effect on me as a reader, a consumer of his work. I do appreciate the fact that his work has been translated in many languages and ways, but I always feel like the original is the best one to read.

    • I never felt more intelligent than I did when I took my class on Chaucer and we were made to translate from the original text. It was SO HARD but you know what it was so much funnier than the translations!! I feel the same way about Shakespeare’s texts, there are so many jokes that come over that just aren’t funny when it is directly translated to the MEANING and not the INTENDED meaning, you know?

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