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The art of translating literature

There’s no denying that the joy of reading is universal, and translation plays a key role in allowing us to enjoy literature from around the world. Readers owe translators a debt of gratitude, as they help us overcome the language barrier in order to access stories from every corner of the globe.

Some may wonder about the importance of translated fiction – can’t we just read books written in our native tongues? Well, to touch upon just a few benefits, reading translated literature helps to improve our worldview, as we learn about different countries and cultures from the comfort of our own homes. For those who haven’t yet had the opportunity to travel (especially over the past year of lockdowns and travel restrictions), reading literature from around the world is a great way to transport to a different country, learning about it through the eyes of a native. To do this, translation is the key.

Moreover, some readers won’t even need reasons to justify picking up a work of translation, as many do so already without realising.

To celebrate the art of translating literature and the host of benefits it can bring to readers, we’re going to handpick some recommendations, and explore exactly what it is that goes into translating a story. You might be surprised to find out which language some classic titles were originally written in!

Some recommendations

Aside from the Bible, which has been translated into over 700 languages, some of the most widely translated titles in history are children’s books. Some argue that translated literature is especially important for children, as reading stories from around the world introduces them to diversity and cultural representation.

Not to mention the fact that, without translation, the enjoyment of some of the best children’s stories would have been limited to speakers of its original language. Le Petit Prince is a perfect example. Originally written in French by Antoine de Saint Exupéry and published in 1943, Le Petit Prince has captured the hearts of multiple generations around the world, having been translated into over 300 languages.

Regarded as the most translated non-religious text in the world, Le Petit Prince does a remarkable job of highlighting how important translation is as, without it, millions of people would have missed out on one of the greatest children’s stories in history.

This list wouldn’t be complete without a mention of Andersen’s Fairy Tales. Fairy tales are some of the most popular stories in the world, having had an undeniable effect on global culture, teaching lessons and morals along the way. Andersen’s stories, like The Ugly Duckling and The Princess and the Pea, are recognised globally, thanks to the 160 languages they have been translated into.

As well as children’s stories, some of the most famous titles in the English-speaking world were originally written in another language, which some may forget, or not even be aware of. Dante’s Inferno and Homer’s The Odyssey can be found high up on any English Literature degree’s reading list, translated from Italian and Ancient Greek respectfully.

The Diary of a Young Girl, the world-famous story of Anne Frank and her family, which has been translated from Dutch into more than 70 languages, has provided us with an invaluable (and, of course, heartbreakingly personal) view of the Holocaust. Without translation, it’s possible that Anne Frank’s story may never have been told so widely.

Other famous titles for which we owe thanks to translation include Victor Hugo’s classic Les Misérables (from French into 25 languages), and Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (from Swedish into 38 languages). The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo is another popular title, with its 11 translations helping to fuel the recent trend of ‘Kondo-ing’ our homes.

What goes into translating a book?

It’s clear to see the importance of translation in the world of literature – without it, some of the most famous titles and our favourite stories wouldn’t have reached and touched the audiences they have. So, how is this actually achieved? What kind of work and skill goes into translating a full book into another language?

Literary translation is much more than a simple process of translating words from one language to another, with some describing the practice as an art form in and of itself.

To take a story and tell it in a completely new language requires more than just an in depth understanding of the two languages, but also a deep knowledge and cultural understanding of the story itself. In its very nature, literature is designed to make the reader feel something and, considering how it’s near-on impossible to translate a sentence directly from one language to another, the translator must take their interpretation of the story and its emotions and recreate this in the target language.

Ultimately, it’s all about recreating the atmosphere of the original novel, without translating it word for word. Finding the balance between loyalty to the original text, and an emotive, distinctive portrayal of the story is key in literary translation.

The translator will need to consider things like humour, irony, and idioms, all of which are hard to translate, as well as words that may not have a direct counterpart in the target language. Maintaining the essence of the story whilst taking these things into account will be one of the translator’s biggest challenges. As well as this, references to local customs and traditions, which may make perfect sense in the original, may need further detail and explanation in the translation in order to account for a lack of assumed knowledge in the new reader.

Literary translation has been described as a “curious craft”. Writer Emily Temple summed it up best when she said “you must capture the voice of an author writing in one language and bear it into another, yet leave faint trace that the transfer ever took place”.

Translation services

Clearly, translating a novel from one language to another is no mean feat, making the world of translated literature even more important and impressive. The process comes not without its challenges, but the benefits that as us readers are able to reap as a result make the work of translators more than worth it (hopefully!).

Improving our worldview and transporting ourselves to other countries from the comfort of our homes, as well as hearing the stories of people we otherwise wouldn’t ever encounter, are just a few reasons why translated literature is so incredible.

Of course, every translation project is different, and the process of translating literature will differ from the process of translating other documents, like websites and articles. While we may not be translating the Bible, we can transform your business presentation, flyers, voiceovers, or subtitles into over 80 different languages.

Why not get in touch with us today and find out how we can help you?

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