Maybe it’s because I’m bilingual, but I find that reading translated works is almost always less satisfying to me than reading things in their original language. I read Crime and Punishment during my last semester, and while I ended up loving it – which isn’t to say it didn’t drive me crazy – I also didn’t like it nearly as much as any of the other classics that I read that semester that had all be written originally in English.

Now I’ve started reading The Red and the Black, and I’m enjoying it immensely. The beginning was slow, though, and it took me some time to get into the flow of the writing style; once I did, I managed to begin to find the characters and the social dynamics to be fascinating.

And yet – there’s something missing there. I think, though I can’t be sure, that it’s the fact that I’m reading a translation from the French. I feel that there’s something inevitably lost in the translation process, and it’s something that is impossible to regain unless I learn to read French perfectly and read it in the original. Even then, I’ll have had to have lived in France long enough to understand the ins and outs of the idioms, the connotations of certain phrases and the way I’m supposed to feel about Napoleonic history.

I’m so glad that I’m bilingual and am able to enjoy reading books in two languages – English and Hebrew – and feel the incredible and fascinating difference between writing styles in each of them. However, I wonder whether I’d notice that hard-to-describe lack in the translated works I’m going to be reading this semester if I was monolingual.

Thoughts? Comments? Have any of you felt this or do you think I’m crazy?


3 thoughts on “Translation

  1. I’m amazed at how different translations of the same work can drastically change the intent of the author. I see this happening a lot with Guy de Maupassant as I’ve read multiple translations of his novels. They are the same in some respects, but when it comes to some of the more subtle uses of language, a poor translation can suck the life right out of a beautiful passage.

  2. Erin M says:

    Sadly I’m not truly bilingual, so I guess I can’t really comment authoritatively on this, but I’ve read Le Petit Prince (my favourite book ever!) in French and English, and I actually prefer it in English, probably because of my ease with English/lack of ease with French (although some of the phrases really do work better in French; they seem more profound and philosophical, if that makes any sense).

    I’ll have to go through and look at what books I’ve read in translation. I’m kind of curious now whether I liked any of them as much as books I read that were originally in English.

    I kind of do know what you mean, though; when I’ve read books in translation that I haven’t enjoyed, I’ve tended to give them the benefit of the doubt and blame their mediocrity on bad translations.


    Ok. So. Yes. I really enjoyed everything I’ve read (in translation) by Camus, the Lais of Marie de France, and The Phantom of the Opera (from French), a collection of short stories by Merce Rodoreda (from Catalan), everything I’ve read by Kafka (from German), most of Ibsen’s plays (from Norwegian), Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon poetry (from Old English), The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (translated from Persian and largely rewritten), and some Chekhov, parts of War and Peace and some other Tolstoy, The Master and Margarita, and some Dostoyevsky (from Russian). I’d rank all of them alongside many of my favourite books originally written in English.

    Of course, I can’t say how they compare to their original versions.

    There’s a strange tone that many translations seem to have, it’s sort of old-fashioned? (Maybe it’s because most of the translations I’ve read have been of old books? Or maybe it’s something to do with the nature of translating prose from one language to another?) The worst translations are clunky/boring/tedious/confusing, and the best you can hope for seems to be transparent prose. The writer’s unique style is probably lost in translation.

    Unfortunately, I’ll never know for sure. =[

    If you gave me cold passages by, say, Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Bulgakov, Chekhov, and Pasternak, I would not be able to tell you which was which.

    Then again, if you gave me passages I’d never seen (from books I knew nothing about) by a number of English writers, I might confuse them, too. (Not, like, Dickens, maybe, but.)

    (Sorry if my sentence structure in this post was completely horrible. I’ve spent the past fifteen hours editing someone’s poorly written essay, and (a) my brain is dead, and (b) I’m afraid the writing style was contagious. XD)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s