Plaza Voices: Found in Translation

Take a moment to think about your all-time-favorite, can't-do-without book... chances are fairly high that whatever book you came up with was originally written in a language other than English. While it is often debated exactly how much meaning is lost in translation, I know that I am grateful to be able to experience the works of authors like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy without knowing a word of Russian (other than "Niet"). And I am especially excited for the release of Haruki Murakami's latest book this August, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (which I am able to read without knowing any Japanese other than "Domo arigato").

According to a recent article in Entertainment Weekly, one hundred pages can take a translator one month of working full-time. While translators are rarely credited on the title page, and are usually are paid around $150 per 1,000 words, they play a crucial role in making books and films accessible to people all over the world.

One need only do a quick search online to see how quickly (and amusingly) translations can get muddled. The popular Girl With a Dragon Tattoo series (originally written in Swedish by author Stieg Larson) saw a few mistranslations as well, with only about 130 properly vetted pages. Translator Steven Murray said "there are things that don't match with the way Stieg wrote it. They're still gripping, but there are little details that I wish were different."

Obviously, reading and watching material in one's native tongue makes for a more comfortable experience, although we must remember that it's only a substitute for the original language. Meaning is often debated, even among speakers of the same language. Personally, I enjoy reading and watching films in Spanish to practice my vocabulary, as well as learn new words and gain some insight into the context in which they were written.

Here are a few translations (as well as originals) I currently recommend:

The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas (translated from French)
Zorro, Isabel Allende (translated from Spanish)
Autobiography of a Corpse, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (translated from Russian)
The Whispering Muse, Sjón (translated from Icelandic)
The Trial, Franz Kafka (translated from German)
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami (translated from Japanese)
Sandalwood Death, Mo Yan (translated from Chinese)
Meditation in Action, Chögyam Trungpa (translated from Tibetan)
La Casa En Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros (translated into Spanish)
Pan’s Labyrinth (Laberinto del Fauno), Guillermo del Toro (DVD) (in Spanish with English subtitles)
No, Pablo Larrain (DVD) (in Spanish with English subtitles)

What do you think--is meaning completely lost in translation, or does it offer a helpful tool for sharing experiences? What are some of your favorite translated works?

By Desiree S.

Written by Amanda R. on May 30, 2014


Laurie. on June 2, 2014


Great blog post! I had to think about this - there's been so many classics that I'd forgotten were translations like -The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The most recent translated work I've read is The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson. What do you think about translated works and graphic art? The pictures convey so much so the illustrator is maybe a translator too? I really like what Joann Sfar is doing - Little Vampire and Le Petit Prince.

Shout out to the Best in Translation Award co-sponsored by Three Percent and the University of Rochester.

Josh J on June 3, 2014


Yet another reason to learn a new language! I have always felt that books lose just a little of their oomph when they are translated, this is not to discredit the work of translators, I do know how hard they work.
I remember studying the works of Garcia Marquez in college and I know that the impact of the words would have diminished somewhat if I had read them in English.

Desiree S. on June 4, 2014


Thanks for your response, Laurie! It's interesting to see how an artist can give a completely new spin on an old classic -- I can only imagine that this goes double for works that were already translated in the first place. Graphic novels are also a good way for practicing a new language, since the visuals often help give contextual clues. I will have to check out Joann Sfar!

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