Lost in Translation

Literal or liberal?

Now that we’re all reading so many books from other countries, translation is becoming more and more important. I’ve noticed that I’m often commenting in my reviews ‘translation good but perhaps too literal on occasion’ and I began to wonder where the line is between a literal and a liberal translation.

the 7th womanWhat triggered this post was a two-word line in The 7th Woman. (First off, I must say the translation of this book is very good and my choice to use this as an example of what I mean should not be seen as a criticism.) The line in English is given as ‘Explain yourself’. The context is that the police chief is asking a technical expert to expand on the information he has just given.

Now, it’s probably a cultural thing, but here when someone says ‘Explain yourself’ it is usually meant as a form of rebuke – the kind of thing a parent or teacher would say to a child. ‘You stayed out beyond 10 p.m? Explain yourself!’ ‘You truanted from school? Explain yourself!’ The use of it in the context in the book therefore didn’t feel ‘right’ to me – it may have been literally correct but it was jarring. I felt it should have read something like ‘Could you clarify that?’ or ‘Could you explain that?’ or even ‘What does that mean?’.

bad bloodIn Arne Dahl’s Bad Blood, there is a sequence, obviously meant to be funny, when one of the big, macho male detectives is using a branded umbrella. Unfortunately the brand name meant nothing to me, and so the joke didn’t travel. I assume the brolly was pink or had pictures of teddies on it or something along those lines, but I really felt this was an occasion when the translator could have gone beyond a literal translation to give us a clue as to why this was funny. (Again, don’t be put off – the translation of this book is also good overall.)

Red and the BlackThe first time I really thought about the importance of translation was when I read Stendhal’s The Red and the Black. I was reading it in response to a recommendation from a fellow reviewer who had read the Shaw translation. I started out with Moncrieff, quickly found it unreadable, and changed to Raffel. We were comparing translations and it was astounding how differently three people could translate the same sentence. Here’s the French version –

“Ce sont de jeune filles fraîches et jolie qui présentent aux coups de ces marteaux enormes les petits morceaux de fer qui sont rapidement transformés en clous. Ce travail, si rude en apparence, est un de ceux qui étonnent le plus le voyageur qui pénètre pour la première fois dans les montagnes qui séparent la France de l’Helvétie.”

Moncrieff translates it as

“A bevy of fresh, pretty girls subject to the blows of these enormous hammers, the little scraps of iron which are rapidly transformed into nails. This work, so rough to the outside eye, is one of the industries that most astonish the traveller who ventures for the first time among the mountains that divide France from Switzerland.”

while Raffel says

“And it’s pretty, smooth-cheeked young girls who offer pieces of iron to these enormous hammers, which quickly transform them into nails. This operation visibly harsh and violent, is one of the things that most astonishes a first-time traveller, poking his way into the mountains separating France and Switzerland.”

and Shaw gives us

“But what most amazes any traveller making his way into the heart of the mountains dividing France from Switzerland is to find that the very rough task of placing the little bits of iron beneath these hammers is handled by pretty, fresh, rosy-cheeked young women.”

And, just for fun, Babylon’s online instant translation gives us

“They are of girls fresh and pretty who present to the blows of these enormous hammers the small pieces of iron which are quickly transformed into nails. This work, if hard seemingly, is one of those which astonish more the traveller who penetrates for the first time in the mountains which separate France from Helvetie.”

Having once become aware of how huge the differences can be, I now often wonder whether my pleasure or dislike of a book is down to the writing or the translation. And, while with the classics there’s usually a choice of translations on offer, modern novels generally only have one.


So what do you think? Should translation always be literal or is there an argument for it to be liberal? If French to English is this open to interpretation, how can we know how much is down to the translator if reading a novel originally in Chinese or Arabic? What do you consider makes a translation good or bad?

37 thoughts on “Lost in Translation

    • Thank you! Yes, I’ve never come across a translation from Russian that really flowed well and made me forget I was reading a translation – though I haven’t read many. Louise Maude did make both Resurrection and War and Peace readable for me though.


  1. Lots to think about here, great post! I think a good translation has to have some room to be a bit liberal, especially where some things just can’t be translated literally… but it needs to try to capture the spirit and tone of the original. It’s hard!


    • Thanks, Monika! I think you’re spot on, both about keeping the tone and about it being hard. I agree sometimes a bit of liberality is needed, especially where cultural differences make the meaning obscure.


  2. ‘Madame Bovary’ was ruined for me by a literal translation into American. Everyone else was in raptures about the beauty of the language and I simply couldn’t see what they were talking about. The dilemma when there is only going to be one English edition is often whether to translate into British English or American English and this can lead to more problems than one might immediately expect. There was the wonderful instance in ‘Sophie’s World’ where two characters go out into the garden and for no apparent reason get into a glider and go flying up into the air. That puzzled me for years until I happened to be talking to a translator who worked for the same publisher and discovered that ‘a glider’ in American is what we in Britain would call a garden swing!


    • HahaHA! Great example!

      Yes, the American English translation can annoy me sometimes though I understand why publishers do it, given the relative size of the market. I think my favourite American horror came in Villain, translated from the Japanese – a suspect, when recounting a meeting with the father of the victim, says ‘Y’all killed mah daughter! The guy said and tried to grab me.’ Eeek! I got an instant vision of John Wayne, spurs and all, playing a Japanese teenager…


  3. Two of my favouite horrors are “ou tof sight, out of mind” translated into German as “blind lunatic”, and the most widely used Polish translation of Shakespeare’s plays which renders “a rose by any other name smells as sweet” as ” crimsons for me as enchantingly” – apparently, the tanslator thought that “smells” wasn’t a romantic word. And don’t get me started on technical translations……..


    • Haha! I remember while sitting my Russian prelims (a language of which the entire class had mastered maybe 10 words between us), our desperate teacher resorted to miming the bit we were supposed to be translating. Sadly, his acting skills were a bit limited with the result that the sweet little hopping bunny rabbit of the original turned into a monstrously mutated Lovecraft-ian goldfish in most of our papers! It’s true – cheats never prosper! 😉


      • Reminds me of my German Higher – i was trying to write an essay on being lost in the fog but I translated “fog” as der Mist throughout – so i wrote an impassioned piece about being lost in dung – das Nebel is fog! I still passed though.


  4. Oh, this is one of my favorite topics. One of my friends, a poet, says that he doesn’t translate words, he translates poetry. A translator is responsible for evoking the meaning or spirit of the text not for translating each word literally. I think that’s why there are awards for translations. Each one is its own work of art. I have a post about translation you may (or may not) find entertaining. :o)


    • I must admit the very thought of translating poetry makes me shudder. When not just the words but the rhythm are important, how can you possibly get the original intent over? Mind you, quite often I don’t understand poetry even when it’s written in English…;)

      But it’s the same in literary fiction – one of the phrases I frequently find myself using is ‘poetically written’. What happens to that poetry when the book is translated to a language with a different sentence structure? I rarely find a translation ‘poetically written’ – in fact I can’t think of an example. Is that unfair to the Stendhals, the Tolstoys etc? Maybe the originals aren’t just thought-provoking but beautiful. Hm!

      I’m just on my way over to check out your post…


      • Translation opens so many cans of worms, doesn’t it? It’s daunting. I think that only someone who reads both languages can say whether a translation is “true to the original.” I’m thinking about Jim Crace’s work right now. He is such a lyrical writer with a very measured cadence or rhythm to his work. I’m wondering what it would be like translated.


        • He’s a great example. I’ve only read one of his books – Harvest – but I see exactly what you mean. His use of language is almost trance-inducing.

          I’m reading Laidlaw at the moment which is full of Glaswegian dialect and was trying to imagine how any translator could make that travel – it’s not just the words, it’s the culture that they convey. There’s a great phrase we use here ‘Aye, so I will’ which means basically ‘No, I won’t!’ or ‘Not a chance of that happening’ only ruder, really. A literal translation is never going to get across what that phrase really means or the tone of voice it’s said in.


          • I love “Aye, so I will.” I’ll have to use it sometime and see how it goes over. :o)

            I’m thinking that there are just some idioms or cultural practices that just can’t be put through the shredder of another language or culture. Unless, of course, you do want ridiculous results.


            • You need to get the body language right too, then. Head tilted to one side, eyebrows raised as high as they can go, eyes wide, sarcastic expression showing that you’re pretty sure the other person thinks you’re stupid, when in fact you KNOW s/he is…then nod slowly as you say it ‘Aye, so I will!’ If you want to lighten the moment you can add ‘D’ye think ma heid buttons up the back?’

              I wonder what Babylon would make of that?


  5. Babylon’s translation is definitely the best! haha

    Translations should always be liberal. It’s not the first time, specially with classic books or those that have been translated more than 30 years ago. that I have to change editions because it’s painful to read them. Too much literal nonsense. However, I recently realized translations have improved a lot, at least in Spain, although, I will always prefer to read the original version. There’s always going to be something missing in the translation, no matter how good is it.


  6. It’s something that’s in my mind as well when reading in translation, but I’ve slowly learned to accept it as a necessarily flawed process. As for your examples, I think (IMHO) that Moncrieff does a great job of translating literally, but your response is proof that literalism tends to kill the flow of the prose. The Shaw translation, on the other hand, inverts the grammar and structure of just about everything, yet it best captures the spirit behind it all. You also make a great point about cultural idioms. A great translator will be able to find an equivalent that works in the target language – no easy feat by any means. The worst part of it all is that you really have no idea how good a translation is if you can’t read the original language. It’s a matter of trust. In the end, I would much prefer a liberal translation that focuses on the spirit of the text. At least I can then enjoy the work in translation, even if it might not be spot on. Great post, by the way.


    • Thank you! Yes, I think the Shaw sounds the best, though it’s by far the least literal. That translation wasn’t available for Kindle at the time, which is why I tried the others. Funnily enough, the reviewer who read the Shaw enjoyed the book considerably more than I did, even though I felt the Raffel translation was good. If I ever find the strength, I may read the Shaw sometime and see whether it changes my opinion of the book. But then that still leaves the question…how much is Stendhal and how much is the translator?


      • I am very much on the side of liberal translation – my favourite example is William Ernest Henley’s version of Villon’s “Tout aux taverns et aux filles” where he uses English thieves argot – this is certainly not a literal rendering, but it gives the feeling of the French much better than, say, the Rosetti,
        Henley’s version is called ” Villon’s Straight Tip to All Cross Coves ” – I recommend it.


  7. The translator seems to be as Important to the readability of a book as the narrator is to success of an audiobook. Some times the translated book could be better written than the original, but I can’t tell.


    • I think that’s a very good comparison. A narrator can make or break a book, and a good one can really add something. Quite often I’ll listen to a book I already know well, just to hear what the narrator does with it.


  8. Hello, FF. I’ll throw this into the mix of this intriguing string, from one of my favorite writers and a volume I highly recommend:

    “The poetry of prose, no less than verse, stands to lose badly when it is filleted from one language and fed into another. For a novel or a short story even in its original state is already a translation. The version it presents of reality is as far from actual reality as our dreams are from the events of our lives out of which they propagate their lovely or malignant blossoms. In our lazy way we tend to imagine that a piece of fiction is a direct statement of a set of facts or factual images when in fact — in fact! — fiction is a kind of dream-metaphor, a moulded and mannered traducing of ‘what really happened’. . . . When we consider it all carefully, we realise that there can be no such thing as a translation. What a translator produces is a new thing, and when he finishes, there are two works where before there was one.” — John Banville, Preface to Best European Fiction 2013



  9. Interesting quote, Matt, and I think I agree with it, especially when it comes to classic or ‘literary’ fiction. The language is so important then that it’s hard to see how even the best translation could really be like reading the original. Less important, I think, when it comes to non-literary stuff, like crime, where the plotting and characterisation probably takes precedence over the language and style. Though even there a liberal translation could, I’m sure, make a book seem either better or worse than the original, while a literal translation often makes it a bit clunky.


  10. I dare say, Holmes: Could it be you’ve hit on the very definition of literary fiction? Or even if not the definition, surely an exemplary test of the one from the other.


    • Haha! I wish I could define ‘literary’ ‘contemporary’ ‘classic’, even ‘crime’ and ‘thriller’! You have no concept of how long I agonise before tagging reviews – so many books end up in at least 2 categories – sometimes 4. And let’s not even start on the crossovers between ‘noir’ and ‘hard-boiled’…


  11. Looking at those passages from the three translation of Stendhal, the differences are very striking! The Raffel certainly seems more sprightly that the Moncrieff. Thanks for alerting me to this – very interesting indeed.


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