From Language to Language | What Changes?

language The idea of fiction being translated from language to language in fiction has always interested with me.

How different can words be in another language?

Does the core meaning of the work, change, shift, be altered differently? The English language is probably one of the most complex. Change something — even if it’s something small — can change the entire meaning of a sentence. A paragraph. A whole book, even. Take a Thesaurus for example. Type in the word “Story” into There are fifty-one synonyms for that word. Fifty-one! Think about it. That’s an incredible amount of words that could, potentially, mean the exact same thing. translated-fiction-1

But wait a second.

Do they all mean they’re the same thing? No. No, they don’t. Let’s take a couple of words that popped up in my Thesaurus search. Does “history” mean the same thing as a “story”, or does “biography” mean the same thing as “story”? They don’t. Not really. They can all be connected to each other in a way — because history can be a story and so can a biography, but essentially, they don’t mean the same thing. Not for the way a writer intends their work. Imagine how much a sentence could change if you swapped “story” for “biography”?

Now you’re wondering, aren’t you, how some of your favourite translation fiction is different from the actual source material.

Of course, it is not always possible to translate something directly from one language to another. Some words simply might not exist in one language, so you have to compromise. There are plenty of translating options out there. Google Translate. Smartling. And a plethora of other translating websites out there that might, or might not accurately translate something. While it goes without saying that a published work of fiction goes through rigours amounts of translating by actual people, how accurately is it for a novel to be translated? Is anything lost in these translations? Ideally you want the core messages, stories, and characters to come across in the manner that was intend by the author.

So . . . what books, fictional books, have been translated into English?

(Confession: I totally had to Google this one. Had NO IDEA that some of these were originally not written in English!) As it turns out — LOTS of them. translated-fiction-2

Which ones of these delicious-looking translated books have you read? (Me? None. But I’ve had my eye on Kerstin Gier for some time now, especially with her recent release of Dream a Little Dream.) Do you ever think about what gets changed during translations? Oh, oh, and what translated fiction books have you come across? Let me know!

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39 thoughts on “From Language to Language | What Changes?

  1. LURVE this discusion post girl! And you know I have to ask, do you speak a second language? You’re spot on in all of this. :) I speak Spanish as well and have come across plenty of books that aren’t translated word for word because as you said, they don’t exist in the other language. I read Harry Potter, the English versions and the Spanish versions, and the translations are completely different. (For the most part)
    Awesome discussion lovely. :)

    • Thank you! Nope, I don’t speak a second language at all. (Unless you’re counting the one year I took Italian… and completed sucked at it. ;) ) Wow — that is so interesting to hear that about Harry Potter. Of course it must be different, it has to be, but I do have to wonder how if/how it would change the characters and plot much.

  2. I’ve never really given much thought to translations in fiction because I can only read English fluently(although I’m working towards French). It never actually occurred to me that some of my favorite books might’ve been translated from a different language. It also makes sense that some things would be lost in translation because words mean different things, and English borrows words from so many languages that it’ll be especially awkward sometimes. That’s why everyone should learn English! Jk, jk….

    • You’re right about that! English sometimes feels like a mesh of different languages shoved together, and it’s surprising to know how many of our words have been derived from something such as Latin or Greek. Good luck with your French. ^_^

  3. It is interesting that you brought this up.
    I took a class when I was in college called Translation Studies. We read a bunch of works in translation and then had to do some translations ourselves. The most interesting was when we took Kafka’s Metamorphosis (originally in German) and we each had to translate it into English using a bilingual dictionary. I was the only one in the class who had an understanding of German (rather basic) so it was quite a challenge. The end results were all different. It was pretty cool.
    I think the first book I read in translation that I knew as a translation was The Prophecy of the Stones by Flavia Bujor originally written in French.

  4. I’m reading The Prince in English right now, and it’s INCREDIBLE how the translations differ so much. And one of the most important words, “virtu,” doesn’t mean what we think of as “virtue” – it actually means cunning, prowess, stuff like that. SO WEIRD.

  5. i actually study languages so this quite an interesting topic for me. I’d love to read all the books in the original language they were written in…for example the Russian classics but i dont know Russian. We often discuss this with our translation teacher. Some things will definitely change in the translated work but that doesnt mean the book will lose its value.

  6. This is a really interesting discussion Kara. :) Like you said, there’s so many words that mean nearly the same thing which can get fumbled during translation and nobody would be able to tell. *shrugs* I don’t think much gets changed during translation – just words being changed into their synonyms, but the story as a whole stays the same. And Les Miserables freakishly long, but totally worth it. (Although I might be biased since I’m a theatre kid). ;) Thanks for sharing Kara and, as always, fabulous post! <3

  7. I’ve read a few translated to English books, but from what I remember, I think the authors have translated them into English themselves, but that would only work if they were fluent in both languages. The only one I’ve read that didn’t come off too well was Winter Song by Jean-Claude Mourlevat, I’m not sure whether that was just a terrible book, or it didn’t translate well. I would love to be able to read in a second language, but I’m barely mastering English as it is. I think the same also applies to foreign films, I love those, but my goodness the subtitles! I’m sure half of what they’re saying isn’t translating correctly. Awesome topic Kara, really unique <3

    • Ooh, that’s interesting! If the author has translated something themselves then it’s more likely to stay closer to what they intended, right? Oh gosh. Subtitles. I don’t think I’d ever watch a foreign film (unless it was VERY critically acclaimed or something.) not sure I have the patience to read subtitles. ;)

  8. Inkheart is pretty great! I really like Cornelia Funke’s other books as well- The Thief Lord, and Dragon Rider. And Ruby Red is good too- I think the first book is a little weaker, but books two and three are fabulous!

    I actually sometimes read a book in two languages if I have a copy of the translated and the original (and it’s a language I know), and I have to admit, sometimes the nuances of the text doesn’t quite get across in the way you’d like it to. And some things just sound nicer in particular languages. I wish I could read every language, because I feel like the original texts would always be the most faithful to what the author wants to get across- but alas, that’s a little bit impossible haha :)

  9. I’ve read a fair few translated books and haven’t noticed them missing pieces yet. But maybe I’m not reading carefully enough. xD I LOVED Inkheart and I also read The Shamer’s Daughter series by Lene Kaaberbol which is translated for Danish? Or German? Or…Dutch? ERM. Something. Anyway, both of those authors did the translating themselves, sooo I guess that is an incredibly good thing since they were were perfect. I just got an audio of Ruby Red from the library! I had NO idea it was translated!!

  10. I read Inkheart earlier this year, and there was a stilted dryness to the writing that I wasn’t sure if I should attribute to the author, or the translation. Several of the translated books I’ve read have had that problem — they tell the story, but sometimes there’s *something* off about it, the prose is a little technical and dry. I wish I spoke more languages, so I could catch all the nuances!

  11. Yes–you can’t totally translate something and make it mean the EXACT same thing. Now I’m not sure if the translated books I’ve read (for example, Ruby Red which I didn’t like), would be more enjoyable if I read it in the original language (which I unfortunately can’t understand).

  12. I feel like when you translate, you’re pretty much rewriting because something like “are you hungry” translated in french and back to english would be “hunger-have you?” [there’s inversion and in french, it’s to “have” hunger and not “be” hungry]

    I guess we have to trust that the translator tries to keep the original author’s meanings the same, even if the words are different. the only thing that annoys me so much is when they translate character names. Like is that necessary?

  13. Oooh this is such a fantastic discussion Kara! I’ve honestly never given this much thought but now that I think about it, there must be so much that’s lost to translation. Good Translate for one sucks when converting things over. I remember trying to use it for my Spanish class and everything was so jumbled up. I do want to read Ruby Red though! I never knew it was actually written in a different language – how fascinating!

  14. I’ve never really given translating books all that much thought, to be honest! But yes, I am really excited about reading Ruby Red seeing as it has been translated – and there’s so much praise for it!

  15. I haven’t read any of the books above, to be honest, but I’m not a stranger to translated literature because I read manga all the time, online and those in print, in French, Japanese, and English. There’s one thing that I noticed, though: I would rather take the translator a few liberties in translating something to make them flow easier and read more natural in the language it’s being translated to (with the core meaning still there) than having them translate it literally word for word. Awkward phrasings just bug the hell out of me!

    Faye at The Social Potato

  16. I did read ‘Ruby Red’ and it was an okay story. At the time I didn’t know it was translated, but that could explain the somewhat awkward prose, but overall I didn’t notice. Which was cool. I really should read more translated books.

  17. Great discussion Kara! I really want to read Anna Karenina one day, and there are some others I hope to get to as well. Though I don’t think there are many translated books I have actually read, I don’t think it’s something I take much notice of anyway – however, now I think I will!

  18. This is such a great point for discussion, and you did such a great job of covering some of the really interesting aspects of language translation! I hadn’t really thought about it much before, but seeing a couple of posts around that are bringing it up has really got this on my mind, and I’m so interested by it all! I really want to be able to read some novels in their original language, one day, so I can see if the stories I love are different in their original form to the form I fell for them in. It’ll be really interesting- I just have to hurry up with my language learning!
    I’ve read Inkheart (am actually in the middle of my third reread) and it is SO beautiful. I would absolutely recommend it, Kara. The way Funke builds worlds and sweeps you up, it’s incredible.
    Some of my other favourite translated works are the Lumikki Andersson books by Salla Simukka (Finnish), The Little Prince (French) and a bunch of manga!

    It’s so nice to meet you, Kara- fellow writers unite! xx

    • Thank you!! And nice to meet you too, Romi :) Inkheart is one of those books that I seem to see everywhere but for some reason I have never picked it up. I obviously need to re-examine that idea ;) Ooh, I haven’t heard of those authors, but I’ll check them out.

  19. Lately, I’ve been curious about how true translations stick to their source material so I had to read this post when I saw it. I haven’t read any of those wonderful books you included but I recently read Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne and the translation I started with was so clunky that I had to go to Barnes & Noble and get the Penguin Classic translation, which was a much easier and enjoyable read. I also read a story in Bilge Karasu’s A Long Day’s Evening and I really wondered about translation then because the professional reviews I read states that Karasu stuck to a pure form of the Turkish language and leaves out the Turkish word for “and,” which made me wonder how that affected the translation into English.

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