Ramblings: Literary translations

Back when I was little I used to only read books in Dutch, my native language. But after our move to the US I started reading in English because these were the books that were available to me. After moving back to Belgium I continued reading in English, but also some Dutch. At first reading English books was just a way for me to keep hold of this language, now that I’d mastered it. But now I see myself drifting away from the Dutch books if they were originally written in English. I have a couple of reasons for this, and here is where I tell you why.

Influence of the translator

However great a translated work is, it will always carry a bit of the translator with it. This is not necessarily a bad thing, this is just something that happens. They color the story a bit with their unique flavor of writing and sometimes they even adjust the book just a smidge because certain things don’t make sense in a different language (a popular one here is names). The translated works will always differ from the original more than just the language it is written in, and sometimes this is not a problem at all, sometimes it can be.

Language differences

Dutch is not a language that is spoken world wide, in fact not  a lot of people speak it. We in Belgium speak it (the Flemish part of Belgium that is) and people in the Netherlands speak it too. (Some ex-colonies also speak Dutch) All in all it’s safe to say that the Netherlands are the biggest group of Dutch-speaking citizens. Being the biggest group they spend more time/money in translating literary works to Dutch. It’s great that this causes more books to be translated to Dutch than there would be if the Netherlands didn’t exist (or spoke a different language). The thing with Dutch is that just like any other language is that there are different dialects within the language (just like with British English, American English and all the other kinds too). Reading books that were translated by a person from the Netherlands isn’t the same as reading a book from a Belgian translator, they use words we never do or differently than we do. And sometimes it’s these differences that make me feel a bit more distance to a book.

Speedy translations

A reason because of which I will reach for the original work 100% of the time is if the translation was done too fast. I’m talking about books that are coming out in the middle of a hype-epidemic and there is just a lot of pressure for the publishers to get the book out ASAP. It’s very often in these books that you find either sloppy translations or sloppy editing. In any case, you find turns of phrases that just don’t work in the language you’re reading the work in, where it was just clearly translated verbatim. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t work that way. That’s exactly what I mean in the first reason for reading original works. It’s always up to the translator to pick how they are going to take these turns of phrases and translate it so that it works in the new language. My favorite example is that I once read a book in Dutch that used the literal translation for “a robin’s egg blue sky”. This is not a thing in Dutch, there are a lot of words that can describe different hues of blue, but this isn’t one of them. In my opinion it is up to the translator to pick a good fit here, so we don’t feel these rough patches. This book clearly had a case of ” the speedy translation” because there were so many pieces were I could just tell exactly what the original text would be in English, it was a huge bummer.

 

So if you are someone who speaks a second language, let me know how you feel about translated works! Do you agree with some of the things here or do you feel differently? Do you have other reasons for wanting to read the original books? And to people who don’t read (a lot of) books that weren’t written in English, do you easily find translated works in your area?

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2 thoughts on “Ramblings: Literary translations

  1. I only read in one language – English – but I do read books occasionally that were originally in other languages and have been translated to English. I find most of them to be unsatisfactory, for some reason. If the translator isn’t aware of certain slang words, for example, that meaning completely disappears. It seems translating is a very tricky job! I have read some books that crossed over very well, but I’d have to say for the most part they don’t work 100%.

    • this is exactly what I meant! That feeling that something just isn’t 100% right. That’s why I find it tough to review translated works too, because I just don’t know how much of it is translation and how much of it is “original”. For example, if the flow in the sentences is a bit choppy, is that the writer or the translator?

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