Reading Translations


My native language is not English. It’s Slovenian, a small South Slavic language with some two and a half million speakers (that’s how many of us there are in the world).

pika-nogavicka-lindgrenBut nowadays, a vast majority of the books I read are in English. I like English. I feel comfortable in it, it’s a stretchy language that is relatively easy to learn for practical communication but takes years (decades, really) to master. I liked learning it, I like using it and writing in it.

But I wasn’t born with a sufficiently high level of English to read books, obviously, so most of my childhood was spent reading translated books. I discovered some of my favourite authors this way – Roald Dahl, Astrid Lindgren, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Elizabeth Goudge, the Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Andersen, J. K. Rowling…

But I read a lot of translated English books even later, in high school, when my English was certainly already good enough to understand most of the literature. I fell in love with Mr Darcy in Slovenian, first read Romeo and Juliet, and followed Frodo on his quest to destroy the ring in Slovenian, too.

harry-potter-ognjeni-kelihI even became a translator to be able to put into my mother tongue the words of people who don’t speak my language. This may sound like some lofty, idealistic goal, but was really born of the wish to discuss the newest Harry Potter book I’d already read in English with my schoolmates who had to wait for the translation.

If I only read English (or French, I speak French, too) books now, I wouldn’t even need translation anymore. But I’d never have been able to read Russian, Japanese, Italian or German books if my fellow translators hadn’t done a wonderful job translating these works into Slovenian. I never would have met Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, or read Murakami’s wonderful novels, or One Hundred Years of Solitude, or any other classic novel, really.

rdece-kot-kecapOne of my resolutions this January was to read more non-English books. I haven’t been very good at that, apart from one French book and my current read, a translation of Patrick Ness’s Monsters of Men. So what I’m saying is that I really should read more books in translation, books from languages other than English, because novels like that made me the reader that I am, shaped my taste as I was growing up. And I miss them. I miss getting out of my comfort zone.

So this is my little ramble on a topic that is very important to me, and my pledge to try and do better and read more translations.


Do you read translations? Ever? 

If you have read “the Classics” – Dostoevsky, Tolstoi, Flaubert… – did you think about the fact that you were reading a translation? 

Do you like to get out of your comfort zone sometimes?

I’d love to hear from you! :)

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  • Maraia

    That copy of Pippi Longstocking is adorable! I don’t think I’ve ever read one of the books, but I absolutely loved the movies as a kid. I kind of want to watch them now.

    I read Dostoevsky and Zamyatin back in high school, but I can’t remember how much I thought about the fact that they were translated. As a native English speaker, it’s a little too easy to forget everything isn’t originally written in English. I do believe it’s best to read books in their original language when possible, but of course that would mean most Americans (I don’t know about other English speakers) would be cutting themselves off from a whole world of literature. It’s limited enough as it is.

    A few of my favorite books are actually translations: The Millenium series by Stieg Larsson and The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Have you read any of them? I’m also reading a horror novel by an Icelandic author right now, and it’s really good. Usually I can’t tell that books have been translated, but I read The Girl in the Spider’s Web earlier this month, and it sounded off somehow. I’m not actually sure if that is related to the translation, however, because my friend reading the German translation had the same experience.

    • Ohh if you get a chance, do read Brothers Lionheart and Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter by Astrid Lindgren – they’re my childhood favourites and they withstood the re-read last year (meaning I still like them as an adult).

      I like reading translations, as you said, if I didn’t I’d be cutting off (more than a) half of world’s literature. But yes, Americans tend to be a bit imperialistic when it comes to translation – I studied translation theory from both sides of the Atlantic and the differences are quite pronounced.

      I’ve read The Alchemist, yeah, in Slovenian. I read a couple of other books by Coelho, too, but none of them was as good as The Alchemist. I haven’t read Larsson yet, I’m not much of a thriller person! :)

      • Maraia

        Okay, I’ve added them to my list. :) My library has Ronia, but Brothers Lionheart I would have to get from another one.

        Huh, that would probably be really interesting to learn.

        Haha, if you don’t like thrillers, Larsson might not be the best fit. But his books are SO GOOD. Lisbeth is the most badass of all badass heroines. :D

  • First: being a translator is the coolest thing ever :P

    When I read ancient philosophy, I tend to think about it a lot. The fact that translators don’t even translate the word “logos” is an example how it difficult it can to be to translate somethings. That doesn’t mean I don’t doubt the accuracy of the translation – I assume my profferos pick out good editions – but it makes you wonder what you would think if you read it.

    I mostly translated Latin Poetry, and for the most part, I found it to be a lot more open to interpretation than prose. Then I took a class where we translation De Rerum Natrua – that was difficult! We would have a discussion on first, what the sentence translated to, and then another on what it’s meaning was. Reading philosophy in English can be work enough of the time trying to figure it out its meaning, but reading it’s native language was a headache! So yeah, definitely get more out the work if you read them in your native language, but those whose translate philosophical works, I have an extreme amount of respect for.

    • Yep, I’d say you’re right! ;)

      But with all seriousness – I’m nowhere near the level of translating ancient poetry fit for publication. I have translated several novels of which only one (Ketchup Clouds) could be counted as a difficult text to translate. But I love my job, it’s what I’ve always wanted to do and if I get the chance to continue doing it, I’ll be one happy camper.

      Ha, yes, the accuracy of translations … You just have to TRUST the translator and publisher, right? :) But given how it’s impossible to learn all languages (sadly), that’s the leap of faith you have to take if you want to read foreign literature.

      We had some poetry translation at Uni, too, especially in my French studies, and I liked it a lot. The market for translating poetry just isn’t very large here (if you imagine how many people read poetry in the US – a relatively small number, I’d guess – and then take the same percentage of people in Slovenia, you’d get like 55 people or something…) so I’m sticking with prose for now.

      I think translating philosophical works requires a philosopher – you have to know the concepts and everything or else you’re in danger of missing important meanings!

      And I think that translating literature for small children is very, very hard, too – those books are meant to be read aloud and even prose has to sound like it’s actually poetry. I have a high respect for authors and translators of children’s literature.

  • Nicole Hewitt

    Some of the classics I’ve read were translated, but I have to confess that that’s it. I should definitely make more of an effort to read some foreign authors!

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

    • It’s hard, isn’t it? It’s just easier to pick up what you know and like – reading translations (and foreign authors) is always a gamble, you never really know what you’re going to get! :)

  • I sort of forgot that you’d mentioned that you do translation. My first year of Uni, I was in translation, but my Uni only offered English to French translation and well, French is more more complex than English in terms of syntax, structure, conjugations and tons and tons of crazy rules so I switched to Linguistics after one year. If I could have done French to English, I probably would have stuck with Translation though!

    I used to read a lot of French translations but I haven’t read any since I left Uni. I really should pick up more, but I find that sometimes the original meaning or flow can get lost from one language to another so I prefer to read books in the language they were written as much as possible, so I guess if there were more French Fantasies out there, I’d read them XD I did enjoy the English Translation of The Little Prince just as much, if not more than the French Version though, so I should really just seek out more. Wonderful post Kaja^^ xx

  • We sort of chatted about this in the comments on my blog and I’m glad to see this post because I’ve never thought about some of the classics being translations! I really haven’t read that many modern translated books. The classics I can think of off-hand are Anna Karenina, Les Mis, and Siddhartha, though there was probably more back in my schooling days, including any of the works of the philosophers. A modern series that I can think of is The Millenium series, which I did enjoy. I should try to read more translated books, because there’s great works out there from authors around the world that I am missing. One of my next targeted books (for Sci-Fi November) is The Three Body Problem, which is translated from Chinese. I’m pretty excited to start it!

  • I am going to start off by saying I am continually jealous that you speak multiple languages. I always like the idea of learning a language, but I never know where to start. I am one of those terrible British tourists that goes abroad and can’t speak the language to struggle to mispronounce things to everyone around me. It embarrasses me every time, but I still haven’t successfully learnt a language because I just don’t know how. I have only my german lessons from school to go on and I know I would never actually be able to cope if I went to a German speaking country and I can read about every fifth word when it comes to German. I might make it something I can aim to do, properly learn a foreign language.

    I am glad there are people who want to translate books, I mean, I read The Millenium series by Stieg Larsson a few years ago and I never really thought about it being a translation, I was just thrilled someone took the time to do it. With so many books already written in English it is always surprising that publishers will take the time to translate foreign books. With books being translated to Slovenian, there may be a smaller print run, but I imagine there is a greater demand for it because there are fewer Slovenian authors (I may be wrong on that one, of course). I am always surprised that translations go the other way in being translated into English. I get it with the classics, but newer books it’s a bit different. Then again, what do I know about the publishing industry and how they decide which books to translate?

  • I’m only fluent in English, but I used to attempt a little reading in Spanish. Never became proficient, so it was slow going, and I’m so rusty now, it’s sad. :( Though I’ll still pull out my copy of “Crepusculon” (a Twilight parody comic I picked up in Spain) every once in a while. I would like to be able decently in another language one day, especially since I love the thought process behind translation…but I’m guessing law school isn’t the best time to start on that particular endeavor. ^^; Good luck meeting your goal!