Discussions: Lost in Translation?

A while ago, I came across the company “Smartling”, who are a translation software company, and they were looking for bloggers to discuss how they feel works of literature should be translated- how could they be translated effectively? And in some cases, if the words were still written in their orignal languages, would they still resonate with modern day audiences? I thought this would be a fun topic to post about so I’d like to give it a try…

I mainly read a lot of fictional work. One key thing I know I have taken away from becoming an avid reader as a young adult (see: age 17-18 onwards), is that I feel that it helped my empathy, and my understanding of human emotions, to grow. Before getting back into reading, having lost the passion for it since I was about thirteen, I was a very logical child/teenager. I didn’t put much weight on emotions. I couldn’t understand other’s emotional pain unless I had been through something similar myself. For example, I didn’t understand heartache because I’d never had a crush on anyone or had my heart broken. It simply didn’t add up. How could you be so heartbroken over someone who you’d only known for say two months, when you had clearly survived without knowing they existed just fine for the previous sixteen years.

Reading changed that. I mean, I still don’t understand it, to be honest, but at least I’m not closed off to idea now. I can accept that for some people, just getting out of bed in the morning is a win in their books- the hardest thing they will do all day. And I accept that without judging, or at least, with half the judgement I used to have. I truly believe this has come from my reading. From improving my understanding of emotions, and the crippling power they can have over a person,. So what is the most important aspect of any book to me, personally, if it were going to be translated into another language? The emotion. Without emotion, words are just factual- they simply “are”. It’s the human emotion, the context which adds gravity and weight to the situation. Have you ever heard a book being read aloud in a class, in a monotonous voice with no emotion? It’s one of the most boring things in the world and immediate stops you from paying attention to the story, to the journey of the characters.

Does it matter for example, if the words in Jane Eyre’s “I am no bird!” speech are changed to suit the language it is being translated into, as long as her passion and fire for her independence are still in her words to Rochester? Or if the words in Harry Potter aren’t a literal translation, so long as the magical feelings are still there? (Although I admit, I begrudge any language changes made between UK and USA editions- both are “English language” editions, so why bother?)

But some phrases just don’t translate well from English into other languages, and some phrases in other languages, do not have English translations. For example, “Komorebi” is the word in Japanese for the scattered light effect caused when the sun shines through trees in a forest. All of those words summed up in one word: “Komorebi”. How simple yet powerful is that?! And of course the more suitable Japanese word: “Tsundoku”- the act of picking up book after book, buying them and somehow not managing to read them, watching them pile up in a corner. Don’t lie you lot, we are all guilty of this!

So what I’m saying is that, in my opinion, the effort put into the translation is vital, but not because of the language they are translating, but rather the emotion they are translating.  It needs to be fluid and representative of what the author is trying to put across, rather than a “literal” translation of the text.

Words are powerful things, but only if they have emotion behind them. And if you take away their context and history then they are simply ink on a page.

What do you think the most important aspect of the translation of literature is?

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6 thoughts on “Discussions: Lost in Translation?

    • thebookheap says:

      I thought it would be a good post to do since I’m not really posting as much as I’d like to these days due to being chaotic with work haha but I enjoyed writing the piece 🙂 You should totally have a go at it!

  1. Not only do I love this post, but I bloody love those two Japenese words! I love how words even exist for those things, and I wish we had alternatives! Can we not just start inventing new words for these things?! R x

    • thebookheap says:

      I know, right?! I love how other languages beautifully some up complex feelings in a simple word whereas english is like “AND ALL OF THE WORDS WON’T DESCRIBE IT BUT I’LL DO THEM ANYWAY LOL”.

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