Lost in Translation?

Recently I uploaded a Judging post for one of the most beautiful (dare I say, maybe even the most beautiful?) books I own – my hardcover, full color, illustrated, German edition of The 13 ½ Lives of Captain Bluebear. That’s the catch though – it’s printed in the original language, and since I can’t read German, I can never technically read this copy, and must settle for admiring all the brilliant artwork, typography and colors (okay, that’s not even really settling, but you know what I mean.)  Fortunately, I do own a copy that has been translated into English, which I’ve read and enjoyed. I’m grateful that this book has been translated, but this all had me thinking, what am I missing? What is being lost in translation?

Walter Moers is an excellent writer, one of my favorites, and I love his creativity and humor. Despite not knowing the source material, I think his translator, John Brownjohn, has done an excellent job. That being said, there are certainly phrases or feelings that simply don’t make it into the English version. In an interview I found on The Mad Hatter’s Bookshelf and Book Review blog with Brownjohn, he even discusses the difficulty of translating some of Moers’ original phrasing:

Producing English versions of Walter’s made-up names certainly taxes one’s ingenuity. Sometimes I have to diverge completely from the original German. Elsewhere I often draw on the remnants of my classical education and resort to Latinizing bits of them. For instance, the “Living Books” in German became the “Animatomes” in English.

I would hazard a guess that there are less faithfully translated books in existence. Not just books, but poetry, instruction manuals and even signage – I’m sure some of you have seen those books with pictures of signs that are poorly translated into English and say things like “slip carefully” and “no spitting everywhere.”  I myself have tried translating song lyrics with whatever translation service I find quickly online and find myself scratching my head a jumble of words that make no sense to me, despite now being in English.

However, technology is always improving and I’ve recently discovered Smartling, a translation software service that uses a blend of human and computer technology. I think it’s probably impossible to perfectly translate something from one language to another, because every language has its own intricacies and quirks. But with resources like Smartling, it makes all sorts of information more easily accessible to those who speak a language other than the original material.

As a bibliophile, I hope that a lot of care and effort goes into translating any work into another language – there is so much excellent literature in the world and I think that everyone should have the opportunity to read it, regardless of the language they speak (or read, in this case). It saddens me to think of the magic I’d be missing if no one had translated Walter Moers’ work into English. Since joining the book blogging world (as well as Instagram), I’ve met a few bibliophiles from around the world – it would sadden me to think they couldn’t access some of my favorite literature if it hadn’t been translated from English, for example, Jane Austen’s work. Maybe some of Austen’s wit is lost when translating Pride and Prejudice – I’ll never know – but at least translations of her work exist so that others have the chance to discover the brilliant writing that I’ve enjoyed for many years. I don’t even want to think of all the literature I’d miss out on if nothing was ever translated from its original language!

So, fellow bibliofriends, what do you think about translation? Do you read many books that have been translated from their original language? Are there any books you wish you could read that haven’t been translated into your native language?

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