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Reading Translated Books: What You Might be Missing


The rise of the translation industry has opened up a whole new world of literature. We’re able to enjoy more texts than ever in a multitude of languages. This has made world literature a far more inclusive place and has enriched the reading experiences of readers across the globe.

However, as great as it is to be able to read texts in their translated form, it is necessary to question whether a book can be accurately translated across languages and cultures. What do we lose when we read translated books?

The tricky business of translation

The problem with translating language is that language is not an exact thing. It is open to subtleties of meaning and nuances of understanding and it is always complex, and loaded with context and history.

The problem is that one language is not an exact imprint of another language. There are untranslatable words, differing grammatical structures, different syntactic possibilities, not to mention the cultural, historical and contextual weight behind certain words and phrases. And that’s even without taking into account slang and pop culture references! All this makes the mere existence of such a large body of translated books seem even more amazing considering the effort to reproduce a text.

Given this complexity of translation, there is (understandably) a substantial academic field dedicated to the theory of translation. Many theorists suppose that exact translation is impossible. Some stress that form may be impossible to translate, but the focus should be on conveying the intention and meaning of the text.

This inevitably raises the question of the role of a translator in the translation. Translators, after all, do not exist in a vacuum, and add their own cultural contexts to a translation.

What is clear is that it’s important that the translator is well-versed in both the original and target language. However, the question then remains – should one translate a text literally, keeping the original meaning, thus moving the reader to the original culture and language, or should one find an equivalent, moving the text to the target culture?

Lost in translation

Given these difficulties in translating, what is it precisely that we lose with a translation?


In an interview with The New Yorker, Jay Rubin, one of the translators for prolific Japanese author Haruki Murakami, said “When you read Haruki Murakami, you’re reading me, at least ninety-five per cent of the time.” He argues that the English translation of Murakami’s work is, in a sense, a new entity. The words are no longer that of the author’s but rather the translator’s. This is exacerbated by the difficulty of moving between English and Japanese, due to Japanese’s inherent indirectness in contrast with English language’s grammatical insistence on specificity. Should a book that is translated then be considered a new book in and of its own right, separate to the original? This is certainly a controversial and provocative question in the world of translations.


One of the challenges in translating literature is when it comes to translating wordplay. A clever wordplay or fictional name won’t necessarily be translatable. For example, the play on ‘earnest’ and ‘Ernest’, the lead character’s nickname in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, or Sir Lancelot. An interesting case study is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Many of her names were sourced from other languages. Voldemort, for example, comes from the French Vol de Mort, meaning flight of death. Clever in English, but perhaps too obvious in French. Some translators of the series chose to keep the names as is, while others translated them, using the original meaning to create equivalent names in other languages.


There is a notably a change in style when texts change languages. This comes down to the form of languages and the difficulty in translating different languages. Consider the difficulty of translating poetry or Shakespeare where there is the additional problem of rhyme schemes, iambic pentameter and so forth. The style and form of a book can be incredibly difficult to replicate in another language.

One hopes, of course, that the meaning of the text, and its impact carries through, despite some of the subtleties being lost. Surely, there is a lot to be gained from translations as well.

What we gain

As Salman Rushdie wrote,

The word ‘translation’ comes, etymologically, from the Latin for ‘bearing across’. Having been borne across the world, we are translated men. It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling obstinately to the notion that something can also be gained”

(Imaginary Homelands 17).

For everything that might get lost in the subtleties of meaning and untranslatability of words, we cannot deny that what we gain from translated books is so much more. Translated texts carry across insights from another language, another culture and another way of seeing.

Not only that, a skilled translator manipulates the translated language, allowing the form of the original language to shine through, giving us new ways of playing with our own language that we never thought possible. That is perhaps the most magical part of reading a translated book: not only does it open a new way of seeing the world, but also a new way of seeing and reading a language.


Translating is a difficult job, and an integral skill when crossing over between languages. It often requires a highly-skilled translator to accurately convey meaning. To make sure nothing gets lost in translation when you’re reading your next literature or research paper in the original language, contact us at Listen & Learn for top tutors in your area.