What makes for a great literary translation?

Posted by Audrey Dubois-Boutet on Dec 7, 2010 Dec 7, 2010

booksIf you’ve read “Crime and Punishment,” “War and Peace” or the Bible, you’ve read a translation. But they are so much a part of our culture that we forget they were written in another language!

Even modern books, originally written in English, have become worldwide successes because of translation — “Eat Pray Love” was translated into more than 30 languages while the “Harry Potter” series has been translated into nearly 70 languages!

For a translation to be successful, a great translator is key (emphasis on “great”). A literary translator can’t simply change the text from one language to another. The result will be too literal. Here are a few things translators must be aware of:

Idioms: Expressions and sayings from one language can't be translated into other languages too literally. Here's an example: He couldn't speak; he had a cat in his throat
This expression, literally translated from French, can better be translated in English as “having a frog in your throat”.

Dialogue: Be true to the target audience. Expressions used by characters in a novel may not be understood by speakers of another language. Translators must make sure they translate dialogue to be relevant to different cultures, while still respecting the context of the book.

Writing Style: A translator’s job is not to write the book — it is to interpret the book for people who can’t read the original. Translators must adopt the writing styles of the original author. And the great ones do!

The best way to judge whether someone is a great literary translator is by reading his or her work. The true test of a great translation stems from a common saying: A great translation shouldn’t sound like a translation at all!

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Topics: Translation