DISCUSSION: Reading Translations

The vast number of written languages means that we would need translators to be able to read literature from different areas of the globe. Today, translators have made it possible to read books originally written in Sanskrit, Arabic, Japanese, Cyrillic, Korean, French, Russian etc. in any other language. But translators are humans and do take liberties in their translations. This problem arises because language is not formulaic and therefore lacks the one-to-one mapping. Certain phrases are incapable of being rendered in any other language apart from the one it was written in without losing its meaning, essence, beauty, and literary purpose. The work of translators is therefore cut-out for them: translate the work the best way possible. But there is a trap here: there is no best way. The best way depends on the objective of the translator: is the translator seeking beauty? true-to-text? readability? These would determine the outcome of the translation.

And publishers also complicate the translation process. Sometimes, they produce abridged versions, graphic novel versions, of translated works. Sometimes they want to reach a certain type of audience. It is no wonder that there are about twelve (12) English translations for Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace alone. My version of W&P was translated by Anthony Briggs. My versions Crime and Punishment and The Karamazov Brothers were translated by Constance Garnett. I read somewhere that Garnett's translation is dated, inaccurate, and not true-to-text; that if you read, you're not reading Dostoevsky but Garnett. A statement like this is enough to shatter the joy of reading. We are told that translations by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are the most accurate.

The question is: what do you do in the face of these numerous translations, each claiming to be the best? How do you choose one over the other? Do you assess which translation to read? Or do you read whichever you lay your hands on - which is what I do because of limited choice? Or do you read more than one translations? What is your view of these translation wars? What will make you choose one over the other?


  1. I think a good translation is important. I had a bad translation of Anna Karenina, and it definitely impacted my experience. However, there's a limit on how much effort I want to put into researching the "best" translation, finding it, and then paying a (usually) higher price. So I just have the tendency of picking up the book if I see it and it looks generally acceptable.

    1. I agree with you. Unless you are ardently devoted to an author, it would be difficult to go all the way to get the best translation. It's also sad that a bad translation could totally unmake a good writer and destroys a reader's experience.

  2. Good questions Nana. If there are numerous translations available, then I research and pick the best one. If there is only one, then I don't sweat the decision; I just read what is available.

    1. If accessibility is the problem, you're more likely to choose whatever comes your way.


Post a Comment

Help Improve the Blog with a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

10. Unexpected Joy at Dawn: My Reading

69. The Clothes of Nakedness by Benjamin Kwakye, A Review

Quotes for Friday from Ola Rotimi's The Gods Are not to Blame I