Translation Matters

I was on Facebook a couple of days ago when I noticed a short exchange about a rude comment left on a blogger’s site, a rather pretentious remark concerning a book challenge.  The Introverted Reader is running a Books in Translation challenge, and Jen, the host, was unhappy with what her visitor had said (or how they had said it).  When I read the comment, I agreed that it was a tad snide (to say the least), but the point being made was actually a fairly valid one.  If you need a challenge to make you read books which were originally written in a language other than English, there’s something very wrong with what you’re doing…

The top level of the challenge is Linguist, which entails reading 10-12 translated books over the course of the year.  For the average blogger, reading around seven to eight books per month (a conservative estimate!), that would mean that just one of those books needs to be a translation.  To be perfectly honest, if I couldn’t manage that I’d feel… well, frankly, the word that comes to mind is ’embarrassed’.
To be fair, Jen accepts the validity of her visitor’s opinion (if not the tone it was expressed in) and has decided to leave the comment on her blog, and I am certainly not trying to belittle her or her challenge.  Rather, the incident got me thinking, once again, about translated fiction, and why people seem to see it as a novelty, not a perfectly normal state of affairs.  I’ve discussed this in passing several times before (most notably here and here), but I thought I’d use today’s post to toss around some more ideas on the subject.


The big question, I suppose, is why we should bother to read translated books anyway.  Well, I have a number of ideas, but here are a few to be going on with:

To experience new places and cultures
One important reason is simply to transport ourselves away from our everyday lives, to visit new places, meet new people and experience new cultures.  It’s true that many English-speaking writers enable us to do this anyway, but reading something written by a native, straight from the horse’s mouth as it were, is always likely to be more accurate – and possibly more interesting.  I can’t imagine simply reading the latest releases in English one after the other; it would be a bit like having the same thing for dinner every night…

To reconsider things we think we know
Reading works in translation can also help readers acquire a different viewpoint on topics they thought were familiar.  A good example of this would be works about the Second World War written from the German point of view.  The more I read about how the war was experienced on the other side of the front line (and indeed elsewhere in Europe), the greater my understanding of the whole event becomes.  If you only read one side of the story, you’ll never get close to understanding the whole truth.

They’re often very good 🙂
One more reason for opting for translated fiction is that there has often already been a form of selection in place, sorting the wheat from the chaff.  Books translated into English, especially those which have had a little time to mature, are usually the best of their vintage, works you can rely on to be good reads.  Of course, there are exceptions: just as is the case in English, once a certain genre becomes successful, the quality control may be less important than getting derivative works out there (Scandinavian crime fiction being an obvious recent example…).  On the whole though, those books which do make it into the English language are quality works.


So why don’t people read more translated literature?  I’m obviously not the right person to ask, but I’ve had a bit of a think and come up with the following ideas – and some responses:

You’re not reading the “real text”
When you read a translation, you’re not actually reading what the author wrote, and the gap between the original and the English can be very wide.  A bad translation can also seem very stilted, turning a beautiful piece of writing into dry, inappropriate sludge.  In good hands though, a translation can be a work of art in its own right, not better than the original, but different.

Translated fiction is difficult.
Just as many readers run a mile whenever the word ‘classics’ is mentioned, the mere thought of translated literature can bring people out in a cold sweat.  It’s true that a lot of what is translated into English is literary fiction, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s difficult to read.  In many cases, the books can be page-turners, stories you can’t put down – and they’re often fairly slight as well 🙂

There are too many books to read already
I suspect that one reason many readers fail to try translated fiction is that they are happy to stick to authors and themes they know and trust, especially when there is a never-ending flow of new releases in English (particularly if you’re a blogger who is lucky enough to get some review copies…).  However, it would be naive to think that there is nothing better out there, and anyway – how did you get to know about your favourites in the first place?  Sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith…

I don’t know what to read
Whether you don’t know where to look for translated fiction, or you just don’t have any idea whether a book is going to be any good or not, being unsure about what’s actually out there is always going to prevent you from reading more widely.  Luckily, there are many places around that you can turn to, whether they be organisations such as Three Percent and Booktrust, small presses like Peirene Press, And Other Stories and Dalkey Archive Press – or blogs like Winstonsdad’s Blog and The Parrish Lantern – or even yours truly 😉

That’s enough pontificating from me – over to you!  Do you read a lot of literature in translation?  If so, why?  If not, why not?  If you’ve managed to get this far in my lengthy post, please leave a comment – I’d love to hear what you all think on the subject 🙂


73 thoughts on “Translation Matters

  1. While I'm an enthusiastic reader of Aussie LitFic I enjoy translated fiction for exactly the same reason that I enjoy fiction from other English-speaking places – it stands to reason that there are great writers all over the world writing great books in all kinds of languages, and it's crazy not to sample them!


  2. I have not read much translated work yet, but I most definitely intend to — for all of the reasons you highlight above. (Most notably, getting to know a culture unfamiliar to me.)

    But the challenge thing? That might be a person's first step into a translated works — something some readers ignore entirely. To hold a challenge to inspire people to taste translated works is to encourage exploration in literature. To suggest that joining a challenge like this means there is something “wrong” with the reader who has joined suggests that a person is measuring other readers by his/her own barometer.

    Your point, though, that reading works in translation should become a habit? Yes, yes. I absolutely agree. But before one can ride a bike, one must attempt it with training wheels. I'm grateful for those who encourage others to read, however they go about it.

    As to being embarrassed by how many translated works you (or whoever) has read in a month? Why in the world is it necessary to judge your own reading by an exterior eye? If you read ONE translated work in a year and are transformed, is that transformation not worth far more than whatever external factor might instigate embarrassment? I think it's a mistake to count the books you've read and judge yourself by the number.


  3. Eight a month is about right for me. Half are translations, typically. So I could just agree with everything you said, especially your puzzlement about some of the excuses of serious readers. My choice of words there implies an answer to part of the puzzle, actually.

    Anyway, here is not an objection but an exception: if for whatever reason a reader is specializing in American, English, South African, etc. literature and is primarily reading deeply in that literature, and as a result neglecting other literatures, my response is: Great! I wish more people did that.

    It is likely, for various reasons, that people are more likely to specialize in their own traditions than in ones where they are an outsider. So proportionally more Australians are Australian literature specialists, more U.S. Southerners experts in Faulkner and Eudora Welty and so on. Again, fine.

    My objection to my own exception is that even the specialist needs – and I mean needs – to someday read Homer, the Hebrew Bible, Ovid, Dante, Rabelais, Goethe, Flaubert, etc. etc. Just as the specialist in German literature needs to read Shakespeare, Dickens, Joyce, Faulkner, etc., in translation or otherwise.

    I am leaning on the smiley face you put after “They're often very good” – they're often examples of the greatest human achievement. What a mistake to make excuses to ignore them.

    Shorter version of my comment: Hear, hear!


  4. Lisa – Very true – and how do you know your country's works are great if you haven't sampled what is coming out of other countries?

    Jillian – You make a good point about the challenge being a starting point, and I'm not suggesting that there is anything “wrong” with readers who join up 🙂

    Regarding my use of the word “embarrassed”, that was most certainly internal and not external. *I* would feel embarrassed if I couldn't get through one translated book a month (i.e. 10-15% of my reading total).

    Let me pose another question: if I set up a challenge where people pledged to read a few books a year by a female writer, would that be the same? I'm sure there would be many people who would feel a little surprised that such a concept could even exist…

    Tom – Your use of the expression “serious readers” takes me back nicely to what Jillian said. It's probably these “serious readers” that surprise me, and I would regard most bloggers as falling into that category.

    I have no doubt that many readers will concentrate mainly on their own national fiction, probably moving away from it slightly as they develop a curiosity for what else is out there. But is it our responsibility as a reader to actively seek out translated literature, or can people be excused for waiting for it to find them? That is the question…


  5. Interesting post Tony! I don't read a lot of translated fiction, but I do read some – Japanese translated fic, Scandinavian translated fic and Afrikaans translated fic make up the majority. I think that primarily the reason I don't read a lot of translated fic is that I do read a lot of popular, commercial fiction, I readily admit that. And translated fiction seems to be predominantly crime and literary. The blogs I read, the places I get a lot (not all) of my recommendations don't contain a lot so occasionally I pick up recommendations from other places, or I hear about them through various other avenues. I do follow a fabulous blog of a woman who is aiming to read one book from every country and have noted down several from there that I'd really like to read.

    Re: challenges – I do use challenges as a way of broadening my reading horizons because for me, it IS quite easy to stay within the comfort zone. Hence why I joined Jillian's Classics Club to push myself to try and read some of those classics that I'd avoided. I'm also doing another challenge, Reading Around the World in 12 Books where you read a book from a set country each month and through that I'll read books translated from German, Danish and Icelandic! I think participation, whatever the level may be, as long as it's satisfactory to the participant, is worthy. I love challenges personally and I'll continue to use them to “push” myself.


  6. Bree – I think you're right that certain genres do tend to be more often translated than others (lit.fic. and crime are certainly among those!), and challenges can help those hoping to broaden their horizons 🙂

    I wonder if other genres are translated as much. Does anyone know of sources for Spec.Fic, romance etc.?

    For all who are interested, the blog mentioned here (the book from every country in the world) is this one:

    It's definitely worth checking out – although perhaps that's taking things to the other extreme 😉


  7. Being Finnish, and knowing only Finnish, Swedish, and English, the amount of books available to me would be quite limited were I to ignore translations.

    And no, I have no problem with subtitles either. 🙂


  8. I don't read a lot of translated fiction and really the main reason is that I have far too much that I want to read already.

    My initial reaction to this though is to ask why, if people are trying to extend their reading whether it be this challenge or others, do people feel the need to denigrate rather than celebrate the fact that people are interested in expanding their horizons, in finding new reading experiences and in maybe finding out exactly what established fans already know – exactly how much fantastic stuff there is around.

    For the person who made the comment, and for you too Tony, this is obviously a non-challenging challenge. I do have a couple of those that I participate in each year, mainly because I help run them. For example, the top level of the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge is to read 20 books in a year which I actually did within a few months, but there are other readers who will only read 3 or 4 books and will be thrilled with that level of achieved. I have stepped away from other non challenging challenges so that I can actually look at challenges that are going to expand my reading and expose me to new reading experiences.

    If I was to sign up for this challenge, it would absolutely be a challenge for me to read one book in translation a month for a number of reasons. One would be to find the time to fit it in an already full reading schedule. Another would be finding those books in translation that would actually fit my reading tastes.

    As I see it, reading challenges can be used two ways. One is to encourage readers to take chances and find things that are outside of your normal reading. Another way to use them to validate your existing reading choices and find other people who share your reading tastes.

    The difficulty for someone for readers who want to read widely is trying to balance between all the different genres etc that you want to read without necessarily sacrificing too much of the books that I know that I want to read. There is only so much reading time that any one person has and no one can have the time to read everything that they really want to read. Decisions have to made and that may be at the expense of one particular type of books.

    In answer to your question about genre translations, I can't think of any romances that have been translated from another language into English. I know for spec fic that there is a relatively new project happening where there is a prize being awarded for translated fiction. You can find some information about it at the following link

    And now that my comment is long enough to actually be a blog post on it's own, I will stop rambling.

    Except I will add one thing. You gave the example of setting up a challenge to read women writers. One of the more successful challenges that has been in Australian blogging circles this year has been the Australian Women Writers Challenge which was set up to do exactly that with a narrower focus on Australian authors. Should such a challenge be necessary? Probably not, but the fact is that there are plenty of readers who either consciously or unconsciously have a natural skew towards reading many more male than female authors and it is only when you stop and think about it that you may become aware of that. Personally, I read predominantly female authors so my personal area of consciousness is that I need to make deliberate choices of male authors to try and provide some gender balance in my reading. Every reader is different.

    Now I will stop.


  9. Michael – I'm currently reading 'Don Quixote' and was amused to find the translation I'm reading described on Wikipedia as 'worse than worthless' 😉 And yes, this idea of 'who is to blame/praise?' is a tricky one when reviewing translations…

    Anonymous – That still gives you a fair advantage over a lot of people 🙂 As for subtitles, the literary equivalent would be dual-language books, something I wish was more prevalent.


  10. Marg (you get your own comment reply!) – The schedule was one of the reasons I brought up in my post, whether it be purely filled with ARC or library books – it seems that the ability to freely pick up a book on a whim is becoming a thing of the past 😉

    I accept most of what you say, and I do realise (as I said above to Bree) that certain genres are trickier than others; however, I think that the idea of reading translated fiction transcends genre. The reality is that non-English-language writing simply doesn't get the attention it deserves.

    On your final point, I think the fact that it is an *Australian* Women Writers Challenge changes things somewhat. That is much more of a niche than simply saying read something by a woman, and therefore a much more serious challenge. I would bet that many people would see setting up a challenge to read books by female writers ludicrous, something that should be done as a matter of course…

    …and for me, reading translated fiction is just as much of a given 😉


  11. I wrote a post on this subject around Edith Grossman's book Why Translation matters & pretty much came to the same conclusions. I know that if asked by a work colleague what am I reading & I answer for example Ryu Murakami, Roberto Bolana etc I get strange looks & comments along the lines of It's to hard or difficult, as tho they would be reading it in the original language & not in their own (hence my false reputation as clever). In reply to anonymous & subtitles a lot of poetry comes as dual language nowadays which I think is a wonderful idea. Last but far from least, thanks Tony for mentioning my Blog & for those who are interested Grossman's book Why Translation Matters is a good read & also Chad Post from 3percent has written essays on this subject in a book called The Three percent Problem: rants & responses on publishing, translation & the future of reading.


  12. The whole discussion is logically very anglocentric.
    My case and angle are very different. And what I write, I'm afraid, will make me sound smug.
    I need to talk about “foreign fiction” because I read 7 languages and whenever I can find the original I will pick that and not a translation. That's how I started working for an editor as a consultant for foreign literature.
    Nowadays I read a lot of British and US books and started to blog in English because they are for me “foreign fiction”. So out of the 8-10 books I read per month, 11 are foreign fiction.
    Now, this said, I feel I cannot really contribute o the discussion. I think the challange is a good idea though as I see it mentioned so very often that people complain that they do not read often enough in translations. I don't know the reasons? The school system? I know of one blogger who wrote a PhD in English about French authors. This is unthinkable in Switzerland. You cannot study the literature of another country without being 100% fluent. First you need to pass exams in Latin, then you are allowed to pass exams in another language, if you master it, you're good to go and start to study. For me this is the only way to go. Teachers are all native speakers.
    I add this because I suppose the approach and background in English speaking countries is very different.
    Back to the challenge. I think people like guidance. If the school and the parents can't give it, a chalange may be a great starting point.


  13. It may surprise you, Tony, that I have problems with some of statements – particularly those that express any form of obligation in reading choices. So words like “should”, “responsibility” etc set alarm bells ringing and trigger a rebellious reflex.

    I read and blog about what interests me – much of it translated fiction – but that is my choice. I hope some of my enthusiasm will rub off on others but if not, that's fine by me. Who am I to dictate the reading choices of others?

    Here's a second surprise. I joined Jen's translated fiction challenge though I added a caveat that not all 12 would be translated from German.

    Final point: Some of the points you raise for reading translated fiction apply equally to non-translated fiction and I have some marvellous books in the TBR that I just can't get to because the translated works are getting in the way! Once Dutch Literature Month and Spanish Literature Month have passed, I may just schedule – for myself though you are welcome to join me – a Read British Month.


  14. Violet – Fair enough 🙂

    Gary – It can seem like you're being smug when you mention what you're reading sometimes when that just happens to be what you read. A sort of reverse discrimination? 😉

    Caroline – Of course, the issue for those whose mother tongue is not English is a very different one – namely how to avoid being sucked into the trap of reading all Anglophone lit. I know that this has also been discussed recently – I read an article somewhere which plotted the rise to prominence of US/UK fiction in European bookshops.

    It would be great if everyone were able to read as many languages as you; unfortunately (especially in Anglophone countries) that's seldom the case…

    I'm very impressed by how you manage to read 11 out of 10 foreign fiction works each month though 😉

    Lizzy – Is that a smack on the wrist I hear? 😉

    Hopefully, I'm not dictating people's reading choices, merely pointing out an area which is frequently underrepresented in blogging – even more so in reading in general. If that comes across as somewhat missionary,…

    As for a Read British Month, that's what I've been so careful to avoid!


  15. Michael – A good question. A bad translation can perhaps be worse than none at all – unless you believe in the notion of “there's no such thing as bad publicity”. It can put people off translations in general.

    Of course, I realise now that you were probably speaking about my particular comment on 'Don Quixote'(!), to which I'd reply no, as I am enjoying it. I have a feeling though that I'll have to reread it one day in a different translation – I'm not sure that I'm reading the book the writer intended…


  16. And YES – Lizzy – – I want a British and an American literature Month. Separate. Yes.
    I often feel bad because I fel I'm judged by anglophone readers for my choice to focus on British and American books much more than n other books but there is a specific reason for that.
    Those writers I consider to be fantastic and who write in German and French today are hardly if ever translated.
    Why? Because they do not write about WWII ?


  17. Caroline – That is a whole new matter: is there a hidden (or not so hidden) agenda when choosing books to translate? I touched upon it briefly in the post, but there's occasionally a sense of stereotypical translating at play (i.e. German books about the war, French books about sex and philosophy…).

    The article I read the other day was also suggesting that the success of Anglophone lit. in Europe was possibly leading to a change in the way European writers write, with one eye on possible future translation of their work into English. I'm not sure how true that is, but it's another interesting point to consider…


  18. First of all, what Marg said.

    Secondly, I'm in the same position as Caroline, and I feel that judgement too. However, what often happens is that the literature from my country that I want to share with my blog's readers is not available in translation, and only a handful of them could read it in the original. I have sometimes wondered if I should blog about it anyway, and maybe the fact that people express interest could contribute in a small way to showing publishers that there WOULD be an international market for those books. But I also wonder if going “Hey, here's a great book most of you can't read” would get old really fast.


  19. Nymeth – I disagree with what you say in your second point – is the point of blogging to only talk about books people are going to read anyway? I appreciate that not everyone will be able to obtain some of the books you talk about, but I wouldn't let that stop you from reviewing them. And you may reach people who *can* read the book 🙂

    Also, with a lot of small presses looking for books to publish (and ways to stand out from the crowd), there's every chance that a review from a blogger (especially one as well known as yourself) will push them towards pursuing a translation.

    If I only stuck to reviewing books available in English, I wouldn't bother half the time with my German posts…


  20. Any challenge that aims to read works in translation I find laudable. It's an unjustifiably marginalized “genre” and I think it always needs the support it can be given. Personally I read translations for one or other of the reasons you've given. I read 2 translations for every 3 books. But mostly I read translations now for the sake of reading translations.


  21. One of the things that comes to my mind when these discussions of why aren't people reading more [translated fiction, classics, science fiction, books by women, etc.] is that everyone, even serious readers, is coming from a different starting place and is at a different stage in their reading development. Lots of serious readers are seriously pursuing, say, Victorian literature or Shakespeare or whatever, and they haven't reached a point where they need or want to branch out to something else. It's a journey, and we won't all follow the same path. No one can read everything at once, so it's up to each individual to choose where he or she wants to branch out and try something new.

    A challenge can help a person who wants to branch out take the initial baby steps in an area of interest. Ideally, at some point, the challenge won't be needed because choosing translated books (or books by women or in a particular genre, etc.) will just come naturally.


  22. Teresa – I agree, to a certain extent, and these challenges are certainly useful in this regard. I'm just not convinced that reading translated fiction is such a big deal. Reading books from a certain country or culture, yes, but anything not originally written in English?

    Perhaps my background is just making it difficult for me to see things from that perspective 🙂 I also think, as I said in an earlier comment, that it's the fact that we're talking about serious readers, not casual readers, that informs my view. If we were talking about people who don't really read a lot, then I would probably agree more.

    Still, I can see that there are plenty of people who don't share my view 😉


  23. This is a really interesting discussion. I'm someone who doesn't read a lot of fiction in translation, not because I expect it to be unusually difficult but because I am overwhelmed with choices of what to read even within the Anglo traditions I'm most aware of. So, for me, awareness is one issue.

    Another issue for me is your point about not reading what the author “actually” wrote. Often when writing about a work in translation (most recently, The Yacoubian Building) I find myself hesitating in my analysis because I don't know whether to attribute a quality of the book to the author / original or to the translation. If I can't really talk about the writing, that can feel limiting–I can talk about plot and character, and perhaps form, but not language. This is not an insurmountable problem, but it's a nagging frustration for me when dealing with works in translation.

    Then one more factor is what I might call the 'intimidation' effect, not about the individual books but about the traditions and contexts they emerge from. I remember a discussion thread after one of my early posts on Henning Mankell in which litlove noted his books may be best understood as part of a particularly European tradition of bleak despair (I'm paraphrasing rather coarsely). It's easy to feel disoriented or inadequate when you don't feel you have the right literary background or equipment to read something. Of course, that is both an excuse and rather circular, since you have to do some reading at some point in order to acquire that equipment. But life is short and there are SO many books…

    I think it is important to avoid insularity, though, which is also a kind of condescension.


  24. A slap on the wrist? Well, you did rattle my cage! Particularly the final sentence in your “To experience new places and cultures” paragraph. You can't possibly mean that.

    And because I want to prove that your assumption can't possibly be right, I've decided that I'm Reading British during September. I challenge you to join me! 🙂 Let's just see if there's more on offer than the proverbial meat and two veg!

    Joking aside, I've been feeling a little uncomfortable just recently about the general translated vs non-translated debate. I guess your post tipped me into finally expressing myself.

    Here's a question to think about. When does positive discrimation for translated fiction become reverse discrimination against Anglophone works?


  25. Ah but I think the question lurking here is what constitutes a serious reader–and this is where starting places are crucial to consider. I'm just going to take myself as an example, since it's the example I know best 🙂 I'd say that 20 years ago, I would certainly fit the definition of a serious reader. I was studying for my literature degree (literature in English, to be precise), and almost everything I read was either for class or to somehow supplement what I was reading in class. I read a few works in translation because they were foundational (Greek tragedies, for instance), but very little overall. Certainly not as much as I read now. Yet back then, almost all my reading was what most people would consider “serious” literature. I was a student, and I was learning, and I was not yet at a point where branching out beyond the English-language canon seemed necessary or particularly worthwhile.

    Today, I have a pretty solid grounding in English-language literature (with some gaps, of course), and I'm more interested in exploring literature in other languages, so I've made some effort to do so. Yet in some respects I'm a less serious reader than I was then because I also read a lot of stuff that is frequently considered junk.

    This is why I think, as Jillian also suggests, it's important to consider starting points. Tom's point also seems pertinent. Twenty years ago, I was specializing, getting a grounding in the literature in my own language. It was serious work. Now I'm less concerned with that and more into exploring lots of different things.


  26. I never used to read any translated literature – besides that I was set on my degree course – but that's changed significantly in the last two years. I think previously I saw it as both challenging and being 'other' i.e. (pardon the pun) foreign to me and therefore, difficult to contend with. Two things changed this: the first was the discovery of Haruki Murakami whose work I love and is probably more accessible due to his love of Western culture, therefore bridging some of the divide. The second was taking an MA in creative writing during which I read more than I'd ever read before. The consequence of this was that my reading ability took the biggest leap since I was a kid and I found myself reading British literary fiction writers that I previously would have considered challenging. This led to me seeking out writers that were new to me and thanks to the internet and bloggers, I found a whole new reading experience.

    I think literature in translation suffers from small marketing budgets which often means it's only targeted at a minority audience which is a huge shame because, as you've said, it can lead to a better understanding of the world from a viewpoint other than our own.


  27. Given that I just chanced upon a rather popular blogger's comment the other day that she doesn't like translated fiction, Tony, I think this is a very timely post on your part! And while I understand where Rise and some of the others are coming from about encouraging the broadening of reading patterns in any way, I, too, don't understand why translated or foreign fiction should be deemed a “novelty” (or only something you do after becoming acquaintained with the major works in your own home language) in the first place. For my part, although I think people should read–and blog about–whatever they want, if I find a blog that only devoted itself to books written in English, I'll usually look somewhere elsewhere for my reading entertainment because I don't value what I perceive as that blog's lack of adventure and/or lack of imagination. Unless you're one of the specialty blogs that Tom's mentioned, why would any reader want to limit themselves to one language's literature? I don't get it.


  28. Tony: I've read somewhere that fiction in translation is in a SAD state of affairs in N. America. I know I read an actual % number of those published every year, but I can't remember it now.

    Of course, The Girl in the Dragon Tattoo has revitalised the market, I think, for foreign crime books in translation, so there seems to be a veritable deluge now. I, for one, disliked the book, but hey it's all a matter of taste.

    I read quite a few in translation and don't think that much about it either way–at least not enough to keep count, but then in common with another comment above, I get messages about how I can't possibly enjoy something properly unless I read it in the original Russian/Hungarian/Unwinese


  29. If it takes a reading challenge to get people to read translated fiction, I would see that as a good thing rather than a bad thing, because surely it doesn't matter how people are encouraged to read translated fiction, what IS important is that they give it a go.

    Out of the 6 to 8 books I read per month, at least one novel is translated. About 13% of the reviews on my blog are translated fiction. I have a separate category on my blog for these kinds of books and I know that many people find it a useful resource.


  30. Oooh good point Guy about foreign crime books. I've steered well clear so far because the snob in me says that they won't be as 'good' as the translated works I usually read. I wonder if the people who read foreign crime fiction concern themselves much about it being translated or whether it's simply a different take on a favourite genre.


  31. I've enjoyed reading this discussion Tony, I don't read a lot of translated fiction but its not a deliberate choice, I choose what I want to read not based on a genre or type but on the blurb. It just so happens that today I am reading Brenner and God by Wolf Haas, a crime novel translated from German because the premise appealed.
    That said I am all for people trying something different – which is why I host the Eclectic Reader challenge, and next year, translated works will make it onto the list of 'genres'


  32. Hi Tony: the idea that a chasm exists between an author’s original work, his linguistic intent, and its handling by translators is addressed by Kundera in his book Testaments Betrayed who derides the translator for the lavish liberties they take employing the “synonymising reflex.” Borges, meanwhile, has fun with it, stating: the original is unfaithful to the translation. (ie. The translation opens the window to possibilities the author may not have considered.)

    Most of what I’ve read is translated literature and poetry. In my case, this was not necessarily part of a grand design, but more to do with following authors. One thing leads to another. One day you pick up Dostoyevski and the next thing you know you are pouring through Turgenev and Goncharov and Mikhail Leskov. Or, you grab One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Pretty soon, you’re up to your elbows in Alejo Carpentier, and Julio Cortazar, and Alvaro Mutis. And then you begin to see a pattern: that around every monumental work of literature, there are countless antecedents, some more obscure, perhaps even buried, some not at all. And so, your basic reading instinct becomes: no stone unturned.

    Having said that, I am aware of Kundera’s point while reading a translation, and I think it’s fair to say I suffer from some degree of “translation anxiety,” here defined as “the fear that you’re missing something very important.” But no more anxiety than one might experience trying to unearth a meaning that say, an English poet may have intentionally buried in a 75 page poem, just a slightly different kind.

    At the same time, you realize that no one can do it all. One of the few reading projects (or challenges) that I undertook was to read at least one book by every recipient of the Nobel prize for Literature. I jumped into this mindful of the fact that some of the recipients were allegedly dubious, and many great writers were overlooked. And yet, to proceed in the original language would require knowledge of dozens of languages, so that leap of faith to the translators was required. I never finished, running into one brick wall after another- out of print translations, authors not even translated into English, books that were nearly impossible to find. (For the record, I think I made to 87 or 88).

    So yes to authors in translation with or without a plan. Whatever the shortcomings, I say full steam ahead. I can’t imagine how I might feel had I missed out on Thomas Mann or Rene Char or Knut Hamsun.


  33. Your post was very fair, I have to say, much better in tone than that awful comment on my blog! I hope my comment is fair as well. Several others have already made my points for me, so I'll try to keep this short. I do understand what you're saying, but I personally don't stumble upon a lot of translated books. I don't actively avoid them but I don't seek them out either. Having enjoyed those I have read, and seeing a gaping hole in the reading challenges I've come across, I decided to host the Translation challenge. I never intended it as a challenge for those who read a lot of translated works; it's not a challenge for you readers, in the same way that a fantasy challenge wouldn't actually be a challenge for me. I read *fairly* widely, but I don't read much “literary fiction” or Scandinavian crime fiction, and that seems to be all the translated literature that gets published here in the US. (Side note: Is location a factor in the availability of translations? I'm betting it is.) My intention was simply to give readers like me motivation to seek out the translated books that readers like you love so much, and for exactly the reasons you outlined in your post. I don't think that any of us are more “serious” readers than others, but perhaps you choose books that are more serious in tone than I do and that leads you to translations. I can't understand why the person who commented on my challenge would take it upon him- or herself to knock anyone who is trying to expand his or her horizons. We all have to start somewhere. Just be happy if even one person chooses to read one more translated work. It may stir up a lifelong enjoyment of other literary traditions and cultures, such as you seem to have. And if more of us are reading translated fiction, that creates a bigger market, which leads to more translations, which can only make you happier in the long run!


  34. Tony, that Cervantes translation really is terrible – heavily bowdlerized and mangled beyond repair. Seriously, dump it. There are a number of good translations. Do not go cheap with Don Quixote! It is too important.

    I argued, contra Parrish, that the “Why Translation Matters” part of Why Translation Matters is, in fact, a quite bad read, and in particular is very badly argued. There is not and cannot be an ethical argument for reading books in translation.


  35. OK, I was curious and had to go digging just a little. According to this site, which looks reliable, only 3% of all books published in the US each year are translations, and only 0.7% of those are actually new works in translation as opposed to newer, “better” translations of Tolstoy or whomever. Pretty appalling. They outline the reasons why it's hard for readers to find these translations as well. It's pretty interesting and informative.


  36. Rohan – Awareness is probably the biggest issue for people who haven't read a lot of books outside the sphere of English lit., so we're lucky to have such a lot of good, easily accessible sources of information in the digital era 🙂

    As for intimidation, I know what you mean. I felt a little disoriented with some of my early German reading. Then again, I'm sur emany people feel that way when they first experience George Eliot too…

    Lizzy – Well, to a certain extent I do… Literature from different cultures has different styles, different norms, different themes. I really do think that a mono-cultural diet of literature would be bland after a while – and that's true for all cultures, Japanese, German, French, English, Spanish… I'm definitely not saying that English-language writing is inferior 😉

    Teresa – I think most people would see you as a serious reader (and I'm sure you have been for quite some time!).

    Naomi – Your example shows some of the reasons stopping people from reading translated literature – and also that they can be overcome fairly easily. And I agree that perhaps the money and interest isn't always there – sadly 😦 Good to hear though that your MA inspired you 🙂


  37. Richard – Whaaat? Probably not a fan of my blog then 😉 I agree totally with your views – monolingual reading is limiting.

    Guy – I don't think things are that much different in the UK, are they? I must say I'm not a big one for crime fiction, but the more translated variety, the better 🙂

    Kim – I agree (and I can see that many people here do too!) – it's more that I'm disappointed that such a thing, sadly, is necessary.

    Shellyrae – I understand your approach; the only problem with this approach is that the blurb is likely to come from an Anglophone book… As was said earlier, I don't think the marketing for translated fiction can compare (unless you're Haruki Murakami, of course). One day, maybe 😉


  38. Dave – I love the Borges quotation 🙂 I almost mentioned 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' in my post, as I read that GGM thought the translation was better than his original!

    I also agree that reading one foreign author leads to another, either because of influences or themes or subject matter – you start off with Murakami and suddenly find yourself reading Halldór Laxness without knowing quite how it happened…

    And I am painfully aware that you can't read it all 😦

    Jen – Hopefully, this post will have gained your challenge some more publicity (and maybe even some participants!). As you can see, you have a lot of supporters here 🙂

    As for availability, I don't think it's a big problem today. Once you are aware of what's out there, it is incredibly easy to find stuff on The Book Depository, for example. It's the finding out about translated fiction which is by far the hardest part of the equation.

    And I think that 3%, for many reasons, is now a very well-known statistic – the 0.7%, less so 😉

    Tom – What would you recommend? I've had this one for a while now – I don't think I'd buy cheap versions of translated classics today without checking for opinions of the translation 😦

    I haven't read 'Why Translation Matters', so I can't really comment on that. Ethical sounds a little far-fetched – especially when you consider that Hannibal Lecter was very well versed in foreign literature 😉


  39. The only thing that could ever put me off reading a translation is that you don't get to read the original words, you're reading someone's interpretation. And I don't let that put me off because there are too many good books out there that I wouldn't have read otherwise; I know my reading has been enriched by Peirene Press, and I've learned a lot from translated historical fiction.

    It's so important to experience other cultures, and reading allows that to happen without needing lots of money for travel or the need to be rude and invite yourself to dinner.


  40. Charlie – I'm very partial to Peirene books myself, even trusting them enough to buy a few in the original German (and of the three I've bought in German, I've bought more books by two of the writers).

    Without knowing the original language, you're never going to know how faithful a translation is, so for most readers the quality of the writing in the translation is more important than the accuracy. Now if you can have both, that's a bonus 🙂


  41. Putnam, Grossman, Cohen, Raffel – these are all good. They all try to translate the text of Cervantes, at least, not some chopped up mishmash.

    Readers interested in – serious about – translation are in luck. Many translators and scholars have written about what they do, their methods and ideas. Many of the misgivings that have come up in these comments would be quelled by some time reading on the subject. Translators, it turns out, have thought about these problems. The second half of Grossman's book is a good place to start.


  42. The French philosopher Jacques Lacan argues that the Self is not fixed by finds itself by playing with language. That's why translated fiction is important – it offers new impulses for such a game.


  43. Fascinating discussion on a totally Anglo-Australian-American topic.

    I'm French, reading in translation is as natural as breathing. I never gave a thought to it before I started blogging in English and then realised that for you it's something odd or highbrow or whatever. Here the book stores are full of translated books everywhere on display tables and you just pick books that appeal to you.

    I've never heard anyone saying “I'm not reading in translation,there's enough to read in French literature anyway” How can you understand Jarry without knowing Shakespeare? How can you read Adolphe without knowing Goethe?

    I'm often disappointed when I read a book in French and start writing my billet (review)and then I have to write “Not translated into English” at the beginning. And when the book is good, I think “poor of them, they don't know what they're missing”

    Something else. I started reading Under the Greenwood Tree in English and it was too difficult for me, so I bought it in French. The translation is new and it didn't bother me to switch from one language to the other. It had the same sounds in French, somehow. The translator had done a great job, the dialect was there, it was Thomas Hardy as much as it was in English. So, don't be shy, read-only-English-books readers!

    However, a couple of days ago, Séamus linked an article from the Irish Times to my “EU Book Tour” page. It was published during the Eurovision contest and the article listed books to read per country. For France, it was a thick-as-a-brick book by Perec, Balzac, Zola and Camus. Sorry, but starting French literature with Perec or lengthy descriptions by Zola is like someone said above, learning to ride a bike without starting with training wheels. For Austria, it's The Man Without Qualities.For Germany, Sebald. Is that journalist trying to discourage potential new readers?!!

    Btw, there are page turners translated into English. For French literature, I think about Katherine Pancol, Delphine de Vigan, Philippe Claudel, Philippe Besson, David Foenkinos, and many others. Nothing very intellectual but well-written.

    As an aside, I'd say that, for me, not reading translated books is as not looking at foreign paintings because they're foreign and missing a huge part of art.

    As Alfred de Musset once said : “Qu'importe le flacon, pourvu qu'on ait l'ivresse”.


  44. Really interesting post today. Like you, I find reading works in translation to be… well… yeah. Duh. But then again, I also am always trying to read books by English writing authors from outside the US, Britain, and Europe. I think it all comes down to personal preference, but it also comes down to life. I want a more inclusive world, therefore I will do my part in any way I can to help create that – and if I can help that in my book buying, then I will try to. Am I perfect in my buying habits? no. Do I think it matters? yes.

    But again, that is my opinion and preference, there are others who would quite vehemently disagree with me. I can understand them deciding for whatever reasons not to read more widely, I can't understand them not wanting me to read widely! heh

    I would say though that the challenge to get people to read even a small amount will hopefully at least convince a few people to give them a chance – who will then go on to read many more.

    And btw, another fantastic reader / reviewer of books in translation is


  45. Tom – I'm too far gone to abandon it now – and if I'm happy with this version, that means I have a future treat in store with another translation 🙂

    As for the art of the translator, no matter what they say, they'll never fully convince a nervous reader that they're in safe hands…

    Meike – Personal and mental growth through playing with new language – sounds good (although that's just as much of an argument for learning new lanaguages as for reading translated fiction!).

    Emma – I'd be happy to get drunk with M. de Musset any time 😉

    Yes, as Caroline pointed out, this only seems to be an issue for native speakers of English – one I'm trying to resolve 😉

    Amy – Thanks for the link 🙂 Like anything, sometimes it's difficult to step aside and see things the way other readers do – from this post (and its many responses), I can see that my views are not the only ones. Which is good 😉


  46. What a great post! The comments have been equally interesting. I'm not sure I have a lot to add, but I do disagree about review copies preventing people from reading translated fiction. Publishers send bloggers what they are interested in. I get a lot of translated fiction for review – perhaps some of the fault lies with the publishers – they are the ones that decide whether or not a blogger might like their latest release and therefore deciding that translations are a niche category only worth sending to a few translation orientated blogs. I'm not sure – perhaps they have tried sending translated titles to other bloggers in the past and had them ignored?


  47. I Feel I am going the other way I am maybe thinking of giving up on translations .I ve read 200 plus in lkast few years and can't see what jot of difference I ve made so what is the point tony none ,all the best stu


  48. To me the question is something of a non-sequiture. Why would I read translated fiction? For the same reason I'd read fiction written by men, or fiction written in the 19th Century, or fiction written by short people. Because the book in question is good. What other reason could there be?

    I sometimes post at the Guardian book blogs, and every now and then someone crops up there (and usually finds people posting in their support) to say that they don't read fiction written by women. It's a bizarre thing to say, but it gets said.

    Why wouldn't you read fiction written by women? I suppose you could say that there's enough fiction written by men that you don't need to, but just writing that makes it evident how absurd an argument it is.

    If one of those people had a book blog, and had a Women's Fiction challenge where they tried a handful of books by women, so they could say they'd stretched themselves, would we respect that? I don't think I would.

    So, why fiction in translation? Because much of the best fiction ever written is not written in English. Because as a rule nobody bothers translating bad fiction. If it's translated, someone somewhere was at least passionate enough to go to that effort for it.

    I also like bookaround's analogy, not reading foreign fiction is like refusing to look at foreign art. It's an utter non-sequitur, indicative of a lack of seriousness in one's approach to literature.

    It is peculiarly English-speaking world this issue. If one only reads books in one's own language, fails to watch subtitled cinema, only watch foreign tv dramas once they're remade with a domestic cast, is it any surprise the world should seem a perplexing and sometimes frightening place? How could it not when one's made so little attempt to understand any of it?

    It's also an issue peculiar to general and literary fiction. Crime fans love translated crime fiction. They actively seek it out. It's a bit shameful really that those who consider themselves as preferring serious literature are more conservative in their reading than those who like a good murder (though the two groups overlap of course, I read both and so do many others).

    I find the whole idea of book challenges odd to be honest, read or don't read. What meaning has a challenge with no consequences for failure?


  49. Tom – Well, I'm still enjoying it – and I know I have something better to look forward to next time…

    Jackie – I think you are lucky to have publishers sending you books they think you'd like; that certainly doesn't happen to me. I'm still at the begging for ARCs stage 😉

    Stu – I think a healthy balance is good, but don't give up on the translations Stu. Your blog is a great source of information about what's out there 🙂

    Max – Absolutely. I agree with just about everything you've said here – and if everyone else did, we wouldn't be having this discussion 🙂


  50. As a translator and researcher in translation studies, Catalan translated literature in particular, I am interested in quantifying what readers mean by a “bad” translation. What is the criteria for good or bad? Have people considered the possibility that, without access to the original, the very aspects of the work in question that are being deemed “badly translated” are actually either deliberate strategies employed by the translator(to eg draw attention to the fact that the work is in fact a translation) or actually important features of the original that are actually well translated.
    Just out of interest…….


  51. @jenjenarnold – Well, I'm not sure that drawing attention to the fact that it is a translation is a good thing – wouldn't most readers agree that a translated book shouldn't read as a translation but as a work in its own right?

    As for the second point, I agree that it is impossible to tell without access to the original whether a certain aspect is due to the writer or the translator. However, if the reader is picking up on it, then (in that reader's subjective opinion) it doesn't really matter – something is wrong.

    One example I would give is the awkward Americanised dialogue in the translations of some of Banana Yoshimoto's books. Is it an accurate translation? Is it the choice of the translator? I don't really know. All I know is that I don't like it 🙂


  52. jenjenarnold raises an interesting point. I saw a year or so back a review at TheAsylum of a Russian novel, which John Self (the blogger there) liked but some people below the line felt had a clumsy translation.

    The interesting part though is that it turns out the original novel is famous for its language in the original, and in particular for that language being non-naturalistic. The oddities of style in the translation, the apparent infelicities and at times jarringly clumsy wording is all there in the source text and was quite intentional on the author's part (Platonov I think, but I could be wrong).

    So, it was a good translation, but of a book that intentionally broke rules of grammar and which equally intentionally sought to alienate the reader in part through use of unintuitive prose. Other translations, less faithful, had I think been held up as superious but in fact the new one that John reviewed was much closer to the original book's style and intent.

    Tricky stuff.


  53. Max – But does that mean that John Self is right? Perhaps the other reviewers are right, and the translation is faithful, but the book isn't that good? That's always a possibility…


  54. Max and Tom – Having read the review, John seems far from convinced that this faithful rendering is a better one. As for whether or not the book is good, there is always room for subjectivity…


  55. Ah, it's tricky this translation business. So is a faithful translation of a book reinventing and deliberately playing with lanaguage (which comes across as stilted and incomprehensible in the translation) a success or a failure?

    On a similar note, how on earth did anyone ever translate 'Finnegan's Wake' out of English?!


  56. Excellent post Tony that sparked thought provoking commentary. My simple thoughts on the matter:

    Almost every translated work I've read, I've enjoyed immensely. Why? Because the authors' perspectives have seemed fresh to me and I believe in many cases that stems from different cultural origins. Just some examples of distinctive and culturally influenced voices for me include 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 'Comedy In A Minor Key' by Hans Keilson and 'All Our Worldly Goods' by Irene Nemirovsky. And of course you cannot go past the refreshing contrasts of say Scandinavian crime fiction and Japanese literature. As the world becomes a smaller place through travel, the internet or increasing acceptance of the value of our differences (thankfully) I do not think translated works are necessarily the only place these different cultural view points can be found, but selecting from translated works can often be a low risk and highly rewarding way of finding something to challenge your thinking.


  57. Jo – Absolutely Jo 🙂 The more different voices we hear, the wider our view becomes…

    …still haven't got onto Hans Keilson yet though 😦 (maybe soon…)


  58. It's amazing after 65 comments you are still replying to them. But did you feel good that most of agree to what you said? Translation is awesome! I finished reading The House of Mosque by Kader Abdollah written in Persian in original language. Just when I thought not many books surprises me anymore, there's one from Iran that offers a fresh perspective. So yes! translated fiction is a must-have in our reading diet.


  59. Jo – I'm trying my best 😉

    That's what translated litertaure can offer us – a fresh perspective on ideas, something that forces us to re-evaluate our world view…

    …sadly, not everyone agrees 😦


  60. I love reading translated fiction but it's so difficult to choose when there are also so many interesting books written in English!

    I think it's great that there is a Books in Translation Challenge just because I think challenges are fun and great for setting yourself a goal. The whole point about challenges and book blogging is to make reading fun, isn't it? And if it encourages people to read books in translation, I think it's a wonderful thing.

    I personally don't like being dictated to or made to feel guilty about what I should be reading but I like to see what others are reading just so I can make up my own mind. Translations are wonderful but it's good to mix and match.


  61. Surely one of the reasons people don't read much translated fiction is because it represents such a small percentage of the available pool. I'm not saying that's a good thing but it is a fact, so a book blogger trying to read a representative sample of the new books out there might well not pick out a translated book every month. I support efforts to change that, but I don't think it should be ignored as a contributing factor.


  62. Sakura – It's good to mix and match, but that shouldn't mean one work in translation for every twenty works in English. What I'm against is the idea many people have that translated fiction is a genre to dip into every now and then…

    Nose in a book – So should we only be reading new books then? 😉


  63. Tom – I don't think any reader samples a representative selection of what's out there, more a sprinkling which is heavily biased towards personal tastes…


  64. Hi Tony, coming from a small country like the Netherlands it seems logical that I read quite a lot of translated fiction. There are a few Dutch authors worth bothering with, but none of them can compare to the really greats of world literature (Tolstoy, Bunin, Chekhov, Proust, Montaigne, Cervantes, Mahfoez, Marquez, Klemperer, Sjalamov, to name but a few of the non-English greats. I read a lot in English, but even for English I prefer a lot of times a Dutch translation. That said, I think that translations in Dutch are often of very high quality. Greetings, Erik


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