The Complexities of Literary Translation

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Imagine if writers like Gabriel García Márquez, Leo Tolstoy, Hans Christian Andersen, Alexandre Dumas, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Jules Verne had never been translated into English and countless other languages. The mere thought of being deprived of their transformative works hurts, doesn’t it? What a loss it would be for humanity if literary translation didn’t give millions of people around the world the opportunity to read some of the greatest works of literature ever written, works that have helped us connect with stories from entirely different cultures, thus helping us better understand history, philosophy, and the world. It is the meticulous attention, inspired creativity, and keen cultural awareness of professional literary translators that make all of this possible.  

Translation isn’t just for the literary greats of yesteryear—contemporary authors also build global fanbases and grow their markets through their translated works, and you can do the same. Money isn’t the only barrier to literary translation, so don’t go thinking that it’s reserved only for the most celebrated writers. If you have a finished book or manuscript you would like rendered into another language (or several), check out our literary translation services

Creative challenges 

Translating a book or a poem requires cultural and linguistic knowledge, experience, attention to detail, and excellent creative writing skills, which is why merely speaking another language doesn’t qualify someone to be a translator. It’s not a mechanical process of swapping the words of one language for their equivalents in another. Experience in translating marketing copy, for instance, isn’t enough as literature has its own rules, expectations, and challenges. In fact, literary translation is one of the trickiest forms of translation there is.

Poetry is among the hardest literary categories to translate as the essence of a poem is so much more nuanced than prose, and the same rhythm, rhyme, and meter should be maintained. On the other hand, books of all genres and styles usually have hundreds of pages, making the overall work that much harder than translating a single poem. 

Fiction can also be incredibly challenging, especially fantasy and sci-fi, since concepts, places, and names are usually invented by the author and don’t have an existing counterpart in any other language. The translator must come up with their own monikers for these fantastical concepts, making sure that they pack the same punch in the target language, and remain consistent throughout the book when dealing with these fictional elements. Think of book series such as The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter—some of the most beloved titles worldwide—and how difficult it must have been to faithfully translate these works. 

Fun fact: Tolkien himself wrote a Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings to aid translators in their endeavors after being displeased with some of the earliest renditions of his books in Dutch and Swedish. If you’re concerned about elements of your book being mistranslated, you can provide notes for your translators. In case you’re familiar with the linguistic structure of the target language, you can even instruct the translator on how to render parts of your story that present linguistic challenges. For example, if you’re translating into a highly gendered language like French or Spanish but it’s essential to the storyline to hide some character’s gender, you can come up with your own workaround and share it with the translator.

What to look for in a literary translator

As an author, you want to find a translator who understands (and can match) your voice and the distinctive aspects of both the original and target cultures so that your message isn’t lost in translation. Every single word that a translator uses has an effect on how your work is perceived in a new language and culture, which is why it must be done with the utmost care and thoughtfulness; translating an entire book is especially complex and challenging as the result must be just as evocative and accurate on a macro scale as on a micro scale. 

Basically, literary translation requires much more than knowing how to translate words between two languages: style, idioms, cultural references, puns, jokes, double entendres, and other subtleties must be delicately considered to ensure the success and fidelity of the translated work. Sometimes these finer details are inevitably lost in translation, and you must accept some degree of erosion if you want to have your story told in other languages. However, a skilled translator can navigate these complex issues with grace, producing a text that your foreign readers could never guess deviates slightly from the original in certain parts.

To have your book translated by a professional, take a look at our end-to-end literary translation services

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