Books in Translation: author’s voice or translator’s voice?

If you’ve read widely at all, you’ve probably read a book that’s been translated. Easiest example: the Bible. All translated unless you’re reading it in ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. Books have been and are being translated by the millions. I feel as though most are probably translated from English into other languages these days; Agatha Christie’s books, still only outsold by the Bible and Shakespeare, are the most translated books by one author, being translated from English into over 100 languages. But there are significant contributors to my reading habit that did not originate in the English language.

Alexandre Dumas wrote The Three Musketeers and his other works in French; I read translations of them, as I did with Les Miserables and other works by Victor Hugo. Inkheart? Translated from German. The Brothers Karamazov? Translated from Russian. And the book or two of Don Quixote that I slugged through was translated from Spanish. Even my brother reads a series originally written in Polish: The Witcher by Andrzej Sapkowski. Do I feel as though we haven’t actually read these books because we haven’t read them in their original form? I have a dream of one day reading Dumas and Hugo or other French writers in their original French, but that’s just gravy. I don’t feel the need to read the exact words–I want the story and the style. And with a good translation, that’s what I should get, in whatever language. With a good translation.

Many works have been translated multiple times into any given language–there are different translators of Tolstoy for instance. I’ve been told that I should read Anna Karenina in one particular translation and not another because it was a “bad translation” (whatever that means, coming from a non-Russian speaker). But I can see how the effect of the book that comes through could change noticeably from one translator to the next, even if the reader has no knowledge of the original language.

It’s more difficult, I think, to identify the difference between different books by the same author that have different translators. Take Dostoyevsky; I’ve read Notes From Underground translated by Jessie Coulson and The Brothers Karamazov translated by Constance Garnett. Did I notice a dramatic writing difference? One is first person POV, one is omniscient third person from multiple perspectives. Otherwise… one book may differ significantly from another, even by the same author, based on subject and mood. And I’m not about to learn Russian so I can determine for myself how much of the slight difference in style between the two books is author or translator.

Similarly, the Inkworld books by Cornelia Funke were translated by someone different than the one who did her Mirrorworld series. Admittedly, I prefer the voice and mood of the Mirrorworld series translated by Oliver Latsch. There is a difference of tone because of the nature of the stories and the age of the main character from whose POV the book begins and is largely told from. I don’t think these types of differences in books are significantly due to the translator. Here’s why: I recently read a book by someone else that had the same translator as the Inkworld trilogy.

The Ludwig Conspiracy by Oliver Potzsche (apologies for the missing umlaut over the “o”: I don’t know how to make German letters on WordPress) promised to be a wild ride of, well, conspiracies. Conspiracies surrounding, not Ludwig Beethoven, as my music-history-minor brain wanted to think (after all, nobody knows for sure what he died of), but Ludwig II of Bavaria: the Fairytale King. Unfortunately, I realised three chapters in that I was over the book’s writing style. It struck me as underdeveloped, clumsily drawing attention to the improbability of the events while they are transpiring. The main character thinks things like, “It’s just my imagination…these things don’t happen in real life… it’s probably something perfectly harmless I’m overreacting to…” etc. while he’s being stalked by people in hooded robes and threatened at his place of work. And the dialogue was pretty bloody unlikely, not to mention cringey. When I read the author bio and saw there was a translator bio underneath, I thought, hey, maybe the problem lay in the translation. But then I recognized the translator: Anthea Bell. Didn’t she translate Inkheart…? Yes, she did. And may I tell you, the style difference is palpable between Inkheart and The Ludwig Conspiracy–notably, I think Inkheart is better. So, I’m leaving the fault for the style at Potzsche’s door for now.

The translator is another filter through which the story goes, true enough. But translators tend to remain invisible; the filter should be translucent, if not transparent. Fluent in both languages they’re handling, the translator understands and adapts the nuances. If they comprehend meaning and competently convey it to the new audience, they’re doing it right. We can’t all take the time to learn Chinese for reading The Art of War by Sun Tzu or Latin for reading The Aeneid by Virgil. But we can take advantage of the skills and dedication of others who make these books available for us to experience, expanding our horizons beyond our native language and culture.

3 thoughts on “Books in Translation: author’s voice or translator’s voice?”

  1. Fascinating post. I’ve been making an effort to read more widely and pick up books from other countries and cultures. As my knowledge of other languages is decidedly limited this has meant a lot more translated books and it is so difficult to work out how much of the story is down to the writer and how much to the translation. If the translation is good it should keep the spirit and intention of the original but if you’re not fluent in both languages how would you ever know. I did read something recently which was not so good and I’m fairly positive it was the translation. As far as I could tell it’d been translated from Japanese to German and then English as there were some odd German words still lurking in the text.


    1. Thanks for your comment! It is a hard judgement call to make without knowing the original language, but there is undoubtedly a process of review and qualifications that goes into any translation. However, your experience with a book that was multiple steps from the original language seems like a much more questionable case—things will get lost in translation, then. The best method (and most common, I hope) would be to translate directly from the original language, not from another translation. I hope you can find some better translated books and continue to explore books from other languages!


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