Friday, 17 April 2015

What is Gained in Translation?

The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales
Source: Goodreads
In recent years English has become the 'go to' language for the whole world. Not just in business but also in popular culture, English is the language which many people communicate in on a daily, if not hourly, basis. Personally I think that this has led to the mistaken idea among some that everything worth reading has been written in English. I myself currently study English literature, live in England and speak English all day. As an almost natural consequence I find myself reading almost exclusively English books. It may come as a surprise then that I am not, in fact, English.

Born in Germany and raised in the Netherlands, most of my childhood was spend reading, and being read to, in Dutch and German. Not only were there the famous fairy tales, but also beautiful books by Tonke Verdragt, Michael Ende, Thea Beckman and many more. Mobing to the United Kingdom at sixteen, I found that many of my childhood books had never been heard of or if they had been, only in passing. The starkest example of this gap in shared experience for me came from talking about the Grimms' Fairy Tales. As a child I had spent hours with my nose buried in the original versions, whereas many of my English friends had only read the (severely) altered and translated versions. When I mentioned the step-sisters' cut off toes in Cinderella my friends stared at me in horror. Similar responses were triggered when I dared tell them of the fairy tale 'Donkeyskin'.

What was interesting to me about this difference was that despite Germany and the United Kingdom being so close together, we had very different experiences of the same tales. And all of this was down to translation. I realized that translation was a crucial part of the growing globalisation in the world. Stories such as the Grimms' Fairy Tales are an integral part of Germany's cultural history and also give you a sense of the country's "feel". Although the Grimms themselves did plenty to change the fairy tales, they had lost something in translation. In a similar way, Finland's ancient book of mythology, The Kalevala, is one which isn't widely available in translation. What does it mean when a country's stories can't be read and understood by others?

The Shadow of the Wind (The Cemetery of Forgotten Books,  #1)
Source: Goodreads
As mentioned above, globalisation has made major leaps in the last decade or so. It is easier than ever to contact people halfway across the world and to do business with them. When it comes to blogs like my own, I would love for it to be understandable to everyone, no matter what country they're from. I make it my aim to read books from all over the world, largely in translation since I only speak a limited number of languages. I want to understand different countries and cultures, and read as much as possible from as many countries as possible. Simultaneously, I think it is very important to state that literature, no matter where it comes from, is important. A book from Kenya written in Swahili originally should be able to reach the same kind of platform as a book written originally in English. As such, translation is key in making sure no one culture overshadows another. When it comes to this I think that making the effort to be inclusive, whether you do it like me by reading books from all over the world or using translation software, such as Smartling, which translates your content into a number of languages. Businesses and publishers should be aware of the importance of their content being available to people all across the world.


Although I myself have limited experience in doing business with people from other countries, I have done a fair share of traveling. While doing so, I have always tried to read stories from the places I was visiting, whether it was ancient myths while visiting Athens or The Shadow of the Wind while strolling through Barcelona. Doing so has always allowed me to recognize traditions, understand their origins and appreciate the differences which exist between cultures. The importance, and the good, of translation, then, lies exactly in this. Rather than considering it as appropriation, translation allows a book and its content to effectively spread to different countries. Literature and language are the lifeblood of culture and without them it is impossible to truly create understanding between cultures and countries. Translation, especially into English but also English into different languages, is crucial in allowing literature to reach people all over the world. I myself have recently read a number of amazing books from authors all over the world, including South-Korea, Japan, Columbia and France, yet these books aren't ones I easily found in bookstores around me. I think it is now time, in this global day and age, that publishers and businesses become aware of the massive audiences that are out there for them if they think to tap into them.

How do you feel about translation? Do you think it's important to be able to read stories from different countries easily?

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post. I have a hard time finding good translations of books. Last year, I read a novel that had been translated from Japanese to English, and the book was slightly confusing in places because whoever translated it didn’t do a very good job.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

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