Thursday, April 8, 2010

Found in Translation: Overcoming a Fear of Non-English Novels

A few years ago, as an idealistic mid-20s reader, I made a goal one summer to conquer War and Peace. So I set out for Barnes and Noble to make what I thought would be a simple book purchase. Two hours later, I emerged bleary-eyed and frustrated...and with no book.

So what happened? Well, that was the first time I had really seriously looked into War and Peace at all, and as I poured over the four or five different versions of the novel on the shelf, I couldn't figure out which translation was the "best." One version seemed to be several hundred pages shorter than others, there were some pretty major differences in the line-by-line prose, and one version even included long passages of untranslated French. I started to wonder how much those differences would affect my comprehension and enjoyment of the novel. Eventually, I convinced myself (rationalized?) that there was really no point to spending three months with a book and constantly worrying if I was missing something because I'd picked the "wrong" translation.

I know it's a touch xenophobic, but that experience pretty much put me off all books in translation for good. What if all translated novels only represent approximations of the author's tone and intent? Would the novel be nearly as good when I'm missing all the subtleties and "inside jokes"? What if these novels are really only the literary version of those terrible (and terribly funny) Japanese kung-fu movies over-dubbed into English?

I've read exactly ONE novel in translation in my entire life — a crappy mystery by Arturo Perez-Reverte titled The Club Dumas, which I read at the height of Da Vinci Code-mania. However, since I've started blogging and reading others' literary blogs, it's becoming increasingly clear that this fear of books in translation is a neurosis I need to overcome to really consider myself a well-rounded bibliophile. It's caused me to miss out on some pretty fantastic novels by non-English writers like Haruki Murakami (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), Roberto Bolano (2666) and Jose Saramango (Blindness).

So, as I leave for a week-long work trip to Germany on Saturday, I figured what better time to work through this literary stumbling block than when I'm in a foreign country. Book of choice, about which I've heard tons of good things:  The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Explanation for that choice: Since this fear of books in translation isn't exactly reasonable in the first place, I'm going to overcome it by reading a Spanish novel in Germany. Take that, sense. I've also just purchased the first two books in Steig Larsson's "The Girl Who..." trilogy, and plan to read those Swedish-to-English books before the third novel The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is published in the U.S. May 25th. 

So, what else have I missed out on? What are some of your favorite in-translation books? Anyone else ever have to overcome a similar silly, irrational fear of books in translation?

(Note: Wikipedia's War and Peace entry has a full list of translations. My copy — which, if you're reading this on the site and not on Google Reader or email, you see to the right in the "Dork at Work" photo — is the Anthony Briggs translation. I still don't know if that translation is the "best" one, so would welcome any input on any "reader preferred" translations.)


  1. Novels in translation are my absolute favorites. I'm sure that we do lose out on various subtleties and nuances when they're translated. Movies are the same way. When I watch a Chinese or Japanese movie subtitled in English, I'm always saying 'that's not exactly what they said' when the English pops up.

    Definitely leave xenophobia behind because you're missing out.

    Murakami is one of my favorite authors, as is Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and Jose Saramago and Natsuo Kirino.

    I could give you a huge list, but here's some to get you started:
    (all on my tbr or ones I've read)
    Massimo Carlotto: Death's Dark Abyss
    Sandor Marai: The Rebels, Casanova in Bohemia, Embers
    Phillipe Claudel: Brodeck's Report (here it's translated as Brodeck)
    Paolo Giordano's The Solitude of Prime Numbers
    Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses and In The Wake
    Vassily Grossman's Forever Flowing
    Andrei Makine: Dreams of My Russian Summers

    If you like Scandinavian Crime Fiction there's
    Arnaldur Indridason
    Liza Marklund
    Asa Larsson
    Jo Nesbo
    and of course, Henning Mankell

    If you want more, I'll be happy to give you a list!

    What a great post!

  2. I intend to read War and Peace as well and the translation I settled on was the one by Louise and Aylmer Maude,who spend their lives devoted to Tolstoy's work and even visited him in Russia.

    That translation became known to me thanks to the first chapter of Used and Rare:Travels in the Book World by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone. They're a couple of writers married to each other who also happen to share the same birthday and in order to win a bet about not overspending for one another's gift,discovered this edition and stumbled into the world of book collecting.

    The Goldstones wrote two follow-ups to Used and Rare(Slightly Chipped,Warmly Inscribed)and a few other books about rare books but their first one is a real favorite with me,especially that W&P story. And no,I haven't tackled War and Peace yet but when I do,my Maude translation(in an Oxford U paperback)is ready and waiting for me:)

  3. I'm a big fan of any of the Russians, and actually took quite a few Comparative Literature classes in college (which if you didn't know are exactly like English classes, except that you're reading all literature that was originally written in a non-English language). I tend not to stress too much about "best" translations because one of my best friends was a Languages major and said that it's really a subjective thing. For a lot of newer books, there will really only be one translation available anyway.

    Also, I'm really super happy that you're finally reading the "Girl Who..." series. (Also known as the Millenium Trilogy). You're going to love it and I can't wait to hear your thoughts.

  4. I'm glad you mentioned Saramago - he's the first one who comes to my mind when I think of amazing translations. I also highly recommend Octavio Paz, but more for his short stories.

  5. I don't know if you read Eva at A Striped Armchair but she posted today about Russian translations, specifically Brothers K:

  6. Generally, I look for a publisher that I know will provide me with the best translation. Don't know what's available overseas, but I am reading the Oxford World Classic Anna Karenina. Should check up on who did the translation, but I have never ever had a problem with this. I was advised on which version of Madame Bovary to read, but generally the more expensive and popular versions of a text are the better translated.

    I've read a lot of translated work - French literature (some of which I've read in French, however), Kafka, several Murakami, Hitomi Kanehara, Crime and Punishment...etc etc. But they've always been top notch. Maybe I've been lucky with the editions I have chosen.

    One thing I will say, however, is that if this is the case then you have not read Nabokov. This is the biggest mistake you could ever possibly make. Or maybe you haven't included him, as I'm sure he worked his own translations, or he wrote some originally in English anyway.

  7. I read so much in the urban fantasy genre that I sometimes feel as though I should "round out" my reading tasts with "the classics." I keep trying....I think I'll try again lol Great post!

  8. You really are missing something by not reading Jose Saramago's Blindness. It is a profound book....even without conventional punctuation.

  9. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are tremendous translators, and I’d recommend all the Dostoevsky by them I’ve read -- starting with Notes from Underground. (They’re also among the most recent translators of War and Peace.)

  10. Most recently, Nicolas Dickner's Nikolski. Lazer Lederhendler did an excellent job on the translation.

    It also just happens to also be the victor in the Canada Reads 2010 debate!

  11. I'm a Constance Garnett man myself. She's somewhat contemporary with the Maudes, who are mentioned above by lady t. She sometimes gets knocked by uncharitable who think she's "too Victorian" to really get Tolstoy; however, if you compare the Volokhonsky/Pevear translation of Anna Karenina with my girl Connie's, you'll see that the V/K's owe her a pretty big debt.

    In Tolstoy's case, I think you have some wiggle room as far as translating goes. He's far more European than he is strictly Russian. For writers who are the opposite -- more Russian than European (i.e. Dostoevsky, Gogol, Bulgakov) -- translation might be a little more important because these writers are employing idioms and tropes that are peculiarly Russian.

    Ultimately, whatever translation you end up first reading usually ends up being your favorite translation. But all the cool kids are reading Constance Garnett.

    (I have a fairly lengthy comparison of a passage in War & Peace from the Maude and from Garnett. If you'd like, I can post it here in your comments. I didn't now because (a) you may not be interested; and (b) you may not want something so long in your comments section.)

  12. Oh -- and Shadow of the Wind may be one of the worst books I've ever read. Twice I thought, "This...this is a prank, right? Someone is filming me reading this awful book and I'm sure I just absently picked my nose a minute ago so that's going to be super embarrassing but really: this book is a prank and someone in punking me."

  13. Yes, overcome it, overcome it! You are definitely missing out! There are SO MANY amazing books in translation! I mean, you HAVE to read Haruki Murikami. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is just one of those books that would get "super rad to the power of infinity" because 5 stars just wouldn't be enough. And Blindness was AMAZING. As was The Shadow of the Wind. I hope you'll like it!
    I hope you'll like Stieg Larsson's books as well.
    Other than that, you should read Gogol, and you should read Alexandre Dumas (not just the count of Monte Cristo, which is amazing, but also, like, the Black Tulip - superb!) and you should read We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (I don't know if this is really your style, but this book is SERIOUSLY amazing - I recommend the Natasha Randall translation).
    I wish you much luck with your foray into books in translation.
    Enjoy Germany and the Shadow of the Wind!

  14. @NancyO - Thanks for the great list! With the exception of Per Patterson and Paolo Giordano (The Solitude is in my wishlist), every writer there is new to me - so thanks for expanding my literary horizons (my exact goal for that post!).

    @ladyT - Interesting tidbits - thanks! Maybe we should start a War and Peace "book club" like Infinite Summer last year.

    @Julie - Yeah, never having read Saramango, I realize, is a gaping whole in my personal literary canon. Need. to. read. Blindness.

    @Bethany - I think Nabokov wrote his more well-known novels (Lolita, Pale Fire) in English. But, especially in the case of Pale Fire, English certainly didn't help its readability any. That book was practically impenetrable!

    @Lindsey - Good luck with the classics!

    @Valerie - That's it, I'm adding Blindness to my next amazon order. Thanks for the push. ;)

    @JMW - Thanks for the recommendation - most of the comments here mentioned the older translations, but no mention of the more modern ones. Good to know the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation is solid.

    @hopechaser - Hadn't heard of that book before, but I'm intrigued. Thanks for the comment!

    @Mike - It seems as though your girl Connie's translation (after looking into this a lot more in the last 24 hours) is the most widely read one for War and Peace. Very interesting point about the Russians writing like Europeans and vice versa - would never have thought about that. Do you have a link, by chance, to the passage comparisons you mention? (And I think I'm gonna still try The Shadow of the Wind - many other folks have liked it a lot. Why did you hate it so much?)

    @brizmus - Yes! Another nudge toward Murikami - though, I suspect you may be a bit biased given your current residence. ;) Just kidding - I know, I really, really need to read him. I think he's publishing a new novel in the US next year, too. And you reminded me - I actually have read Monte Cristo, increasing my books-in-translation count to TWO. Ha...

  15. @ Greg: The passage comparison, I realized, was something I had posted on Facebook. I quickly copied and pasted it to my blog, and you can read it here:

    As to why I hated The Shadow of the Wind so much, I found the email I sent to Michael Dirda, reviewer for the Washington Post, and posted it to my blog. You'll find it here:

  16. I'm clearly not a careful reader.

    I think you're going to love The Shadow of the Wind because you didn't like The Club Dumas. And I'm the versa to your vice.

  17. I'm reading Anna Karenina, have you read it? My husband had to read war and peace in college (yikes). I might try to tackle it in this life time.

    I just found your blog through the blog hop and am a follower (I love seeing people read 'smart' books).

    Have a great weekend!

  18. Bouncing through on the Hop. Here's ME.
    P.S. LOVE the name of your blog ;-)

  19. I think a over 50% of my reading are translated works. THis is a great post. I like Saramago, Marai, Japanese and Russian authors. I tend to follow translators, so for instance I make it a point to read stuff that Margaret Jull Costa has translated. She is the current translator of Saramago's books and I think she translates great and wonderful books.

  20. @ Mari: How far are you in Anna Karenina? It's among my favorite books, and I'll do almost anything -- including dangerous antics on train tracks -- to get to have a conversation about it.

    @ Kinna Reads: It had never occurred to me to follow a translator before -- but that makes perfect sense. The translator is almost co-writing the novel with the original author. I was really pleased to read your comment.

  21. @Mike Bevel: I am also reading Anna Karenina and I'm just over half way through. OH MY DEAR LORD I LOVE IT!~ I don't know what I was expecting, but it's a far easier read than I imagined. So clever, charming, witty, funny. I LOVE IT <3

  22. @Mike, Bethany, Mari - I, however, have not read Anna K. It's holding down the coveted spot on my shelf right next to War and Peace. Maybe 2011 will be Greg's Year of Russian Literature. Right now, Gravity's Rainbow is sapping my will to live.

  23. A friend once tried to get me to read Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 and that...didn't work out so well. I think I'm just not smart enough for post-modern fiction. I'm always admiring of people who read Pynchon (and the novels of David Foster Wallace); but I need a straight-forward narrative. I'm not saying it can't be complex; but too often, I think that "complicated" gets confused with "complex." Complicated is almost always unnecessary. Complex can be very satisfying.

    I'll hold off on my earth-shattering thoughts about Anna Karenina (you'll be surprised to find out that one of the characters has been dead the whole novel -- and that one lady? Is a dude) until you've actually read it.

  24. I think that's a very valid concern. I'm not sure if I've read any contemporary translated novels but my favorite from the ancient world is still The Iliad. :) I plan on reading War and Peace at some point as well. My husband has a copy at home so I'll have to see which version it is.

    I actually have this same concern when watching subtitled movies, especially when they're in languages that I'm somewhat familiar with (and I hear the dialogue and compare it with the words on the screen and have a "WTF" moment!). Subtitles are always so simplified, I feel like I miss out on a lot there as well.

    I say, forget your xenophobia and give translated books a chance without worrying too much about what you may be missing (although, doesn't this just make you want to master dozens of languages??). I'm going to try to do the same. I have The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo at home right now and I heard it's excellent!

    Happy reading!

  25. I'm not sure of the exact number, but the percentage of translated books I read every year is well into double digits. Some of the best books out there are translations - Dostoyevsky, Camus, Kafka, Murakami, Marquez, Kundera, Saramago, and countless others. For a long time, I was intimidated by foreign books, but once I started, it was like a whole new world opened up.
    Great post!

  26. One of my favorite modern German novels is Patrick Süskind's Perfume. I am not sure if anything is lost in translation as my German is not that good, but the translations is wonderful. As much as I love Dante's Divine Comedy (I have six translations) but know that it would be all that much better in the original.
    Enjoy your time in Germany. It is a lovey country.

  27. You might like

    Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress from the French;

    The Elegance of the Hedgehog from the French;

    After Dark by Haruki Murakami from the Japanese -

    all three I highly recommend!

    I've reviewed the last 2 on my blog which you can find on the Search button on the sidebar. Hope you visit!

    Harvee's lastest post:
    Sunday Salon

  28. Greg, try my beloved Per Petterson (translated from Norwegian) in Out Stealing Horses if you want a subtle, nuanced read. Or from the German, Georg Letham:Physican and Murderer is amazing. Two of my all time favorites.

    To help find great titles from translations, try Three Percent's blog (univ of rochester) or Words without Borders Dispatches online magazine. You can find lots of titles to search.

    Hope you find some cool bookstores in Germany!

  29. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress from the French;

    The Elegance of the Hedgehog from the French;

    After Dark by Haruki Murakami from the Japanese -

    all three I highly recommend!

  30. Definitely leave xenophobia behind because you're missing out.

  31. I found your post in trying to find a recent blog post I read that had what seemed like an educated opinion about which translation to read. I finally found it, on The Blue Bookcase. I want to read this over the holidays, and I'm excited to get started!

  32. "Japanese kung-fu"? What's that?

    I think for anyone who is more self-conscious about his label "bibliophile" than he actually is about reading books, world literature is the least of his problems.

    To have NEVER read Dostoevsky, or Tolstoy, or Murakami, or Balzac or Zola or Cervantes or Homer or Grass or Hess or Calvino . . . or for that matter Nietzsche or Derrida or Foucault or Adorno or Benjamin or de Tocqueville or Kant or Marx or Hegel or Heidegger or Freud, I mean, wow.