Literary Translation

[ 0 ] October 12, 2011 |

Imagine if Homer’s “Iliad”, Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”, “The Diary of Anne Frank”, or Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” only existed in their original source languages? What if these works did not exist for English language readers? Gratefully, literary translators– with their keen ability to wordsmith such literary masterpieces– pave pathways to the literatures of different countries and cultures by translating foreign language novels, short stories, essays, poems, plays, children’s stories, and other genres.

How is literary translation different from general or technical translation? First, literary translation involves far more than translating a text word for word; a literary translator must be proficient in the written portrayal of emotions, cultural nuances, humor, and other subtleties. Conversely, in technical translation, word for word content is generally more important than form. It is also important for a literary translator to capture the original work’s subtext; therefore, a literary translator must possess an in-depth understanding of the social, historical, and cultural context of the original work. Then, it is important for the translator to read the original work with great attention to not only the text, but also the author’s intent- that is, the author’s reasons for choosing the words and images that they used. Furthermore, a literary translator must learn to differentiate between the author’s language conventions and the author’s style.

Literary translators would agree that there are unique challenges in their branch of translation. When the source and target languages belong to different cultural groups, the first problem faced by a literary translator is finding terms in their own language that adequately convey the meaning of certain culture-specific words (culinary traditions, for example) while still “sounding good”. Determining how to translate puns inter-linguistically is also a particularly difficult feat since puns are meant to be ambiguous. Titles of stories and novels are often intentionally ambiguous, too, so at times they are extremely difficult or even impossible to translate. Yet, despite these frustrations, literary translators cherish their field’s unique benefits-namely, a tangible end result of their work. Perhaps the greatest reward is seeing the novel they had laboriously translated on a library or bookstore shelf.

Without the great gift offered by these translators, many of the world’s literary treasures would be left undiscovered in far away lands, their pages never turned by avid readers continents away.

For an overview of our translation expertise, visit our editing service page.

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