Lost in Translation: Reading Foreign Literature

Hello fearless reader! A bit of good news to start out this post: I survived another semester(!), and am happily on winter break right now. The past few months have been a mess of classes, work, and extracurriculars, so I was in desperate need of a breather. And with all of my newfound free time I have finally been able to do a few of the things I love but never seem to get around to during the school year.

I am definitely a bookworm, so reading has been at the top of my list of activities this past week. Right now I am reading If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino, which is a really wonderful, thought-provoking novel. It was originally published in Italian though, and that fact as well as various pieces of the novel itself made me want to discuss translated literature today.

Since Spanish is one of my majors I often read novels and/or news articles in Spanish, as well as watching videos and Netflix to help keep up with the language. There have been multiple instances where I have read or listened to something in both Spanish and English and been struck by the differences between the two versions. Sometimes the translation has a completely different meaning than the original, and it frustrates me to no end that people who don’t know both languages are missing out on what’s actually being said.

One of the aspects of translation that could impact this problem is how difficult it is at times to come up with the right words to describe a phrase that is only said in Spanish–like a colloquialism or idiom–and has no true English version (or vice versa). Languages must be translated idea for idea rather than word for word, and when you encounter an idea that only exists in one language, your job becomes infinitely harder if you want to express it in the other. For example, in one of my Spanish classes this semester we had to do translations of various poems. I thought it was a relatively fun exercise, but it was really hard at times to find the right words to use in order to evoke the right meaning or feeling that the author intended. And personally, even though I believe I did a good job translating and am proud of my work, the English version just never flows quite the same as the original Spanish.

Now this isn’t to say that translated works aren’t good; the Calvino novel, like I said, is well worth the read, and so many other great works have been translated hundreds of times over and are beloved by people all over the world. The fact that a novel or show isn’t in its original language definitely doesn’t turn me away from reading or watching it. It just makes me wonder what I’m missing, not being able to experience it as it was originally created. When a work is translated it almost becomes a new thing in and of itself. Most words and phrases can be translated in multiple different ways, and each person has a unique manner of speaking/writing that is almost impossible not to express. Therefore, a translation is no longer just the author’s, but now the translator has added their voice and style to the mix as well.

I may be just rambling over something completely inconsequential, but the way words can be molded and meanings can be shifted from one language to another fascinates me. I absolutely love learning and using different languages, and think that everyone should try to pick up a new one at some point in their life. If reading books or watching shows in their original language is your push to learn one, do it. Life becomes so much richer when you get out of the monolingual world.

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