How Stories Get Lost in Translation

By- Erika Semprun

Have you ever read a novel in its original tongue and then read a translation of it in another language? If you have, you may be familiar with the way the magic of a story can get lost in the translation. If you haven’t, you may be surprised at how different the experience of reading a translation can be.

In literature, writers often use puns, humor, and idioms to convey different feelings to their audience.

When these stories are translated into other languages, however, the elements that once made the narrative magnificent can get lost in translation.The humor falls flat, the puns get confusing, and the accents that brought the characters to life get lost.

One instance where readers have noted this occurrence in is translations of the Harry Potter series. For reasons that readers can’t explain, the magic of the books simply gets lost when it’s not in J.K. Rowling’s original voice.

This is also the case with novels such as Mrs. Dalloway, Great Expectations, To Kill a Mockingbird, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Frankenstein, and dozens of other classics translated into languages other than the orignals.

Ultimately, readers around the world agree that for the sake of the reading experience, it’s better to pick up a novel in its original language and hope for the best.

Of course, not everyone can manage this, so, Vista Higher Learning is bringing you six of the best translations of 2019 to add to your “to read” pile (courtesy of Barnes and Noble and Amazon).

#1- Argentina: 77, by Guillermo Saccomanno. Translated by Andrea Labinger.

Buenos Aires, 1977. In the darkest days of the Videla dictatorship, Gómez, a gay high-school literature teacher, tries to keep a low profile as one-by-one, his friends and students begin to disappear. When Esteban, one of Gómez’s favorite students, is taken away in a classroom raid, Gómez realizes that no one is safe anymore and that asking too many questions can have lethal consequences. Told mostly in flashbacks thirty years later, 77 is rich in descriptive detail, dream sequences, and even elements of the occult, which build into a haunting novel about absence and the clash between morality and survival when living under a dictatorship.”

#2- Thailand: Bright, by Duanwad Pimwana. Translated by Mui Poopoksakul.

“When five-year-old Kampol is told by his father to wait for him in front of some run-down apartment buildings, the confused boy does as told―he waits, and waits, and waits, until he realizes his father isn’t coming back anytime soon. Adopted by the community, Kampol is soon being raised by figures like Chong the shopkeeper, who rents out calls on his telephone and goes into debt while extending his customers endless credit. Kampol also plays with local kids like Noi, whose shirt is so worn that it rips right in half, and the sweet, deceptively cute toddler Penporn.

Duanwad Pimwana’s urban, and at times gritty, vignettes are balanced with a folk-tale-like feel and a charmingly wry sense of humor. Together, these intensely concentrated, minimalist gems combine into an off-beat, highly satisfying coming-of-age story of a very memorable young boy and the age-old legends, practices, and personalities that raise him.”

#3- Syria: Death is Hard Work, by Khaled Khalifa. Translated by Leri Price.

“Abdel Latif, an old man from the Aleppo region, dies peacefully in a hospital bed in Damascus. His final wish, conveyed to his youngest son, Bolbol, is to be buried in the family plot in their ancestral village of Anabiya. Though Abdel was hardly an ideal father, and though Bolbol is estranged from his siblings, this conscientious son persuades his older brother Hussein and his sister Fatima to accompany him and the body to Anabiya, which is―after all―only a two-hour drive from Damascus.

There’s only one problem: Their country is a war zone.

With the landscape of their childhood now a labyrinth of competing armies whose actions are at once arbitrary and lethal, the siblings’ decision to set aside their differences and honor their father’s request quickly balloons from a minor commitment into an epic and life-threatening quest. Syria, however, is no longer a place for heroes, and the decisions the family must make along the way―as they find themselves captured and recaptured, interrogated, imprisoned, and bombed―will prove to have enormous consequences for all of them.”

#4- China: Life, by Lu Yao. Translated by Chloe Estep.

In this first-ever translation of Lu Yao’s Life, we meet Gao Jialin, a stubborn, idealistic, and ambitious young man from a small country village whose life is upended when corrupt local politics cost him his beloved job as a schoolteacher, prompting him to reject rural life and try to make it in the big city. Against the vivid, gritty backdrop of 1980s China, Lu Yao traces the proud and passionate Gao Jialin’s difficult path to professional, romantic, and personal fulfillment—or at least hard-won acceptance.

With the emotional acuity and narrative mastery that secured his reputation as one of China’s great novelists, Lu Yao paints a vivid, emotional, and unsparing portrait of contemporary Chinese life, seen through the eyes of a working-class man who refuses to be broken.”

#5- Japan: Star, by Yukio Mishima. Translated by Sam Bett.

“All eyes are on Rikio. And he likes it, mostly. His fans cheer, screaming and yelling to attract his attention―they would kill for a moment alone with him. Finally, the director sets up the shot, the camera begins to roll, someone yells ’action‘; Rikio, for a moment, transforms into another being, a hardened young yakuza, but as soon as the shot is finished, he slumps back into his own anxieties and obsessions. Being a star, constantly performing, being watched and scrutinized as if under a microscope, is often a drag. But so is life. Written shortly after Yukio Mishima himself had acted in the film ’Afraid to Die,’ this novella is a rich and unflinching psychological portrait of a celebrity coming apart at the seams. Star begs the question: is there any escape from how we are seen by others?”

#6- Chile: The Spirit of Science Fiction, by Roberto Bolaño. Translated by Natasha Wimmer.

“Two young poets, Jan and Remo, find themselves adrift in Mexico City. Obsessed with poetry, and, above all, with science fiction, they are eager to forge a life in the literary world—or sacrifice themselves to it. But as close as these friends are, the city tugs them in opposite directions. Jan withdraws from the world, shutting himself in their shared rooftop apartment where he feverishly composes fan letters to the stars of science fiction and dreams of cosmonauts and Nazis. Meanwhile, Remo runs headfirst into the future, spending his days and nights with a circle of wild young writers, seeking pleasure in the city’s labyrinthine streets, rundown cafés, and murky bathhouses.”

Did you enjoy this list? Check out Spanish Classroom for similar content.

 

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