Saturday, June 11, 2016

Why Read Translated Works?

This was a question sent to me a few months back. I never had the chance to answer this earlier, mainly because I feel I have no substantial answer, to begin with. You see, I’m no expert on the subject, and anything I’ll say here is purely based on my opinion as a reader or a person who delights in reading good books. If it’s an expert’s opinion you’re after, then you’re on the wrong page. If you want to stick around, you have to take everything with a grain of salt.

I learn.

Did I buy them because they were translations? No.
So far I have read a number of translated works, none of them I bought for that reason. The truth is, only after reading most of them did I realize that they were translations. (Just to show you how deep my expertise on this subject.) And it took a while before I did realize what I like about them. 

Translation in literature, for me, is more than breaking the language barrier. It helps us learn about other cultures, their fashion, their spirituality, and their political views, how they really feel about family values and their passion for food. Most of the answers to these made me laugh, shocked at the huge difference with mine, and marveled at the similarities.

Lost in translation.

Transmitting cultural aspects through literature is a difficult mission. It is a multifaceted collection of experiences in daily life. And I am often fascinated with the translator’s ability to capture and project them, and to be understood by readers outside the original cultural condition. Sure, some readers are vexed because some sense does get lost in translation, but heck, it's not about to cause World War III, right?
Without translation, I would be limited to the borders of my own country.
The translator is my most important ally.
He introduces me to the world. -Italo Calvino

Oh, the places you'll go!

Translation is also akin to traveling to places we have not reached yet.  It’s been years, but the image of Stockholm is stockpiled in my memory on how Reg Keeland translated it for Stieg Larsson. I felt the melancholic voice of José Saramago when Margaret Jull Costa translated his memories of Azinhaga and Lisbon. I will always miss the lights of Barcelona as Lucia Graves translated it for Carlos Ruiz Zafón.

Keeping the windows open.

Lastly, whilst I read English-written works more often, I also read translations because I think it’s abnormal and restrictive to lock myself from the rest of the remarkable literature mankind have written.
It is better to have read a great work of another culture in translation
than never to have read it at all. -Henry Gratton Doyle

While we’re at it, here are the Best Translated Novels and Favorite Translated Literature from Goodreads Listopia. And THE MILLIONS announced the Winners for the Best Translated Book for 2016.

I'm also interested in your opinion on this matter. Please, do share.


  1. I agree on all points. Like you, I don't consciously seek out works in translation. I do some research on books that I might be interested in, and more often than not, a number of these books are translations.

    My interest in the works of Nobel laureates has helped me in exploring these works. But that doesn't answer the question, does it? Why indeed? There's so much that literature can offer. Confining yourself to a limited set of authors, genres, and languages is a loss. One will not be able to feel the full extent of literature's grasp if one were to read only what is comfortable and what is easily accessible. And this is why translators must be appreciated for letting us discover books that we otherwise won't have access to.

    1. "And this is why translators must be appreciated for letting us discover books that we otherwise won't have access to."

      I agree. And awards such as NTA and BTBA should gain more recognition and support too.
      Thanks, Angus!

  2. I don't buy or read books for the lone reason that they are translated works. I do it because I want to read the book! That they're translations is just an inconsequential incident. :)