Lost in Translation


Photograph: Sam Howzit
Photograph: Sam Howzit

The novels of Jo Nesbø and the posthumously published works of Stieg Larsson have undoubtedly aided the popularity of translated novels. Nordic Crime and Thriller is something of a phase in current popular culture after critically acclaimed TV shows such as The Killing taking centre stage and the Millennium Trilogy alone having sold over 75 million copies, now is undoubtedly the time for novels in translation to become more of a focus on our book shelves. Yet despite such a golden opportunity, it seems as though publishers in the UK are reluctant to take on novels in translation. As reported by Literature Across Frontiers (a platform used to highlight lesser translated literatures) only 4.5% of fiction published in the British Isles is translated.

My own experience of literature in translation stems back to reading as a child. From a young age I found Grimms’ Fairy Tales and Inkheart by Cornelia Funke enchanting and it was only until many years later that I discovered they were works of translation.  This fascination led to me several years later buying the original German edition of Inkheart (i.e. Tintenherz) and aiming to get my German up to a good enough standard to read it in the original, an aim I have yet to accomplish. I would not find it surprising if many others have similar experiences and have not even realised it, as many will have encountered Grimms’ Fairy Tales in the popular Walt Disney film adaptations. I later read and adored José Saramago’s novel Blindness, a truly fascinating novel about the nature of societal collapse after a pandemic of unexplained blindness.

There are, however, many anxieties about reading literature in translation. Many believe the meaning of a novel can change and thus the translated edition of a novel becomes more of an adaptation and less true to the original. The end of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, a tragicomic play about an aristocratic family, there is a poignant scene in which they have left their estate and the old family servant, Firs, is abandoned. One translation of the play takes a tragic turn, the other views the scene in a comic light, all because of one word (one has ‘oh bother’ and the other ‘oh booby’). Therefore there can be an issue with translating complex works, wherein the difference of a word can change the emotional response of its audience. However, this should not deter us but merely encourage our engagement with the text.

it seems as though publishers in the UK are reluctant to take on novels in translation

Other reservations about novels in translation are seen in the argument that there are plenty of authors with diverse backgrounds who write stunning novels in English. Novelists such as Khaled Hosseini, Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy all publishing novels in English which focus upon a different cultural background. To understand and accept these cultural differences, some may say, is surely the main aim; whether they are translated or not is a moot point. However, aren’t we still limiting our scope by reading novels purely written in English? Second year English and Mandarin student Hargreaves agrees with reading works in translation and says that it “adds a lot more diversity to an English department.” She then went on to state that ‘we should call all ‘English’ departments ‘Literature’ departments in order to reflect the true diversity of literature that we study.

It does seem that we are missing out a world of alternative perspectives if we ignore literature in translation. We should all learn something from our childhood selves, who ultimately didn’t care whether Snow White was in our own language or in translation, yet simply enjoyed it for its own merits.


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