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A Case for Literature In Translation: Why Do We Read Them?

The world’s best-selling book of all time, The Holy Bible, has had almost 5 billion copies sold and distributed. Coincidentally, this also makes it the best-selling translated book to have ever been sold. Unless you are proficient in Hebrew (and Aramaic), chances are that you have read the Bible either in English or your native language. If you think about it, some of the greatest philosophical works, like those of Aristotle and Plato have made their way to mainstream philosophy after a long journey of translations to Arabic, Latin, and finally in common parlance. In fact, our first introduction to Shakespeare is also most likely to be a translation‒ not in the truest sense of the word, but an edition that has simplified old English to the one that we speak today. Almost all classics tend to have abridged versions‒ editors trim the fat to make the original text palatable to the contemporary reader in a way that is indistinguishable from the other titles being published alongside. The liberties taken with language and manipulation of the text in such cases are comparable to those of translated works, provided the end product remains faithful to the original text despite these significant alterations. 

Comic strips are synonymous with the Sunday paper. One such comic strip–Asterix–was quickly identified as a hit, and calls for English translations were made within a decade of its publication. Since then, generations of young readers have eagerly looked forward to this staple of translated writing. This only goes to show how most of us naturally took to translations, that too at a young age, without ever making a conscious decision to do so.

The simplest and best reason for reading translations is that it’s a window to a different world– well-translated books can quite literally take us across the globe to cultures and people who would have otherwise remained strangers to us. Apart from being tickets to faraway lands, translations are often the first step to learning more about a region’s history or languages. Reading works in translations is hardly likely to make you a polyglot but it sure is an effortless way of picking up the smatterings of a new language. All’s Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque could pique your interest in World War I, while Anne Frank’s The Diary Of a Young Girl could force you to imagine what life for a Jew in Nazi Germany would have been like. On a more optimistic note, I Am a Cat by Soseki Natsume gives us a glimpse of early 20th century Japanese life as seen by a cat. Translations are tools of learning and a powerful reminder of diverse histories that live beyond our textbooks.

Magical realism has become an immensely popular genre in pop writing. Even though it shares a few traits with fantasy, magical realism in literature is identified by stories that are grounded in reality but have an undertone of magic or fantasy. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude brought this genre to the mainstream, and the baton was picked up and perfected by authors like Haruki Murakami (Kafka on the Shore) and Isabel Allende’s spectacular debut work, The House of Spirits. This also makes me think of Japanese fiction, which despite their short lengths and simple storytelling reflects the same orderliness that is associated with the Japanese way of living. Though it might not be a new genre per se, it’s an interesting way to look at literature nevertheless. If not for some timely translations, these stories and sometimes entire genres would’ve been lost to most of us.

This, of course, also makes us think about the various new writing styles that have emerged from translations. Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler subverts the linear storytelling trope by using prolepsis and breaking a single chapter into several sections to reflect on the absurdities of reality, nature, and perception– that’s as meta as it gets! In fact, a good translator has to be a great mediator when it comes to successfully translating such genre-defying books into a different language. The job demands not only staying faithful to the text but also how it’s written. Anthea Bell, who translated Asterix in English, has often talked about the challenges of naming the characters in English considering how the original names are often wordplays of the French language. It takes sufficient dexterity and discernment to craft the text to suit a completely new (and often unintended) readership. 

Translation is often an invisible art, and in this invisibility lies the translator’s genius. Yet every so often, a translation feels so seamless, so natural that it seems unbelievable to us that the work had ever existed in its “original” language. Any translation demands the effortless merging of two authorial voices while simultaneously competing for the reader’s attention– “how do I stand out as translator/writer without overshadowing the author?” Anita Desai, in her short story, Translator, Translated brings alive this very conflict that every translator must confront. And even though translating may be an invisible art, thankfully it isn’t an unrecognized one. Every year, prestigious awards such as The International Booker Prize, International Dublin Literary Award, and National Book Award honor the best works in translation.

As is true to any reading, we read translations in hopes of finding comfort in the universality of human existence. Translators bring us wondrous, joyful literature from across geographies and timelines. Translated literature is essential— otherwise, how would you ever know about the feminist utopia in Rokeya Ali’s Sultana’s Dream, or tick off Stieg Larson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as an essential reading from the list of the 100 Best Books of All Time?

More translated works to read:

  1. Anxious People by Fredrik Backman (Author), Neil Smith (Translator)
  2. Khwabnama by Akhteruzzaman Elias (Author), Arunava Sinha (Translator)
  3. Tamas by Bhisham Sahni (Author), Daisy Rockwell (Translator)
  4. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind (Author), John E. Woods (Translator)
  5. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (Author), Ginny Tapley Takemori (Translator)
Sayari Debnath
Sayari Debnath
Sayari Debnath is a literature graduate from Calcutta, India. She enjoys talking about books, cats and Renaissance paintings. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.
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