Tips for Reading a Translated Novel

This article was written by Leslie Collins.

Great literature crosses cultural and language barriers. Fortunately, you don’t have to learn German to enjoy German literature. Most great works of literature have not one, but dozens, or even hundreds of translations available. A translated novel is not without its pitfalls, however. A work of fiction is often rooted in its own culture, with nuances of language and historical context that might not always make it through the translation.

So how do you pick the right translation for you? How do you make sure you’re getting the most out of your reading? Here are a few tips on getting the most out of a translated foreign novel.

Choose Your Translator Carefully

Despite what you may think, all translations are not created equal. An Oxford professor who has devoted an entire career to studying one work may have a different outlook than a freelance translator who just needed the money. Translators often have different ideas about how certain words or phrases should be interpreted, and a handful of sentences can skew the tone of an entire work in unexpected ways. Before picking up a translated novel, check reviews and blogs online to see what other readers have to say about it. Devoted fans of literature tend to be more detail-oriented than casual readers, and you can use this to your advantage.

Pick the Right Edition

Finding the right version for you may not end with a good translation. Not all editions are created equal, either. Many translations of foreign works, like Beowulf, have editions that feature the translation on facing pages with the original language, or extensive footnotes. What edition to choose depends on what you’re looking to get out of the novel. If you’re looking to glean historical context and cultural nuances, a translation with lots of footnotes and additional information might be useful. If you just want to lose yourself in the story, you’re better off finding an edition without the extraneous material.

Pick Multiple Editions

Granted, not everyone has the time to read the same book several times. But if you’re truly looking to know the material inside and out, consider picking up two or more editions of the same book. Reading them back-to-back is likely to raise questions and bring to light surprising differences between the translations. If you’re the kind of person who can handle it, you might even try reading both translations at once!

Have a Dictionary Handy

Foreign language translations are, by their very nature, frequently inaccurate and incomplete. Many translated novels have some words that simply don’t translate well to other languages. In cases like this, it helps to have a foreign language dictionary on hand to catch the occasional foreign phrase that the translator may have found too slippery to deal with. Learning the “dictionary definition” of foreign words can also reveal context or nuance you may otherwise have missed.

Do Some Research

If you’re truly looking to glean a deeper understanding of the work you’re reading, take your engagement beyond the book itself. Do some independent research on the author, the subject matter, or the time period. You might be surprised at what contextual clues you might uncover. Many authors (and even translators) take certain historical or cultural facts for granted, and a casual reader might miss them entirely.

Find a Fellow Reader

For literature enthusiasts, nothing beats a lively discussion of a literary work. Try to find other people who have read the work in question — perhaps in your book club, online, or in your circle of friends — and see where your interpretations and conclusions differ. You may be surprised at how different (or similar) your experiences were.

Reading outside your language and culture can be a broadening and rewarding experience, exposing you to new ideas and concepts. Reading a foreign-language novel, even a translated one, is a great way to expand your horizons.

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Leslie Collins works for Pimsleur Approach. She has yet to learn German but she enjoys reading Kafka in translation.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Kyle Taylor.

3 Replies to “Tips for Reading a Translated Novel”

  1. This is a great piece, Leslie! I was lucky to be able to find a great translation of Beowulf, after reading several horrible translations. I guess, my trick, was finding a reputable publisher that I trusted. (It happened to be Everyman, by the way.) I suppose, I’d throw that in as an extra tip. For a lot of my translated Medieval Literature that I happen to own, I have found that looking up the translator is a great tip. For instance, the best translation that I own of Gawain and the Green Knight is from Tolkien, which is usually surprising to people, because they don’t know his background in teaching.

    Funny enough, I have been taking German for two years now and have yet to have the courage to pick up a German novel. I have read children’s books, etc. but not an actual novel. I have read Thomas Mann in English, but I’d love to read something of his in German. I mean, I have the gist of the stories, so it would be interesting to re-read them in another language.

    Again, great piece and I really enjoyed reading it.

  2. As a translator and a former Romance-Languages student, I love this. Translations are very important, and some are a step-above the others. Beyond classics, it’s also interesting to read translations of popular books by authors like Dave Sedaris….so many things don’t translate and have to be included in footnotes.

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