Common problems when translating literature and how to solve them
Updated: May 5
What problems emerge when translating literature?
In this post, I draw on insights from my own experience and from attending the British Centre for Literary Translation’s summer school.
The summer school organises workshops for different languages each year. In 2022, I was one of ten participants working from Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, and Montenegrin into English.
Besides fiction editing, I translate novels and short stories, and I love working with exophonic authors (authors for whom English is not their first language) – this kind of editing has much in common with fiction translation.
Translating literature: being true to the original vs. meeting audience expectations
One of the big issues in translation generally concerns how far your translation departs from the source text. You can think of this as a sliding scale between being true to the original and meeting the new audience’s expectations.
Many novice translators stick too closely to the source text, as they lack the confidence to make more substantial changes.
For instance, take a Croatian phrase like “janjeći kotleti.” At first glance, this could be translated as “lamb cutlets.” This is a phrase used in English and because it sounds closer, many Croatian speakers are likely to think it’s a good translation. But “lamb chops” is a more common phrase and better translation for this term most of the time.
Now, if you are translating a legal testimony, retaining the precise wording is more important than translating and adapting style features of the discourse. For medical texts, you absolutely must get the terminology spot on.
What about literature?
When translating literature and fiction more generally, it’s really important to create a translation that is nice to read in the target language. This is because rhythm, flow, tone, and style are key things to consider. If a text reads well, it will keep the reader engaged and immersed in the story, which is the ultimate goal. For non-fiction texts, one of the main writing purposes is usually to communicate a message, so rhythm and flow are often less important.
With fiction, for instance, you might want to retain alliteration, and to do so, you may move farther away from the original meaning.
Alternatively, you might have a detail or phrase that sounds technical or medical in English but is used every day in your language. While terminological precision is super important for non-fiction, for fiction what often counts is the role the phrase plays in advancing the story. So it's okay to be creative if another word or phrase serves the same purpose and keeps the reader immersed and engaged.
For fiction, adapting the text to a new readership may also involve cultural adaptation to storytelling norms in Anglo-American publishing. For instance:
Novels written in other European languages often include a much wider variety of dialogue tags than English. English strongly favours the dialogue tags “said,” ”asked,” and “replied.” Phrases like “she suggested,” or "she explained," usually sound unnecessarily verbose in English. But they are often relatively invisible to the reader in other languages.
Novels published in English that use a third-person limited viewpoint strongly avoid head hopping. Head hopping is more common in other languages.
There’s no right or wrong here. The first point is just a convention that’s become the norm. More widely, it reflects a preference in English for terse, simple prose over longer sentences and a more ornate style.
The second point is really about promoting reader immersion in the story – and avoiding head hopping is one way of doing that. But for smaller or different audiences, reader immersion could be promoted in other ways.
Now for some common problems when translating fiction …
Problem one: direct translation
This is when the translated text maps too closely on to the original. Usually, this is because individual parts of sentences have been translated literally or directly, instead of translating each sentence or the entire text more holistically. The result can often be a translation reads poorly and includes constructions that simply don’t work in the target language.
A common example of this in fiction and creative non-fiction is the direct translation of gerunds:
Raskomotili smo se, brčkajući se po plitkoj vodi.
English direct translation
We took off our clothes, splashing around in the shallow water.
We took off our clothes, then we splashed around in the shallow water.
In English, the direct translation implies that the two actions happened at the same time. This is called a false simultaneity and should be avoided in fiction writing.
Problem two: Mistranslations
Mistranslations are another frequent problem. The more serious of these result from false friends, and they are easily done when working between two languages!
Take a look at these examples:
modni detalji, emisije
fashion details, emissions
fashion accessories, (tv) programmes
You can easily make such slip-ups when you are working between two or more languages.
Of course, language also does this kind of borrowing all the time. Indeed, when a literal word-for-word translation takes root in another language (e.g., beer garden [from Biergarten]), linguists call it a calque. In a way, this is just an extension of a natural thing that our brains do. When writing for publication, we need to make sure we’re intelligible to our audience.
In fiction, these are an issue when they fundamentally change the meaning of a text in a way that results in a misunderstanding!
Problem three: overtranslation
Overtranslation is the opposite of undertranslation. Here, the translator takes too many liberties, usually unintentionally. They just translate the loose gist of the text, adding extra details that are unnecessary.
Sometimes, this results from sloppiness, while on other occasions it’s come from a place of trying to be very creative combined with a lack of awareness of the translation process.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t tweak the style and tone, and take things further away from the original than you would for most of non-fiction.
For example, in South Slavic languages, some literary texts with an ornate style would be considered overwrought in English. While I always maintain the spirit of the author’s style, in these situations I find some paring down is necessary (much like during a heavy line edit) so that the English version of the text would not cause the average reader’s eyes to roll.
Problem four: too much exposition
Fiction involves immersion in another person’s world and perspective. This means there can often be a lot of contextual, cultural references. This is where my background in cultural anthropology is incredibly useful!
Here are a few possible solutions:
I might delete references to places or cultural details that won’t resonate with an English-speaking audience.
Sometimes I change these references to make them resonate more with an English-speaking audience.
Sometimes I add some extra information about these references to make them intelligible to, or resonate more with English-speaking audience. The posh word for this is exegetic translation. In fiction, this can be boring if it’s just standard exposition though.
Finally, the extra information can be woven into the story through an extra line of dialogue or character reflection. This avoids too much exposition. Susan Bernofsky calls this a stealth gloss.
Hope you found this useful! If so, please reply in the comments and let me know what issues you have come across when translating fiction into English!
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Andrew Hodges, PhD is a developmental editor and line editor who specializes in editing fiction for science fiction and fantasy writers. Their expertise is in worldbuilding and cultural considerations when crafting setting in stories.
They are an advanced professional member of the CIEP, a member of the EFA, and an ALLi partner member.
You can contact them here, or feel free to leave a comment below!
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