What Makes for Great Translated Literature?

A question that has plagued book lovers for time immemorial has been - Is the translated literature closest possible to its original? An extension to this question is one faced by millennials now - Dubbed or subbed? From the movie adaptations and subtitles to foreign authors, all literature is invaluable after translation too. In this article, we shall see what exactly does translating literature entail and what makes for a great translation.

There is a widespread myththat literary translation is ‘loose and inaccurate when compared to its original text, this is nothing but delusion - a common misconception. In essence, translated literature goes through multiple levels of quality checks and is efficiently done by professional language experts. Before we understand what makes it great, let us take a look at what translated literature means.

Defining Translated Literature

Literary translation is an art involving the transposing and interpreting of creative works such as novels, short prose, poetry, drama, comic strips, and film scripts from one language and culture into another. It can also involve intellectual and academic works like psychology publications and philosophy papers, art and literary criticism, and works of classical and ancient literature.

From the Bible to Don Quixote to Freud and Einstein to Naguib Mahfouz and Orhan Pamuk - these are just a few examples of translated work that has had incredible global influence. If translating literature and academia interests you, learning how to translate can be incredibly rewarding.

It is thus ironic that usually the work done by accomlished translators tends to fade in the background. You see, that’s the whole point of translation in the first place! The ability to understand as well as communicate words, thoughts, concepts and experiences across different worlds, cultures and communities without losing an ounce of its uniqueness - and to make a translation read like an original - that’s what makes it an art. That’s what makes it sublime.

How to recognise great translations

It is easy to point out a job poorly done. It is easy to recognise a bad translation. From funny grammar to idioms that don’t really make sense, misinterpreted text or confusing context - we get it! But what makes a translation awesome? Impeccable sentence construction? Stellar vocabulary? What makes for a successful translation?

1. Understanding the original text

The first thing that any professional translator does when starting on a project is to read the original text and understand it. Many go through it multiple times, make notes, write their own papers. It is important to not only understand what’s written but also to go beyond the words - to understand contexts and emotions. This could even entail further research not only into the original text but also the author, history as well as culture.

Literature has an amazing quality of setting free the readers imagination while still keeping them at a very tight emotional spot. It is this tightrope that the translator must not only understand but also learn to mimic. Becoming an avid reader in the languages you have learnt gives you the tools required to make sure that your translation is exact and accurate. As simple as it sounds, the first step is reading.

2. Perfect your grammar

Each language has a very specific and fixed set of rules that makes it understandable. The grammar of each language is of utmost importance. Many of us may know our mother-tongues to perfection, but have we ever stopped to take a look at our grammar? The difference between colloquial and accurate writing or speaking is vast .. and hence reading and speaking is always easier than writing in a language.

When we are dealing with more than one language, we are dealing with twice the grammar rules. Sometimes they don't line up with each other .. more so in languages from different families like English and Hindi for example. Every translator must know the basics of both the languages. This makes it easy to maintain the flow of your translated work. It is the basic tool that you require to guarantee the quality of the translated document. Grammar is the difference between knowing a language and being an expert.

3. Cultural awareness

Every translated work crosses the boundaries of culture. While this may not mean a complete change in the plot of the work, understanding the cultural backgrounds of both countries proves to be very helpful especially when it comes to metaphors, idioms and more. In order to add value to the work, the translator must anticipate the cultural differences and bridge them seamlessly. Whether it is by adding a small footnote or using certain known words, it is the translators’ responsibility to get the exact message across without losing its core. Knowing the culture also includes an understanding of slang, idioms and common sayings of each language.

To illustrate - “Dost” when being translated to English could be “friend”, “mate” or “buddy” according to the country or region that the work is being translated for! These details add authenticity and make translated literature relatable globally.

A good translation also recognises the original writer’s style and voice, but to convey them to the foreign reader in keeping with the writer’s intentions, the translator might need to retune them slightly, using different techniques. While perfection may be a myth, translation is definitely a challenging profession as every translator strives for perfection with every project! Learn more about literary translations or get your work translated in more than 200 languages with Language Services Bureau where experts will guide you and aid you in all your linguistic projects.

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