6 Reasons to Read Translated Literature

How often do you expand your literary horizons to books published in other cultures and countries? Here, translator Nicky Harman addresses several compelling reasons why you should read more translated literature.
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How often do you expand your literary horizons to books published in other cultures and countries? There's a wealth of knowlegde out there that is informed by international cultural perspectives that English-only readers may have never considered—but those doors can open to those who look for them. Here, translator Nicky Harman addresses several compelling reasons why you should read more translated literature:

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6 Reasons to Read Translated Literature

by Nicky Harman

1. Most of us don’t need a reason, because we’re reading translated literature already.

Classic literary works—and even The Bible—have become so much a part of our common culture that we don’t think of them as translated. And where would modern philosophy be without Plato and Aristotle, translated into Arabic, then into Latin and then into the vernacular during the Middle Ages? As for newer classics: Who hasn’t read Asterix (translated by Anthea Bell), or immersed themselves in Nordic thrillers like Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with Dragon Tattoo (translated by Reg Keeland)?

2. Because it can open a window into another world.

Many years ago, I read a deeply personal essay by a Taiwan journalist recounting an ordeal she had suffered some years previously—her apartment was burgled and she was raped, and she had never told anyone about it until she wrote it down. The story brought home to me how privileged I was to be able to read this in Chinese and to be able, through translation, to open that virtual window for other readers. Translations take us places we may never physically go and introduce us to people we would never otherwise meet. My latest translation, of Jia Pingwa’s Happy Dreams, is a case in point. A Chinese trash-collector, the eponymous Happy Liu, travels from his rural home to the city of Xi’an, taking only an eternally positive attitude, his devoted best friend Wufu, and a pair of high-heeled women’s shoes he hopes to fill with the love of his life. Because of the quality of the writing, he is immediately fleshed out as a complex human being with the hopes and dreams and sorrows that we all have. And no, I will never look at street cleaners in the same way again.

3. To enjoy creative and exciting styles of writing.

Translators routinely find their command of English stretched to its limits in the process of finding a style that recreates that of the original. Happy Dreams is narrated in dialect by a half-educated trash collector. As the translator, I had to give him a voice in English that sounded as natural and colourful as the original, but was not implausibly regional-English (so he couldn’t sound like a Glaswegian binman) and was acceptable both to US and UK readers. I wrote about some of the challenges of creating that voice in the literary blog Bookanista.

Another example: Anthea Bell’s delightful English-language versions of the Asterix series required a significant creative input on her part, not least in naming the 400-odd characters, because "they are not really names, but comic spoofs on names made up out of French words in the original. For instance the village bard Assurancetourix = assurance tous risques, ‘comprehensive insurance.’ As with all the Gauls, his name ends in the suffix —ix, to echo the genuine Vercingetorix. But translated straight the phrase sounds nothing like a name of any kind. In English he becomes Cacofonix because he is tone-deaf and sings and plays so badly out of tune that his music is mere cacophony."

4. Because when you read a translated novel, you are reading two authors, that of the original and of the translation.

Translators are never invisible, nor should they be (try the hashtag #namethetranslator for some interesting thoughts on this). Consciously or subconsciously, they have to balance their dual responsibility to the author and to their readers: They must give their author a voice in English that accurately renders her/his content, style and the intended effect (humour, pathos…) and they must make the work readable for the new target audience. Some come down more on one side than the other.

An example is when a feminist translator like Luise von Flotow chooses to subvert the "generic masculine" and use "she" and "her," in translating a male Latin American writer. (I’ve done the same myself: where the Chinese author refers to a doctor or an official without specifying the gender, I frequently make them female.) And here’s Nawako Nakayasu in LitHub on translating experimental poetry from Japanese: ‘To present the thing as a translation, you have to repack it again in the new language and leave the reader to unpack it all over again for themselves. But as a translator, or anyone who has engaged deeply with a poem, it’s fun to leave it unpacked sometimes.’

5. To explore new genres.

There was a time a time when magical realism scarcely existed in English. Then came Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude) by Gabriel García Márquez, one of the world’s most famous novels. Translated by Gregory Rabassa, it was instrumental in making magical realism hugely influential in English and other languages. And to give a more recent example, there is a new wave of Chinese scifi available in translation. The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin (translated by Ken Liu) won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2015, and has gone a long way to popularizing Chinese scifi and fantasy writing.

6. Because you will be reading some of the best writing from another language and culture, and a good translation is itself a work of art.

Some prestigious literary prizes have come to recognise this: in the International Dublin Literary Award, translations into English and works originally written in English compete on an equal footing, and in 2017 the winning book was a translation, A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa and Daniel Hahn.

About Translator Nicky Harman: Nicky Harman is co-Chair of the Translators Association (Society of Authors) and translates full-time from Chinese. She won Mao Tai Cup People’s Literature Chinese-English translation prize in 2015 and was the first prize winner in the 2013 China International Translation Contest. Nicky currently resides in the UK and is available for interview.

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