Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky in Russian

With the release of many e-readers, like the Nook, Kindle, iPad, Tablet, etc., books have become available to us at the touch of a button. Not only can we get millions of books electronically but nowadays we don’t even have to read them if we put on our headphones and tune in while multitasking with audio books.

With the availability to provide a plethora of books to readers within seconds, the demand for classic books translated into many different languages has significantly increased.

One of my favorite books is Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I originally read, or struggled to read, the book in its native language, Russian (this was my mother’s brilliant idea to get her 12 year old to learn Russian). When I found out that Crime and Punishment was on the summer list of books to read for my 11th grade English class, I was one of the very, very few who were ecstatic.

After having many discussions about the book in class, I realized many of the students were frustrated with this particular reading assignment. Aside from 576 page time commitment, I noticed that English students were having  a hard time with understanding the content of the book. Having read the book in Russian and English, the problem seemed to be in the translation. I couldn’t help but wonder, how much of the book’s original context got lost in translation?

It seems like there are just some cultural concepts that cannot be translated into another language. I noticed this also, when I read J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. To many people’s surprise, I enjoyed the book in Russian more than in its original language, English. It seemed like there was more sarcasm that exuded from the main character in the Russian version. Some would say that this would depend on how proficient one is in a language, but I would challenge that by saying that English is my strongest language yet the the Russian version of the American classic appealed more to me.

This led me to think about the practice of translation and what that process incorporates. I recently came across linguisticblog.com, a great blog that has posts about all things linguist and language theory related. There was a great post, My Translation Theory by guest blogger Aleksandra Milcic Radovanovic that talks about the art of translation.

Radovanovic says, “During translation, the translator does not judge, he is open to every idea that can cross the author’s mind.” She explains that the translator is more like an actor and needs to put aside their own personal emotions and personality to play the character they are assigned, or in this case, to translate an original piece to another language without adding their personal thoughts.  She goes on to say, “It is not always possible to discover what the author’s intention was: to provide information or to provoke an aesthetic experience. Therefore, the translator must serve the author, stand behind him trying not to miss any of his ideas.”

Is it true that there are just some things that are not possible to fully translate into another language? That no matter how professional and experienced the translator is, some of the context will get altered  a bit due to the language of the book?

What are YOUR thoughts? Have you experienced this when reading a book that has been translated from its original language?

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One Response to Translation Theory

  1. Always an interesting topic. I tend to think that, with the variances in the way we use language, things are translated as we read. There are English words that British and Australian and even Canadian people use differently from the way Americans do, so if I’m reading a book written in British English, there may be details or nuances I miss, or else details or nuances that I interpret differently.

    But I wondered something about your statement: “Some would say, that this would depend on how proficient one is in a language, but I would challenge that by saying that English is my strongest language…” Perhaps the proficiency and enjoyment works in reverse–that you liked the Russian translation better because Russian was newer to you.

    I think of this in my own case. There’s a song from a recent Hindi movie that starts with the lines, “Zara pankh kholo phir udaan dekhna/ zara mauka toh do phir asmaan dekhna.” When I puzzled through the translation, I came up with “Open your wings, and then you will see flight. Take a chance, and then see the sky.” And I found it very charming and beautiful.

    But then I imagined that Katy Perry or Justin Bieber recorded a song in English with pretty much the same sentiment, “Spread your wings and fly, take a chance and touch the sky,” for example. I’d find it kind of banal. Because Hindi is more exotic to me, I might like it more.

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