What makes translated books so special.. and why is it hard to read them?

What makes translated books special, yet so complicated to read.

I recently finished reading The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk, a famous Turkish novelist. I’m a fast reader and in a good month I can comfortably get through 5 books. However, The Black Book was a black mark on my reading stats. Truth be told, I knew this would happen. In the past I have read My Name is Red which was equally time consuming. To expect a different approach from an author known for his advanced narrative, is like wishing for Steven Spielberg to direct a chick-flick. So with a resolute mindset, some patience and a clear schedule, I sat down to read Pamuk’s not-so-popular The Black Book

The Black Book was published in 1990 in Turkish. The first attempt at the English translation of the novel happened soon after in 1994, but was replaced with another translation by Maureen Freely in 2006. Freely’s translation is in print today. 

Photo by César Viteri on Unsplash

Most of the translated literary works that I’ve come across are packed with history, culture, the local vibe and quirks of the period it represents; instead of a lovely night-time read, they tend to lean towards an academic study. Perhaps this complexity deters casual readers from going the translated book route and instead opt for quick-to-read novels.

Why is translated literature so special?

Why is Anna Karenina, and not a book with skulls and bones on the cover, mandated as a summer reading for high schoolers? 

Reading translated literature is not just about reading books that have been translated to English. It means gaining access to the culture, traditions, philosophies and methods of storytelling from far-flung nations. Most of us grew up with a desire to explore remote locations in the world, and translated works provides just the ideal outlet. Period films come pretty close, but even a 3-hour motion picture cannot capture the sentiments, emotions, ideologies and thoughts that can fit in a 300-page novel.

Book lovers will agree that Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo trilogy was a masterpiece and no directorial intervention can make the movie trump the book. 

Stieg Larsson's The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo in Swedish
Original The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo in Swedish

Why is it hard to read translated books?

Translated works rarely are an easy read. For example take Petersburg by Andrei Bely which ranks as high as the Ulysses, is a literary artwork spanning 5 days in the Russian city in the year 1905. The central story is simple but through the book one gets to experience the rich historical and cultural past of the vast land that has made massive contributions to the world of art. Similarly, The Ice Palace by Norwegian novelist Tarjei Vesaas is only 200 pages but the majority is spent in creating a vivid image of the Norwegian fjords. Vesaas is so deeply committed to drawing the landscape in the reader’s mind that the central story line becomes secondary.

It seems that these contemporary authors take joy in making the reading experience challenging. Going back to the earlier example, Orhan Pamuk’s stories never walk down a single path, instead they begin like a one-way road in which spills a hundred other meandering streets leading into a chaotic mess. Kind of like the cities he represents in his books. 

“There is no greatness where there is simplicity” sniggered Leo Tolstoy before he changed the quote to how we know it today “There is no greatness where there is no simplicity, goodness and truth”

Translated literature is an integral part of our cultural heritage and unlike Google translator, these books require human involvement to decipher emotions, deconstruct analogies and reconstruct sensible sentences.  

Translating books is a tricky business

While we’re on the subject, let’s also take a peak behind the scene. Translating books is not a walk in the park. It requires the translator to have native-like mastery over the two languages, without providing the comfort that the end result will proudly display his/her name on the paperback. Perhaps the monetary compensation makes up for all the effort, or maybe the love for language and literature surpasses all rewards.

Last year I read Flights by Olga Tokarczuk which won the International Booker Prize in 2018. The book was translated by Jennifer Croft from Polish to English. While I didn’t enjoy the book much, I was completely mesmerised and in awe of Tokarczuk/Croft’s writing. I remember thinking to myself, if the essence gets lost in translation how beautiful it would be to read the original book. While researching on the subject, I stumbled on this article in Guardian which describes the relationship between authors and their translators as a silent conversation. 

A collaborative approach, a silent conversation, a professional bond, call it what you may, needless to say that the translator-author partnership has to be extra special.

Translation is not a matter of words only; it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture

Anthony Burgess

Summing up this appreciation post for translated works and translators, here are my top 5 translated books:

  1. The Joke by Milan Kundera – A Czech writer famous for The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but I prefer the lesser known The Joke.              
  2. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka – A Bohemian novelist highlights the burden of responsibility, alienation, isolation and sacrifice in his best-known work
  3. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank – This needs no introduction
  4. The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino – A Japanese author who was highly acclaimed for his tightly packed thriller 
  5. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larson – Again, needs no introduction. The books were made popular by the Hollywood movie starring Daniel Craig. 
The Joke book by Milan Kundera
The Joke by Milan Kundera

Books are easily accessible these days; paperbacks are delivered within a couple of hours, and digital books in a couple of minutes. In all the rush, let’s not take the written word, translated or original, for granted.

I’m making a practice to read more translated books. Do you have a favourite translated book? Drop in the names in the comments.


4 comments on “What makes translated books so special.. and why is it hard to read them?

  1. montyvern

    Thanks for an interesting and informative post. Of your top five, I’ve read Larson and Higashino. Both excellent. I also recommend In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yeah, translated books are quite popular now. And I believe there are awesome. It helps people to be knowledgeable. In Malaysia, we are starting to translate English literature novels into Bahasa Malaysia. That’s awesome. Thank you for sharing this good post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Fadima for your comment. Would you know any Malay author whose work has been translated to English? I would love to read a book on Malaysian culture and heritage.


  3. Pingback: Book Review – The Black Book: Orhan Pamuk – Five Magpies

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