Talk To Me: Are Translations Important?

September 19, 2014 books, discussion 3

This post is inspired by a BBC article on why English speakers won’t read books in translation.

Talk to Me

is a new no-nonsense feature on this blog. No-nonsense means I’m too lazy to make it look pretty. It’s exactly what the title suggests: I’m going to ask you a question or tell you my own opinion about something, and I want to know what you think about it!


When I was younger, I never really cared whether a book was a translation – unless I had to wait for the next book in a series because it had to be translated before I could read it. Other than that, the main criterion that decided whether I would read a book was, of course, always the story. To be honest, I never even thought about the subject that much until I read the above linked article. The author of it wonders why literatures from other languages make up so little of the English-language publishers’ output and it got me thinking. I almost exclusively read books written in English these days, and I read them in the original because I can, because I like it and because I don’t trust the translation. Before I was able to do this, however, I was already an avid reader. When I think back to my childhood, I’m pretty sure that the majority of the books I read were translations from English, so I never really thought about the fact that this could be different in other countries.

Part of it has to do with my reading tastes of course, but from what I’ve seen, I would be willing to bet that the number of translations published in Germany is significantly higher than the two or three percent of English-language publishers the article mentions. So… why is that? Do publishers think translations aren’t that important? Is there no demand for them? Do people even really care whether a book was translated from another language or not? Is it maybe because there’s so much material available, or because it simply didn’t even occur to them?


I am of the opinion that, sometimes, you can learn more about the everyday life of people from a foreign country by reading a book set in that country – and written by someone who is native to that country – than by actually going there. I’m not saying you shouldn’t still go there: there are things a book can’t convey, but you probably won’t really experience day-to-day life when you’re on a holiday. And even if you plan to stay there for longer you will see it all through the eyes of a foreigner. Again, that’s not a bad thing per se; every perspective can add something valuable – but it is something different. With a book, you can see another country through a native’s eyes. You can experience what they do every day, how they react to it and, maybe without the author even trying for it, you’ll get to know the country a little bit better by the simple act of reading that book. You might even get to see a fresh perspective on writing and storytelling. With all of this in mind, I think it doesn’t hurt to read a foreign book from time to time. And, since most of us aren’t fluent in twenty different languages, you’ll probably have to read the translation. I do think that some things are lost in translation, which is why I prefer to read the original if I can, but more things are gained by the general experience of reading foreign books than are diluted by translation. Unless they suck, that is. In that case never mind.


Now to the fun part: what is your experience with this? If you’re from an English-speaking country, have you actually noticed there aren’t a lot of translations around or do you think the stats don’t reflect reality? Does the fact whether a book is a translation ever impact your reading choices? Do you think there should be more translations around?

If you’re not from an English-speaking country, how has it been for you growing up? Did you/do you read lots of translations? Do you think they’ve added some fresh perspectives, or do you think the original language of a book really doesn’t matter at all and all that counts is the story?

3 Responses to “Talk To Me: Are Translations Important?”

  1. Inge @ Bookshelf Reflections

    From the moment I started reading, I always read books in English. I just prefer the original text. Sometimes, when the original text is Swedish (like with The Circle, a fantasy series) I have to read a translation, but it’s obvious from reading it that it’s a translation. It doesn’t feel the same somehow.

    It’s ironic that I think this because I study languages and most of the students become interpreters and translators, but still.

    And yeah, like you said, you can really go places by reading a book from that country. I love reading about those little things that make a country a country. Sometimes translators have to chance all of those things so people from the translated country still understand what’s going on.

    So, yeah. Give me an original copy any day!
    Inge @ Bookshelf Reflections recently posted…The Return of Karolina + New Feature: Book vs MovieMy Profile

    • Vlora


      Oh god yes, I hate it when it’s obvious that it’s a translation because of the translator’s style. It didn’t use to bother me when I was younger (I couldn’t possibly have read books in English when I started reading in elementary school :D), but now I really, really hate it. But that’s mostly with English books – with French books for example I’d technically still prefer the original but then i’m way too lazy to read it because I just don’t understand that much. :D

      Yeah haha I could probably also become a translator with what I’m studying, but so far I don’t even feel inclined to take Translation I, so I’m pretty sure that’s not gonna happen!
      Vlora recently posted…The Friday 56My Profile

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