4 Reasons Literary Translation Is So Difficult

Most types of professional translation look to take content from one project and convert it directly into another language while keeping as much of the original language, precision, and voice as possible. This requires a set of technical that take years to fine-tune and develop. But literary translation is arguably one of the most difficult types of multilingual services.

The literature translation industry is a massive one, bringing in almost $30 billion a year in the United States, close to $13 billion in China, and more than $6 billion in Germany, the three largest publishing hubs. While English is not the most-translated-into language on the market (German claims more than 300,000 translated titles, French has 240,000, and Spanish has 228,000), its more than 160,000 translated books is augmented each year by another five to seven thousand translated books and novels.

Literary translation has been around for thousands of years, with folklore and legends being passed down between generations and languages. Some of the world’s most famous literary translators have been able to alter the course of cultural understanding with literary representations of different nations and people. Think about your most favorite translated novel, and ask yourself whether it was the original author’s or translator’s word you enjoyed. Despite only amounting to about 3 percent of the literary market, translations have a profound effect on the way we perceive others around the world.

It’s a heavy burden to place upon our language experts, and the job has quite a few technical demands. Here are a few reasons why literary translation can be so difficult:

1.    Idioms and cultural references

Most of us don’t realize how often we use idioms in our everyday speech. They flow so smoothly with how we express ourselves and describe the world around us that only when we delve into new languages do we notice how much we rely on them. A literary translator must be able to finagle around the idioms in the source language and produce at least a similar phrase in the target language that retains the meaning and context of the original.

The same goes for cultural references. Someone in, say, India might not understand the nuances of pop culture in America. So translating around these themes and often altering the specific reference or context becomes quite a challenging task for the translator. Literary translators, in working with cultural concepts, are invariably localizing the books they translate.


2.    Names and places

Authors like to give characters in their novels names that work themselves as a kind of metaphoric descriptor. Sinister villains get sharp and foreboding names, while heroes get bright and impressive names that conjure up images of a legendary nature. Being able to find or make up names that accurately fit the descriptive mindset of the author can be extremely difficult when working with a whole new set of adjectives, syllables, and vocabulary.

One of the best examples is the Harry Potter series, which has been translated into hundreds of languages and whose characters often have whimsical names that help readers illustrate their appearances and personalities without ever seeing the movies. The main villain drew his name from an anagram of his birth name, Tom Marvolo Riddle becomes “I am Lord Voldemort.” Translators in numerous languages had to be sure to construct a villainous name from the anagram of whatever “I am” translated to in the target language.

  • French = Tom Elvis Jedusor, “Je suis Voldemort”
  • German = Tom Vorlost Riddle, “Ist Lord Voldemort”
  • Spanish = Tom Sorvolo Riddle, “Soy Lord Voldemort”
  • Turkish = Tom Marvoldo Riddle, “Adım Lord Voldemort”

This becomes an even greater issue in many East Asian languages, which can’t rely on letters with which to create anagrams, so literary translators have to get creative.

3.    Poetry

Poetry is one of the most particular and meticulous segments of literature as it is, and working with poetry translations can be quite the hassle. It gives acute attention to rhythm, syllables, and rhyme, and each word bears a specific responsibility in the context of a sentence.

Establishing an identical translation is nearly impossible, and even more so when trying to rhyme lines or stanzas of a poem. A heavy thesaurus and strong imagination would come in handy.


4.    Style and voice

And the most difficult part of literary translation is keeping the tone, voice, fluency, descriptors, and skill of the original author present in the translated text. This becomes especially challenging when working with hundreds of thousands of words in a single book.

Each author has their own voice, their own way of describing situations, places, food, nature, philosophy, and a translator must work to keep whatever solemnness or quirkiness emanates from the original text into the translation.

No matter how daunting the task of translating a novel, finding the right translator can make or break the ultimate success of a literary work. Working with a company like ATA Translation Agency makes your job easier and stress-free. We have teams of literary experts ready to translate all kinds of literary works into more than 300 languages. Call now for a free quote or more information about our services and affordable prices.


Additional Reading:

International Publishers Association Annual Reports

United Nations Index Translationum Database

Literature Across Frontiers Data and Statistics

Translated Harry Potter Characters

About the Author:

Daniel is based out of Chicago and works as a writer, editor, and translator.

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