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Literary Translations: Challenges & Successes

literary translation can present multiple challenges, but also opportunities for success
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Literary translations are incredibly important; translated literature can transport readers to different countries and to the heart of cultures that they would never otherwise experience, and its influence has been integral to our history.  

Without literary translations, everything from religious texts to classic works such as Aesop’s Fables and Homer’s The Odyssey would never have had such a wide reach. However, the process is not without its challenges, with the sheer length and word count of some texts making the task extremely time-consuming and labour-intensive. 

But in the modern, increasingly globalised, digitalised world, is literary translation getting any easier? There are some extraordinary examples of it proving successful, but challenges remain. 

Translated Literature: The Challenges

Translating literature can present multiple problems. Take the fact that some languages are read from left to right, while some are read from right to left, for instance; this can end up completely changing the structure of a text, and potentially its length too.  

In fact, ‘word swells’ are a common challenge in literary translations, as phrases that may use two words in English, might use significantly more in another language to say the same thing. 

It can also be difficult to accurately convey the meanings of idioms, puns and deliberate subtleties in a translated version of a text. In some cases, character and place names will remain the same. But in others, the intentions behind the likes of Dickensian character names could be completely lost, taking away some of the delight of the original story.  

The Challenges of Translating Poetry

Translating poetry brings very different challenges, as poetic devices such as rhyme, alliteration, assonance, iambic pentameter and creative line structure are often included deliberately, and there are often no direct translations that can convey their intention and meaning perfectly. 

This means that literary translators require good creative writing ability and in-depth knowledge of a variety of subject matter, as well as fluency in multiple languages. 

Literary Translation Success Stories

Some of the most-translated languages in the literary world are: 

  • English 
  • Irish 
  • Japanese 
  • Arabic 
  • Swedish 
  • Dutch 
  • Norwegian 

There are numerous awards especially for successful literary translations, including the National Book Award for Translated Literature in the US, and the International Booker Prize (formerly known as the Man Booker International Prize), which launched in 2016.  

The International Booker Prize recognises the work of the author and the translator equally and was most recently won by Jokha Alharthi, writer of Celestial Bodies, and Marilyn Booth, who translated it from its original Arabic. 

The Magic and Complexities of Successful Literary Translation

One of the greatest examples of a literary translation success story is JK Rowling’s Harry Potter novel series, which has been translated into more than 70 languages, ranging from Azerbaijani and Ancient Greek to Latin and Yiddish. 

However, even this extraordinary success came with significant challenges, with terms such as ‘Diagon Alley’ and ‘Knockturn Alley’ losing some of their clever meaning when translated into other languages.  

It also led to some unfortunate literal translations – in French, ‘Hogwarts’ translates as ‘Poudlard’, which literally means ‘bacon lice’. 

At the same time, it presented an opportunity for translators working in certain languages to exercise some creative licence of their own. For instance, the Hindi translation uses the ancient Sanskrit language for the spell incantations, in a similar way to how the English version uses Latin. 

Documents Translations vs Literary Translations

This level of creativity isn’t necessarily an option for translators who primarily work with professional documents, but different types of translation are suited to different skillsets. 

At Language Connect, we work with translators fluent in languages from across the globe, and match their skillsets to your business needs to ensure you’re accessing the best language service for you. 

Whether you’re looking to translate one page or 100 pages, work in publishing, the travel industry or the health service, we’ll connect you with the right translator to help your business to meet its goals. 

Find out more about translation services from Language Connect. 



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