Difficulties of Literary Translation

Difficulties of Literary Translation – Translating between a Rock and a Hard Place

This is a guest post by Day Translations, Inc.

Difficulties of Literary Translation All translations require excellent knowledge of the target and source languages, as well as an understanding of the cultural background and context into which a document is being translated. However, in the case of literary translation, various concerns, such as subjective interpretation of the original text, distinguish this translation process from that involved in non-literary translations.

Language as a Creative Weapon

To begin with, in literary translation, the language is an end in and of itself, and its function transcends mere communication. Literary creativeness is, therefore, needed not only during the writing of the original work, but also during the translation of it. However, the latter differs in that it is not free-standing, as it is intrinsically linked to the form and tone of the original work. This creative translation involves synthesizing a series of elements, such as rhythm, punctuation, syntax, mood, and meaning (or, in other words, content and form). According to Ziaul Haque of Sylhet International University, one of the main problems affecting literary translators is that they forget that the various elements work together in a dialectical relationship within a literary work. That relationship needs to be kept, reproduced, or approximated in the target translation in order for the translated work to closely resemble the source text.

Two Languages, Two Worlds

But, what does “keep or reproduce the dialectical relationship of the original” or “work in a similar way to the source text” really mean? As soon as we try to answer these questions, we encounter another key difficulty in the process of literary translation. When the source and target languages are spoken by people from different cultural groups and backgrounds, then meanings, feelings, and reactions to literary texts can sometimes be entirely different from those created within the source audience. American anthropologist and linguist Edward Sapir, who developed the theory of linguistic relativism, believed that no two languages could ever represent the same social reality, as each language creates its own world and worldview. In this way, the task of recreating the effect or the feelings emanating from the original readings in a target audience becomes infinitely more complex when addressing other cultural contexts.

On a Practical Level

Apart from these theoretical and philosophical matters, literary translators often face very complicated problems in practice. An example of this is dealing with literary license, which allows authors to break grammatical rules (remember e.e. cummings?) and create entirely new words or even languages. Another problem arises when translating characters’ names, especially when these are meant to reflect an aspect of their personality. Oscar Wilde’s work is a good example of this. John Worthing, the main character in the play The Importance of Being Ernest, is presented as a very responsible, respectable, and worthy man. Other good examples can be found in the Harry Potter series, with characters such as Mad-Eye Moody, or even Tom Marvolo Riddle, which is an anagram of “I am Lord Voldemort.” As cited in Rodica Dimitriu’s Theories and Practice of Translation, wordplay can also be seen in titles, such as Nicole Brossard’s book L’Amèr, ou le chapitre effrité, where “l’amèr” is a pun for three different words: “mère” (mother), “mer” (sea), and “amer” (bitter)”.

The examples and difficulties mentioned here are by no means an exhaustive list. On top of these, new difficulties and challenges arise with every literary piece that is translated. Some of them are related to the characteristics of a specific genre, while others are connected with the uniqueness of a particular author. The possibilities seem endless, which is what makes literary translation such a rich topic to investigate, as well as such an interesting activity in which to engage.


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