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Gained in Translation

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When flipping open a favorite book, it's easy to skip over the small "translated by" line.

But, in reality, translating is as much of an art form as writing an original work. The history of translation is as old as the history of printing and publishing itself, and it will always be an important component of writing and of literature.

Take, for instance, the multilingual Vladimir Nabokov: He personally translated Lolita into Russian from English.

It's a fair argument that only Nabokov himself could have accurately conveyed into English what Humbert Humbert meant by the lines, “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

However, many authors, even bilingual ones, don’t feel capable of translating their own works.  

The South African author Marlene van Niekerk wrote her book Agaat in her native Afrikaans. Though she speaks English fluently and was interviewed by Kurt Andersen in English on Studio 360, she said she would have never been able to translate the novel into English herself. “What I like to do best when I write is to mess,” she explained to Andersen, “And in order to mess with language, you need to have a full range of associated meanings and anticipated meanings and dreamt-of meanings and all those kinds of riches that one has as a mother-tongue speaker.”  

Translation requires such a precise set of skills that it often only goes one way. Authors who translate from French to English may not be able to do the opposite, for example. The American short story writer Lydia Davis has translated Proust, Foucault, and she just finished a translation of Madame Bovary, but she says she would not be able to translate from English to French, or any other language for that matter. Being a good writer in the language you are translating into is much more important than knowing the language from which you are translating perfectly, Davis added.

Currently, translators face a difficult climate for getting new translations published. Edith Grossman, author of the new book Why Translation Matters, says that books are translated into English far less frequently compared to other major languages. Books in translation make up only 2 to 3 percent of American and British books published every year. In Latin America, for example, 35 to 50 percent of books are books in translation.

Perhaps a new American trend is on the horizon, though: Three of this summer’s best-selling books are translated from Swedish. These are, of course, Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy.

On the other hand, with newer work, there's much more room for growth, says Edith Grossman: “Some translations become works of art on their own, become independent, in a sense, of the original."