A Note on Book Translations: Who Do You Trust?

Odds are that sometime in your life you have found yourself reading a book which has been translated. Some of the greatest classics in the world weren’t written in English (and since you’re reading this now, I will assume that you read in English). War and Peace. Arabian Nights. The Art of War. Around the World in Eighty Days. The Odyssey.

And if you, like me, don’t speak dozens of languages, chances are you rely on translations to read these books and many more. But have you ever thought that the translated book you’re getting may be completely different than the original work.

After I started learning two languages (Korean and French, which I mentioned previously in my blog post Reasons to Study a New Language), I’ve learned that things rarely directly translate. And only a full understanding of the context and insinuation truly helps you understand the full meaning.

A Thought on The Bible

If there is one book who has suffered the worst from poor translations, it has been the Bible. It would make sense, considering it is the number one best-selling book of all time (I myself own multiple copies).

Whether it was individual translators trying to change the meanings in the Bible to serve their own purpose (like the New World Translation) or just weird typos (like the “Wicked Bible” of 1631 which turned the commandment “thou shalt not commit adultery” into “thou shalt commit adultery), the Bible has had its share of mistakes.

It’s just not classic novels either, like The Bible. I read multiple forums online complaining about issues within manga translations as well (from Japanese to English).
This leads to the question: how does one know as a reader which translations are trustworthy?

Who to Trust?

So how do you know if the translation is going to be a good one? How do you know that the book you’re picking up is a valid translation of the original work? For me, I have a few tricks for indicating how good the translation will be.

1. Look at the translator. Odds are, you can find something about the translator either within the book itself or on the web. I have multiple times come across a translator that seems oddly ill-equipped to translate anything. If, for example, you’re trying to find a good translation of The Art of War by Sun Tzu, look at goodreads. Browse through the different translations and jot down the names of the translators. If that author has spent many years in China, not just learning the language but also studying the history and culture, odds are his translation will be better than the person who purely understands only the words themselves.

2. Look at the forward. If you are anything like me when I was a teen, I would just skip the forward or translator’s note and just go into the book. However, now I make sure to read it because often it hints to the translator’s purpose. And if the translator never mentions trying to stay true to the original, or even worse trying to decipher the meanings themselves, then I stay clear of it.

3. The more time-consuming way and that which I did with The Art of War, is to literally set several copies side-by-side and look at the differences. I’m not suggesting doing this with the entire book (though if you have tons of time on your hands, go head). Instead, do it with one page and see how it lines up. Just see how the translations differ.

The Perfect Translation

Let’s face it, odd are the perfect translation for anything doesn’t exist. There’s always going to be translator’s decisions filling the original story. Yes, you can find good translations instead of bad ones, but I personally think it is impossible to find a “perfect translation.”

And I am a firm believer in the importance of opening one’s mind to new ideas. To not simply be stuck inside your own reality. And, since ideas come in many different languages and there is no way a person can learn every language, we readers must rely on imperfect translations to learn about different places, cultures, and opinions. Without translations, the world of knowledge would be a much smaller place.

What my point is in this article is that translations aren’t all perfect and we should strive to find good translations. But in the end, hopefully you don’t let the fact that a book is translated deter you from reading it.

I am aware that this post is all over the place, and filled with my own musings, but I tend to think of these things far more than is probably good for my sanity, and I thought I’d share my thoughts on this topic.

Make sure to follow my blog for more madness, and, as always,

Best wishes in your life full of adventure,

Madame Writer

One thought on “A Note on Book Translations: Who Do You Trust?

  1. Great post and tips. I love Around the World in Eighty Days! It’s one of my all-time beloved classics. I admit though, that I’ve never really thought about the original and translated context although I know of some poorly translated books including the “Sinners’ Bible”. You’ve given me something to ponder upon.

    Liked by 1 person

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