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If you are only literate in one language (like English), can you really ever say you've "read" authors who write in other languages?

Many people say that they’ve "read" Tolstoy or Camus (or any host of other writers). But if the reader in question is a monolingual anglophone, how can they have "read" a Russian author? or a French-speaking one? When someone has "seen the movie" of something (like one of the Harry Potter series), they don’t generally get credited with also having "read the book" even though the one is adapted from the other much as a translation is worked from the original. What’s the difference? Why do popular ideas about translation allow for almost seamless "knowledge" of the "original work" while ideas about adaptation do not?

  • That is a really interesting question. Personally I find a great difference between the original text and its translation (I know English,Bulgarian,French and a bit of German and Russian). Reading the original Les Misérables or Ана Каренина (Anna Karenina) can't be compared to anything else, simply because however good a translation may be, the author precisely chose which words and phrases to use and sometimes they can't be translated in any other language with the same effect and meaning. That doesn't mean we must first learn another language in order to read a book, but the experiences may be different. – Kaya 6 years ago
  • The point of an adaptation is to allow people who do not speak that language to enjoy it equally. Not all words translate perfectly into other languages but the reader is still able to read the story and picture it in their head almost the same as a person of another language. Comparing this to books and their movies may not be the best comparison. Often times a movie will simply base its plot around a book and not follow the whole story. Movies often must skip chunks of a story so as not to have a ridiculously long movie. A translated story does not tear out chunks or just base itself around the plot and steal the title. A translation is meant to be equally written for people who speak another language. I enjoy this topic very much. It would be very interesting to read the opinion of others on this. – SoodleSavvy 6 years ago
  • SoodleSavvy, the reason I make the comparison is because translation often DO tear out chunks, add others, and rearrange things—but present themselves as if they don't. – pjoshualaskey 6 years ago
  • pjoshualaskey, I think that would be another wonderful topic asking why some translators choose to tear out chunks and rearrange things. In this case, however, I feel that a true translation or adaptation is not meant to be changed and people who rearrange works from how they are written have not done their job correctly. This may also be a question that has no right answer because of how many ways opinions may vary. – SoodleSavvy 6 years ago
  • To me, the question is both tricky and simple at the same time. I agree that movies based on books and translations of books are two quite different ways of 'remaking' a book. A movie director sometimes wants to develop a book plot into something new, to extend it or make it shorter just so the main idea could be conveyed, or even change the genre - options are infinite here. Also, the obvious difference between books and movies is that while reading, you direct your own movie in your head, and it doesn't work vice versa. A translation of a book is still the book. The mechanism through which your mind perceives it is not like the one you use to perceive movies. However, the relationship between a book and its translation may be pretty much like the relationship between that book and the movie based on it in regards of the unavoidable alterations that happen in the process of both translating and turning the book into a script with further filming. The result will always differ from the original act of reading the original book, no matter if the director wants to keep the plot just as it was written or not, and no matter how hard the translator tries to stick to the original. Well, if the translator transforms the words and expressions way too much and clads the book in their own style, then it's an entirely different book, of course. The fact is that it's impossible to make the translation accurate enough; after all, we're talking about pieces of art here, not scientific articles or medical documentation - translating novels and translating that kind of stuff are too drastically different fields of work, we know that. Each language obviously has its own semantic colouring to one and the same notion, especially in the realm of epithets, metaphors, idioms, leave alone puns and culturally motivated lexis. So, in both cases - with a translation and a movie - the book cannot really be interpreted to remain as it originally was, in my opinion. And the difference and the similarity of a translation or filmmaking in relation to a book are viewed through disparate aspects: the mechanism of perception, the impossibility of conveying the unique nuances of one language by the means of the other, the way a director or a translator wants to transform the original story etc. But the main similarity may be in keeping the originally desired effect, the purpose, the atmosphere. And that, I think, is the most important thing when the question is if you know what the story is about. – funkyfay 6 years ago
  • There are a lot of issues with this topic, many of which have been very well-stated by those above me. I just found it interesting that you happened to choose Tolstoy and Camus as your two examples, given that the both wrote in very clear-cut, didactic, realist prose that left very little up to interpretation of the translator. I could maybe get behind this topic if it were strictly about poetry (and you had used authors like Pushkin and Baudelaire as your examples). The art of poetry is, after all, much more contingent on the specificity of words and the music they make when placed together in a certain way, making it arguably immune to direct translation. With regards to Tolstoy specifically, if you read his works in the Maude translations, you're reading versions that were made under his own watchful supervision at utmost appreciation. He's quoted saying of them, "Better translators, both for knowledge of the two languages and for penetration into the very meaning of the matter translated could not be invented." He even want as far as to say for some of his essays that the Maude versions were presenting the works "for the first time in its true form" given that the Russian censors would not allow him to publish the works without numerous edits that distorted his meaning. That being the case, it would be fair to say that reading such versions would give you access to the true Tolstoy. Yes, obviously there are bad translations out there (, but the onus is on the reader to do their research and pick the one that best suits their needs. – ProtoCanon 6 years ago
  • Would this mean that literary translator's work is useless and their profession does not matter? – T. Palomino 7 months ago