Which works ought to be read in their original language?

Gabriel Power, a loyal MR reader, asks:

What works really ought to be read in their original language? Does this suggest classes or types that are best read in the original? Does it suggest that some languages are poorly translated into English while others are well translated (indeed, possibly improved upon, e.g. Poe into French)? Why?

I can speak only to German, Spanish, and English.  Borges and Goethe and Juan Rulfo are much, much better in the original and I believe they cannot be well understood or appreciated in translation.  Vargas Llosa is an example of a conceptual, plot-driven Spanish-language author who translates quite well into other languages.  Max Frisch requires German and in general German humor (please don't laugh) does not translate into other languages, less than English-language humor does.  Shakespeare translates relatively well into German, but I wonder about other Shakespeare in other languages.  I have always thought of Chekhov as requiring Russian, but that is speculation.  It is hard for me to imagine James Joyce in any language but English, but most modern American authors can be translated OK, in part because they are not writing "word-rich" material.

Potentially "cheesy" material, such as Poe, often does better in another language.  Raymond Chandler in German was excellent, as it added a layer of cranky mystery to the proceedings.  I think of "word rich" and "subtly humorous" as hard to translate, so genre fiction is often better in another language.

What can you all add to this?


Robert Heinlein said that his wife read the Russian classics in English and couldn't understand how they had gotten so admired. She figured they must have lost in translation, so she learned Russian and read them in the original. She said that she was disappointed to find the English versionis had been much better than the original Russian.

Consider functions mapping words to concepts/understanding. What restrictions are you placing on the form these functions take and their convolutions? What is the mathematical expression for your claim?

German humor doesn't translate well into English? Is this really a language issue at all, but, rather, a culture issue.

I was never sure that Heinlein's wife was good enough in Russian to get the subtleties of their classics.

James Joyce probably loses something translated into english, but what can you do?

"and in general German humor (please don't laugh)"

German humor gains a certain something when you aren't supposed to laugh at it.

Shakespeare loses so much when it isn't read in the original Klingon.

"Language is a tree, loses color under another sky."

( Indo-Anglian poet R. Parthasarathi.)

Pretty much anything in Ancient Greek: the language's grammar and syntax are so alien you can't translate it into English with doing serious violence to the flow of it, espcially in the case of poery (e,g., Homer).

The exception is the New Testament. It was written in very pedestrian, sometimes rather poor, Greek and the translators have prettied it up a good deal, beginning with the Latin Vulgate version-- though of course they have failed thereby to capture the man-in-the-street aspect of it.

An apparently Italian witticism regarding translation -
'Translation is like a wife - an ugly one is faithful, and a beautiful one isn't.'

I tend to believe it to be fairly accurate observation - even if I have never heard the original Italian. (Yes, I work as a translator.)

Gabriel Garcia Márquez should be read in the original.

I wonder how Faulkner translates into other languages?

Hitchhiker's Guide, however, actually gains in the first Czech translation. The humor is actually translated not literally but in analogy to Czechoslovak reality of the time.

I've read more Borges in English than in Spanish (just a single collection of essays about 1001 nights in Spanish) and I enjoyed him in both languages -- I should re-read one of his English shorts in the original Spanish and see how it compares.

I've only read Borges in English. He is one of my favorite authors, though, and it would be interesting to get my Spanish reading skill to a point that I can read it in Spanish. The words feel somehow out of step, perhaps, but I can't imagine that there is a deeper meaning that I miss, that reading in Spanish would make clear to me.

However, even though I was raised without Spanish, I was raised with Latin American culture, often in ways I don't realize. Many times I find myself having to explain some Latino quirk to my Anglo-American friends that I never thought of as Latino. Magic realism is a BIG task to explain.

I think part of this is the quality of the translation. The reason Shakespeare is so good in German is that the translator (18-19th century author Schlegel) created an unparalleled masterpiece of translation.

I think in general, though, Poetry translations are pretty much impossible (Schlegel actually didn't translate Shakespeare's Sonnetts and those aren't very well known nor very memorable in German. (And don't get me started on Neruda in German or English...)

Vargas Llosa is actually only so-so in German - same for many Spanish authors.
Borges, too, does rather poorly in German - but along with several others here I fell that the English translations are more than just adequate (and it's pretty clear that Borges felt that way, too - I think he actually approved The Aleph and Other Stories volume).

As per Adam above, Albert Cohen has to be read in French - you can't read a multi-page sentence in English without gasping for air, for starters.

In general I think French translates poorly unless the translator is extremely liberal with their choice of phrases, obviously something like Sartre where there really is just a few cute ideas is fine but anything which depends on the 'style' cannot work. Raymond Quennau's 'Exercises de style' is one I can't decide on. I don't know if it even exists in English.

Pretentious assholes.

What a strange question! Any work ought to be read in the original language if you are capable of reading it in that language. If you're not, then you have no choice but to read a translation. I cannot imagine that there is any point in reading a translation of something you can read in the original.

Poe is better in French, but that is mostly because he was translated by Baudelaire - I'm sure Baudelaire could improve a lot of authors

I'm sort of surprised at how many people know other languages well enough to read books in them. I'd consider myself very well-educated in foreign languages – I can speak Romanian, French, German, and Spanish with varying levels of fluency – but reading any amount of text in another language drives me insane. Even reading Romanian, which is probably my best foreign language, takes me at least twice as long as it would take in English, probably more...and that's not even including the time it would take to look up the words I don't recognize.

Is Tyler going to comment about the passing of Dino de Laurentis?

As was said above, Homer is especially badly treated by a translation into English. A lot of the subtleties in his work come from its oral tradition heritage, and a major part of that is a great deal of repetition of elements of language and plot. Thus, a single word can often have an enormous amount of meaning that come from its occurrences elsewhere, but these subtleties are lost in a translation.

If only I had the time to learn ancient Greek, I would.

But I'm guessing it's much, much more difficult to learn ancient Greek than French or German (perhaps comparable to learning Chinese).

"I read Great Expectations in peninsular spanish and I just couldn't finish it, it seems so archaic to me." Don't worry, Luis; Dickens is rubbish, apart from A Tale of Two Cities.

P.S. La Peste is the only novel I've read in furrin. Pretty good.

The instructions page to any electronic product is much better in the original Chinese than in the English translation, surely

Stephen Smith:

I feel your pain. My French and Latin is halting rather than fluent. Even so, a translation plus the original language, even if you can only read it haltingly, is much better than a translation alone.

Particularly for poetry.

There is plenty of good translations from classical Chinese, it just takes subtlety. I think it translates better than Romance language poetry

'Under the Frog' by Tibor Fischer written originally in English (my understanding is that Tibor doesn't speak or write Hungarian well.) is WAAYYY better in English than in Hungarian.

RE Borges, I have to disagree with Tyler. I've only read Ficciones in Spanish after having read the stories in English first, but I found that it didn't improve the experience. (Okay, maybe The Circular Ruins.) For me anyway, Borges is a writer of ideas, so the code in which those ideas happen to be communicated doesn't add or subtract from the value of the prose. I believe Borges learned English as a child since his grandmother was English, but that's probably not so interesting since I can't imagine how that could come across in an English translation of something he wrote in Spanish.

John McWhorter makes the blasphemous argument that Shakespeare is better appreciated in translation to other Western European languages, at least for English-speakers who can also speak French or German. He claims that the archaic English is far enough removed from the language we speak today that we don't really understand it and we're deluding ourselves if we think we can follow the lines without having read the play before.

My favorite sentence Tyler has written in a long time is "...in general German humor (please don't laugh) does not translate into other languages."

I would agree with Bernard. I have spent the better part of my life learning to read foreign languages, mainly so that I can read their literatures without translation.

But, now in middle age, I have officially come to regret this. I don't believe the additional insights gained and additional subtlety experienced are worth the years of study necessary to get your language up to that level.

Of course, you can launch upon great books anyhow, with insufficient preparation. This is routinely done in colleges: expecting students who have only studied French for two years to negotiate Montaigne in the original, or third-year Spanish students to do Quixote. In my experience these outings necessarily result in fakery and phoniness all around.

Doing something like that is unfair to the author. How would you react if you found a Russian student was reading, in English, a book that you wrote -- but that his English was rather wobbly? Wouldn't you just tell him to get a good translation? In fact, you're really just ripping yourself off when it comes right down to it.

Having said that here is a short list of books that I felt were better in the original, though still not worth the effort:

1. Madame Bovary. But getting so good that you could really appreciate the grace and simplicity of the language (without just SAYING you're appreciating the grace and simplicity) would take about 10 years of study, in my view. Sadly, no amount of grace and simplicity is worth ten years of my life.
2. Dante. It's like it's completely different in the original, more so if you've read a translation (i.e., Ciardi) that insists on keeping the terza rima in English.
3. The Aeneid. I've never seen a translation that really captured the text's feel of stateliness and dignity, although all of them claim to.

Borges, Proust, Cervantes . . . all these are better done in translation.

But I agree with David Shor: there are other reasons why learning a foreign language or two is a worthwhile endeavor. It's just that I think reading literature in the original is not one of them.

I've read a lot of Russian books in both English and the original. My view of a few off the top of my head.

Works in English:
Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Gorky

Doesn't work:
Bulgakov, Pasternak, Pushkin, Sologub, Platonov, Bely

German humor doesn't translate well into English? Is this really a language issue at all, but, rather, a culture issue.

I know he was Austrian, but Thomas Bernhard makes me laugh out loud in English and German.

It's all a question of the skill of the translator.

Funny Borges keeps being brought up, because he claimed that translation could improve upon and even be more faithful to the original work. I'm not sure I agree in general, but certainly "The Garden of Forking Paths" sounds nicer than "El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan."

Many philisophical works need to be in their original languages. Look at Heidegger and the various translations from German.

The entire concept of Haiku, since all syllables in Japanese are short - one letter and a vowel.

Herodotus loses a lot in English, he actually seems much funnier and more modern in Greek.

It's weird, I find that reading Borges in Spanish vs reading in English doesn't make much of a difference for me--it seems like his knowledge of the two languages bleeds together so his Spanish feels sort of like English to me. Whereas Cervantes or Carpentier have a very different tone in translation than they do in Spanish.

Dr. Suess.

"It is hard for me to imagine James Joyce in any language but English..."

Interestingly, Finnegans Wake has been translated a number of times. As I recall, Eco studies some of these efforts in his excellent work on translation, Rat or Mouse. Joyce's acolyte, Samuel Beckett, actually wrote in French (despite being Irish), and then translated his own work into English! (He wanted it to be less natural.)

After further reflection I think Beowulf is much better and should always be read in the original language, at least for native English-speakers. In modern English it sounds too self-important and overblown. Old English just sounds cool, although non-English-speakers frequently say it just sounds like overexcited German.

Following up my previous comment about Borges, now that I go back and look at Library of Babel, I realize that in the original the miraculous single coherent phrase is "*Oh* tiempo tus piramides". The "Oh" (instead of "Ay") is a strange exclamation for Spanish, and gives the phrase a feeling of ambiguous randomness that works for the piece. So I concede two stories that might be more fun in Spanish (Circular Ruins and Library of Babel.)

I once tried to read Lucretius in the original Latin; De Boredom Natura. My "training" in Latin was all in junior high. No dice. Frankly it's little dense in English too. You can only wade through outmoded (but for the knowledge of the time, well thought-out) speculations about physics and cognition for so long.

Doing something like that is unfair to the author. How would you react if you found a Russian student was reading, in English, a book that you wrote -- but that his English was rather wobbly? Wouldn't you just tell him to get a good translation? In fact, you're really just ripping yourself off when it comes right down to it.

You are making the facile assumption of the existence of a good translation -- or any translation at all. Plenty of books get translated from English to other languages, but the reverse is much rarer these days.

A reader who struggles with a foreign language is a slower but often more attentive reader. Many an English-language book is devoured in a single sitting and then fades from memory; sometimes entire paragraphs or even chapters are skipped in the all-too-common case where the author has padded the work to meet a publisher's directive regarding the book length. Foreign-language books are read and savored more slowly, and are pondered over more; foreign words retain a sort of exotic power and beauty that makes one's mother tongue seem pedestrian by comparison (a case of "familiarity breeds contempt", perhaps). The plot, the characters, and especially the ideas stick with you longer even if some subtleties of verbiage are lost.

Once upon a time as a student, when I had an entire summer's worth of free time, I undertook to learn a language by reading a book (after taking a single 101-level course). I managed perhaps a page or two per day, constantly flipping through a paper dictionary (it helped that it was an informal plainly-written and concise autobiography in a limited print run, not highfalutin' literature). All these years later, I remember the book well. I'm pretty sure I was the best reader that obscure author ever had.

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