Translated books: does the language matter?

When I read books, I choose to read the book in the original language if it is a language I know. For instance, I will read any book that is originally written in English or Chinese in that language since I know the language well enough. Even though my French ability is not as good as my abilities in English or Chinese, I would prefer to read the original French version. If the book is written in any other language, I would have to read it in translation. But which language should I choose?

The only languages I would consider are English and Chinese. Only 3% of books published in the U.S. are works in translation, which might mean a limited selection of books translated to American English. I find all sorts of translated works on Taiwanese bookstore websites. Also it looks like the books have a faster translation rate than compared to the translated books I’ve found on American bookstore websites. So, if there’s a specific book that can only be found in one language, I’ll have to stick to that language.

Besides availability, there is also the question of accuracy. The reason that I read books in the original language when I can is because some nuances and meanings can be lost in translation. Even the most accurate translation can miss certain things. But now I wonder, is it possible that translating into a particular language is more accurate than translating into another language?

Since English shares roots with German and Latin, I assume that any languages with those roots (ie German, Spanish, Italian) may be more accurately translated into English than Chinese. Chinese, on the other hand, is in its own language family, so there’s probably not a related language for better translation. Culturally, Chinese shares similarities with Japanese and Korean, which may or may not lead to easier translation. So should I try to read Japanese books translated in Chinese rather than English?

I don’t have answers for any of the questions I’ve posed so far. In the end, it might just depend on the availability of the translation and which book is the easiest for me to obtain.

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4 thoughts on “Translated books: does the language matter?

  1. I think the the content/subject of the the books that are translated between different language does matter. For example, if you’re reading a technical book in translation, say, on the history of science or mathematics, I would guess less information would be lost in translation as opposed to literary novels. I remember reading two different English translations of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment: each English translation had a different “feeling.”

  2. I think you’re making a very interesting point here.
    I also prefer to read a novel in the original language if I know it well enough. If not I prefer to read in Polish. But the problem is that many books have been translated to English and not to Polish, so then I have to read them in English. And a few weeks ago I bought one book by Haruki Murakami and discovered that it was first translated to English, ad then from English to Polish. Just ridiculous.
    I think that if a translator is really good and uses footnotes, the original language doesn’t matter that much. But we can never know if the translation is good before reading a book (and sometimes not even then). And a bad translation can really put us off a good book.
    I think that translating into language that is similar to the source language would always be more accurate that into a totally different language. So probably it is better to read a novel in a language that it’s more similar to the original language. But as I mentioned earlier, we never know if the translation is good. So we can’t know for sure.
    Sometimes when I come across something a bit strange I check how it was translated into another language. It sometimes helps to get closer to the original version.
    I really liked this post. I will be checking your blog often now.

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