Languages in Literature

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Take a look at any list entitled “100 Must-Read Books” or “50 Books You Have to Read before Leaving College.” No doubt those lists will include Candide, The Brothers Karamazov, Don Quixote, or Madame Bovary. All of these are essential pieces of classic literature. All of these were also originally written in a language other than English.

I’ve studied both French and Spanish for several years and have always remarked to myself the curious little inconsistencies in translation. These become different questions: why do they use the passive voice here? Why use the subjunctive mode there? Often I received the answer “because.” And though this answer is more or less acceptable for learning the languages, it doesn’t’ help when comparing an original text with its translation.

Having read both poetry and prose in original French and Spanish, I’m always interested in what little things get lost as they’re filtered through translation. While translation does communicate setting, action, and character, it lacks considerable capacity for communicating the nuances of a given language. This presents a problem: one’s native language is a barrier to the best understanding of great literary works.

That’s not to say English speakers shouldn’t be reading Maupassant and Tolstoy. Rather, it is incumbent upon the reader to discover where the nuances are lost in translation and to compensate for the deficiencies of the native language. Abstraction and metaphor rarely translate well; idiomatic expressions are often lost entirely. But these are the obvious limitations of translation.

I’m more interested in the little things, less evident but still important. To demonstrate what I mean why I think it’s important, I’m going to reference a book I know backwards and forwards: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. You could argue that it’s not great literature (I would vehemently disagree), but it is perfect for the purpose of this post.

From the text I’ve picked out three major kinds translation differences:

Changes in person: In French and other languages, there is frequent use of impersonal expressions. In English, we use the passive voice less frequently. Instead, the translation usually adopts a personal pronoun, creating a more direct link between the action and the subject. In the case below, I think the change makes it appear that the action will take place. In the French, the impersonal expression lends an abstract feeling.

  • French: “Il faudrait les mettre les uns sur les autres…” (Literally: it would be necessary to put them one on top of the other…)
  • English: “We would have to put them one on top of the other…” – Chapter 5

Word replacement: In lieu of a direct translation, sometimes a translation changes word which gives a more appropriate meaning in the new language. In the second chapter of The Little Prince, the English translation substitutes “rub” for “blink.” In French, one would generally say they blinked before something they could hardly believe. In English, we usually say we rubbed our eyes, just to make sure we aren’t looking at a mirage.

  • French: “J’ai bien frotté mes yeux.” (Literally:I blinked my eyes well.)
  • English: “I rubbed my eyes hard.” – Chapter 2

Changes in Familiarity: This is a problem that, as far as I know, is unique to English. English lacks different versions of the pronoun “you.” In the romance languages and most others, there are two or three (and sometimes more) variants of the pronoun: one familiar and one formal, at least. The lack of this distinction in English can change the dynamic between characters in a story, especially if the shift from formal to familiar signifies a shift in a relationship. In chapter seven of The Little Prince, the eponymous character addresses the narrator with the informal “tu.”For most of the book however, he had used the more formal “vous.” As mentioned above, this change reflects their increasing closeness. In chapter one, the Little Prince uses “vous,” but the translation shows no difference.

  • French: “Tu parles comme les grandes personnes!”
  • English: “You talk like the grown-ups!” – Chapter 7
  • French: “S’il vous plait…” Chapter 1
  • English: “If you please…”

Translation is tricky. There are a lot of nuances to be aware of in both the original language and the new one. Skilled translation can account for most of these discrepancies, but if you can, it pays to read a work in its original tongue.

About Mac McKee

Mac McKee is a junior Business Administration major at Washington and Lee.  He has a passion for writing and the study of languages.

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2 Responses to Languages in Literature

  1. rod smith says:

    One of my happiest failures was the attempt to read Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien Anos de Soledad, I think these many years hence) in Spanish. “Happy” because it was like seeing the Northern Lights in the language, “failure” because I never made it all the way through. Still, in every paragraph, I was on a voyage of discovery the English had not offered.

  2. Ann Persons says:

    One of the first poems I read and loved is in Spanish: “Rima IV” by Gustavo Adolfo Becquer. I love its meaning in English, but, even without understanding meaning, the poem has a beautiful rhythm and is full of unique sounds and exclamations that convey the speaker’s passion.

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