I'm currently in the process of reading Cyrano de Bergerac (translated by Charles Renauld). There, an introduction is made by Adolphe Cohn, said to be the Professor of the Romance languages and Literatures in Columbia University. You can find a copy on Project Gutenberg, here.

He says:

… for it is in the nature of great literary works that they consist of a combination of what is purely human with what belongs to the time and place where they have their birth.

Of the faithfulness of his rendering those acquainted with the French language will easily judge, as they can have under the same cover the English of the translator and the French of the dramatist, and they will thus, it is hoped, acquire a clear and adequate conception of the beautiful picture, which, thanks to Edmond Rostand, has restored the life and brilliancy to the somewhat faded features of that eccentric philosopher, poet, hero and gentlemen, Savinien Hercule de Cyrano Bergerac.

Adolphe Cohn

Now, he says here that, in order to have a good translation, the translator must be proficient in both the source and target languages, along with an understanding and familiarity of the setting, etc. of the source play.

However, these are some general translation tips, and while I think it does help to ensure a more correct play, I wonder what has been lost in, for example, the translation from English to French. I know that in some cases (e.g. the Bible), certain mappings of words are not perfect; the specific Biblical case would be four different Greek words mapping to "love".

Some other works that come to mind would be Dante's La Commedia Divina (Divine Comedy; Italian to English), many early philosophical works (e.g. those of Plato and Aristotle), and generally any early work of literature.

So, the question remains: What are the challenges in translating a work to, say, English?

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    I'm afraid this might be a little too broad to answer sensibly. Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 23:00
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    @ChristianRau to be entirely honest, this seems like a perfectly valid question to me. Why do you think this is broad?
    – fi12
    Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 23:07
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    @fi12 It seems to be asking about all possible translations of all possible works ever. I agree that there might be some universal insights on the matter (which is why I didn't close-vote it as "too broad" yet), but I also think it to a large degree comes down to the specific work and its translation. Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 23:09
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    this question is too broad imho, every book's translation will be different. hell, different translations between the same languages are different.
    – DForck42
    Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 16:16
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    This should really be edited to be "What are the challenges in translating". That's answerable (and I made my answer in that format, and I think the other answer fits as well)
    – DVK
    Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 16:19

3 Answers 3

  1. Many works of literature derive a lot of value from implied context.

    Cultural norms. Idioms. Insider jokes.

    This is especially a big factor in a book which contains elements of humor (especially parody) - but not necessarily.

    When translating, this layer of implied information is frequently irrevocably lost - both due to the new audience's unfamiliarity with cultural norms and idioms and references.

    I have observed this frequently. Russian translations of "Ivanhoe" almost entirely missed out on anti-semitic and general religious angle associated with Rebeccah and Isaac characters, despite that being an important part of the work. Much of "Three Musketeers" translations suffer from readers being unaware of the actual role and impact of Cardinal Richelieu, his sociopolitical reasons for prohibiting duels (which was a driving plot), and French perspective on Britain around 30-year-war.

    Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (who were intimately familiar with the issues, due to their side work as professional translators and interpreters - Japanese and English iirc) poignantly covered some of the issues involved in "Ugly Swans" novel, whose protagonist is a successful writer, and in the course of the novel is shown to work with a Japanese translator of his books, trying in vain to explain Russian idiomatic expressions.

  2. Linguistic nuances.

    Better quality literary works don't just contain information - their use of language matters greatly. The writer's style and language use is extremely difficult to relay when translating, even for a true well-meaning expert.

  3. Language concepts and linguistic relativity.

    This is getting into the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis territory.

    Certain things simply come packaged with the language, including mental concepts. A well publicized research[1] even showed that concepts of tense can influence economic behavior.

    This relativity is again lost when translating, unless care is taken.

    [1] - The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets; M. Keith Chen

  4. Difficulty in translating specific words

    I think it's the lesser of the problems, but even when translating my own internal thoughts between English and Russian (i'm fluent in both) I frequently get stumped when trying to translate a pithy term that's lacking in another language. Partly, that's also due to implied concept.

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    I have tried my hand at literary translation before. It's devilishly difficult work if your goal is to preserve the qualities of the original. Quite frankly, I failed spectacularly.
    – DVK
    Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 16:02
  • Not to mention blatant errors. I was very surprised when I learned there were significant errors in Weisbrot's translation of the Witcher Commented Jan 22, 2017 at 11:00
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    The best example of point two that I know of the The Hobbit. The original English reads very much like a jocular and cheerful fairy tale, with a certain sense of fun and adventure. The Dutch translation is much darker and "adult", and lacks the fun fairy-tale "feel". Its style is very similar to (English) Lord of the Rings, which is probably not a coincidence. The plots of both books are the same, but they are different books. Commented May 15, 2017 at 22:13

In some books, such as The Iliad, The Odyssey, or other poems, which take advantage of a specific meter, it can make a very significant difference in the feeling it gives the reader and can lead to a very different meaning. However, in most novels, translation has less of an effect on the meaning because word choice is less important. Anecdotally, for example, I have talked to people who have read the Inkheart Trilogy in the original German and in English and they say that there was very little difference. It also tends to have more of an effect when the difference between the two languages is greater because they may not have equivalent words for certain concepts.


There is no perfect translation. In any translation there is always a balance between semantic precision and preservation of poetic devices, language usage, etc.

You first have to decide on what kind of translation to do: Literary or Literal.

A literary translation translates the original into a plausibly literate presentation of the original, maintaining at least some if not all of the literary devices used in the original. This is the more difficult. It really almost requires the creation of a new work of literature, based upon, and hopefully equal in quality to, the original. Various French poetic translations of Eugene Onegin come to mind.

Literal translations normally seek only to translate semantic meaning, devoid of most elements of style, elocution or the word symbolism of the original language.

Both kinds of translations have to deal with word flow, sense of humor, cultural references, and descriptions understood by native speakers when reading the original language that are often difficult or impossible to accurately render in the target language.

Having said all this, I believe that the real challenge in translating a work of literature is to have such extensive knowledge of the target language to be able to decide, after all, what sounds good, and reasonable, and readable, and literate.

NOTE: Dramatic works are somewhat different…one has to understand the specific production nuances of theatrical works, stage directions, etc., and to understand the dynamics of theater. The final translation of a play takes place on stage, after all.

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