Thoughts on Books in Translation

Which was the first book I’ve ever read in translation? In all honesty, I haven’t the faintest idea! Reading translated books is something really common in Portugal, and I have been doing so since childhood. Thus, it is always with particular interest that I follow, usually from the sidelines, the aspiration of some bloggers from English-speaking countries to read more books by authors whose first language is not English. Since I have stopped reading translations from books originally written in English in favour of reading them in the original, the number of books in translation that I read decreased considerably, though, revealing the Anglo-centric tendencies of my reading.

Reading books by authors from different countries to ours allows us to improve our understanding of the world we live in. It helps us to better comprehend other people and cultures, while being introduced to the diverse realities and problems they face. Moreover, it also gives us the opportunity to fictionally travel to locations all over the world. Obviously, authors can write stories set in countries different from the ones they live in. But, although a variety of perspectives is always welcomed, the inhabitants of a country tend to have a more in-depth perception of the place they live in.

As I know both Portuguese and English, I can read books by authors from various countries in the original. That is a fantastic alternative to read in translation! (I hugely admire people who confidently speak more than two languages.) Language and culture are closely connected in my opinion, so it’s even more enlightening to read books in the original. Currently, I read Portuguese language editions of books originally written not only in Portuguese but also in Spanish, Italian and French, since all of them are Romance languages and share similarities. All the other books I tend to read in English, also taking advantage of them being cheaper. 

However, (unfortunately) it’s impossible to learn and be fluent in all of the languages spoken in the world. This is why translators have such an important role to play. They make people from all over the globe to feel much closer to each other. From what I could gather, people from non-English speaking countries tend to read more books in translation. Bookshops in Portugal, for example, are full of books in translation, particularly from English-speaking countries, but also from South America and other Western European countries. Books translated from the English can be found and seem to be read all over the world, while the opposite isn’t quite true. There seems to be a cultural imbalance.

Reading translated books is something that I do without rationalising or planning. Although, as I have mentioned previously, my reading has been dominated by English-speaking authors (and also Portuguese) in the latest years, I have read a good proportion of books in translation in my lifetime without giving it much thought. 2018 has been an outlier in the tendency of reading less in translation because of the ‘EU still 28’ project. But the purpose behind it wasn’t even to read more in translation.

From my perception, it doesn’t seem to be as natural for people from the UK and the US to read in translation. Why do you think that is? Have I got the wrong impression? Do you usually read books in translation? Tell me in the comments!


13 thoughts on “Thoughts on Books in Translation

  1. Jenn @ the Bibliofile says:

    I’m from the US and I read a pretty good amount of books that are translations, mostly because books have to be fairly successful in their native tongue in order to warrant a translation, so usually they tend to be decent books. I’d say that translated books do often feel a little stilted in terms of phrasing — a few things lost in translation, etc. But a number of my favorite books are translations.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Susana_S_F says:

      Although the vast majority of the books that I read in translation flowed naturally, I know what you mean. In some instances it can feel like something is off regarding the words chosen.


  2. Somali Bookaholic says:

    Well I live in Somalia and most people have firm grasp of Arabic English and Somali so since I am northern I can read books in this three mentioned languages and somehow feel blessed first to the translator as he is the bridge between me who author but also just like you I feel am cosmopolitan human and that I love discovering and learning about other people worldview and for now my medium to learning other cultures and countries is fiction
    Well although this 21 century we will hear more about climate change but it’s also blessed time for people from different cultures to discover and learn from each other through literature

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ayunda says:

    I feel like because there are so many books that are published in English by English-speaking people/countries, it’s easier for people to not read translated fiction. It must be so nice to read books from so many different countries that have Spanish or Portuguese language! I really personally need to read more translated books.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Susana_S_F says:

      One of the most interesting things about reading books by authors from Portuguese-speaking countries, besides the stories, is to realise how the same language is used differently in terms of construction of the sentences, particularly in Brazil, and how vocabulary can be so diverse.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Scott Blackwell Boyce says:

    Your impression is probably correct – I’m guessing it’s because there is such a massive amount of literature written in English to choose from (as Ayunda points out). Also the marketing of ‘English’ books is stronger. (Although as for myself probably 30% of the books I read are translations, perhaps because I’ve lived in a few different countries.)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Emma says:

    I had the same surprise as you when I started blogging in English.
    In France, like in Portugal, we read a lot in translation, we don’t even think about it.
    I was as puzzled as you when I discovered that it was an issue for English speaking readers.

    What a waste of opportunities to decide to read only in your own language. Even if part of the style is lost in translation, the stories, the description of places and customs remains. I wouldn’t know anything about Russia or Portugal or Japan if I couldn’t have access to their books thanks to a translator.
    What I gain from reading in translation is far more than what I lose in not reading these books in the original.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Lisa Hill says:

    I agree with Emma: I have enough French and Indonesian to read in those two languages but I read books in translation all the time and mostly don’t think about it much.
    I know some people e.g. Nabokov don’t read in translation because of an intellectual argument that no translation can ever truly capture the original but I’m not as fussy as that. As long as whatever I’m reading is interesting, I’m happy.

    Liked by 1 person

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