On Translation and Books

I was recently thinking about my Harry Potter collection, as one does, and I realized it’s the only series where I own a copy of one of the books in another language. One of my college roommates studied abroad in Italy and she brought me back a copy of The Sorcerer’s Stone in Italian since I took Italian classes too, and also, if I was going to read any book in another language, it would be that one since I have it practically memorized anyway. One of the things we found amusing about the translation was how some of the names changed, like Madame Pomfrey was Madama Poppy Chips, Professor Quirrell was Professor Raptor, and Severus Snape was Severus Piton.

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These are obviously minor changes and don’t affect the story itself (unless you, like me, get distracted by Professor Raptor and wish you could have a name as cool as that). I’ve always wanted to sit down and try to read the Italian version, but honestly, actually using another language, whether reading or speaking, isn’t my strong suit. I took a year of Spanish in middle school and four semesters of Italian in college plus my four years of Latin in middle/high school, but I’m not fluent in any of them. English is my only language (though I want to change that!). Almost every book I’ve read was originally written in English. I’ve never really had to think about how translation and writing interact or how things like translation software works. If I wanted to share my favorite books with a non-English speaker, what would I hope would cross the barrier between languages?

This got me thinking about the most important aspect of stories for me. I’m a character reader. Sure, action and plot draws me in, but the characters are what keep me in the story. Characters make my heart race or make me ugly cry. And characters, human or not, are made up of subtleties. The hand that open and closes when he’s nervous. The flicker of eyes between two people in love. The coolness in her voice that can mean anger or humor. A writer can build a fantastically imagined world or transport a reader back to another age, but these things mean nothing if the people that populate these worlds don’t feel real.

That realness is what I would want preserved in translation. General characteristics, like compassion or selfishness or timidity, are important, but they’re not enough. A character feels alive when those traits are surrounded and filled in with subtle nuances of personality.

When I think of what makes me fall in love with a story, I return again and again to the characters. Whether I want to hug them, yell at them, or defeat them makes no difference as long as they feel like they can step off the pages into my world. Ultimately, whatever language you speak, that’s what I want for you as a reader: the ability to love stories.

Let’s chat! What’s the most important aspect of stories for you?

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3 thoughts on “On Translation and Books

  1. The translated names would definitely distract me. I don’t even know why they’d change it!

    I definitely agree with what you said, though, about how I want that life and beauty of the original to be in the translation. I have no idea how hard it is to do that, but I loved the Inkspell trilogy, which was originally translated from German. I have to say that the romance wasn’t well done, but the the world and the characters were, and it was so vivid on the page. I can’t compare it with the original, but for me, it’s always going to be the original, and I have to say that that is a successful translation.

  2. I totally agree with you about characters being a big and important aspect! If I am invested in the characters of a book I am going to continue reading and most likely love the book or ultimately hate it! If characters are done well I praise the writers because I love when characters are well done! After all, a story is all about telling a tale of the experience of a character or more than one am I right?

  3. I have never read the entire HP series in English – though probably when my TBR will shorten a bit, it’ll be the first thing I’m going to do – but I’ve always found the Italian translation pretty good, except for some horrible choices here and there, at least for what concerns the names. Keep in mind that the story is settled in UK, so the name should at least seem English – and couldn’t be really translated into Italian – but not changing them meant loose all the idea and characterization J.K Rowling tried to give her characters. Because translating is always about trying to convey the message in the exact way the author intended it.
    Sometimes they did good choices, sometimes the translation went somewhere horrible. At least they tried.

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