In A Language Other Than English

I don’t necessarily mean reading in another language although to anyone who can read in multiple languages, kudos to you, because that is no easy task. I am mainly referring to reading a work published in a language other than English and then translated into English (and possibly even comparing it to the text it was originally written in).

I have just recently finished a novel that was originally written in Japanese and it got me wondering if I had missed any plot points, however, because I am relatively familiar with Japanese culture, a lot of the behavioural tics made sense. Furthermore, the story was relatively plot-based, a case of ‘This happened, and then that happened but there’s a (plot) twist in the road ahead so watch out for that cliff(hanger)’, not idea-based, so I’m reasonably certain only an immaterial amount of phrases were not lost in translation.

But this is language and cultural barrier is something my father has often struggled with. He has read several books in Chinese that was originally translated into English such as ‘Gone with the Wind’ (aptly renamed ‘Wind’ in Chinese), Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and 1984 and he’s always commented that there were several issues that he did not fully comprehend and as it’s been years since he’s read them, he couldn’t provide specific examples.

At one point he also purchased for me a translated version of ‘The Monkey and Monk’ (also known as the Monkey King, or the Chinese legend that Dragonball was based off), but I found it so difficult to read that I abandoned it after the first few pages. There were too many religious references to Taoism and Buddhism and cultural tics that were inherently very Chinese that made it difficult for me to comprehend.

But it makes sense there would be translation issues because there would be certain phrases that could only be adequately expressed in the native tongue. And with an in-depth knowledge of the cultural biases contributing to that phrase. Not to mention a comprehensive understanding of the history and context of the author’s time and the setting of the story. I imagine it must be a different experience to read ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ in its Spanish prose. Or to attempt ‘War and Peace’ in the original Russian.

I would be interested to hear the opinion of someone who is proficient in several languages and has read the same book in multiple languages. And in particular, books that were trying to convey a particular idea or theme, not plot-based because I imagine those would be easier to translate.

Did the same ideas come across or were conveyed in the same way? Did you have to have an understanding of the culture before you could understand the story or could you only appreciate the plot superficially?


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