How This Author Translated His Book to All Languages
If we search for the most translated books on Google, one of the first results will be Wikipedia’s dynamic list of literary works by number of translations.
The list is headed by The Holy Bible, followed by The Adventures of Pinocchio and The Little Prince. As we go down this list, some names might ring a bell for us. These are mostly books with an undeniable social and cultural footprint. But there are some names we might not recognize. Among them, Am I Small?, by Philipp Winterberg.
In 2013, Mr. Winterberg, a multifaceted German author and traveler, contacted a literary translation services provider, with a challenge: Translating his most recent children’s book to all alive languages.
Mr. Winterberg’s project wasn’t just about making his book available to international readers. Some of the coverage that Am I small? received, celebrated it as “a book for every child in the world”. But Philipp Winterberg has a vision beyond this particular book, and it has to do with the international future of the publishing industry.
“The traditional book market works very local and slow”, he explained, “A publisher publishes a book in one language, then sells licenses to other publishers in other countries. It takes years until a book permeates the global book market. I wanted to show that a new approach can work. And how it has!”
Philipp Winterberg’s book was an Amazon bestseller and of his most successful books to date.
But adapting this book, so it can be enjoyed by virtually every child in the world, was an enormous feat.
The Challenges of Book Translation
As Tamara Kazakova explains in an article, literary translation is more demanding than, for instance, document translation. That’s because when you translate a novel, you don’t simply have to translate words and terms accurately, but also in a way in which they produce the intended effect on the new readers.
A novel isn’t just conveying information, it’s also telling us a story and triggering emotions. A poor translation can alienate us from the story and from the way the author intended to tell that story, completely ruining our reading experience.
Some translators believe that they can sacrifice word-by-word translation, creating sentences that just approximations to their originals. This approach can produce works that flow naturally in their new language.
Some translators believe in a word-by-word approach that focuses on reproducing the author’s prose style in as much detail as possible, regardless of whether it flows in the new language.
Kazakova puts it very eloquently when she says: “When coming across serious unregulated complications, the translator tends either to protect the reader against them or to let him survive in deep waters.”
Localization Has Limits
In a 1941 article for The New Republic, widely celebrated author, translator and polyglot Vladimir Nabokov examined “three grades of evil” in literary translation:
“ The first, and lesser one, comprises obvious errors due to ignorance or misguided knowledge (…) The next step to Hell is taken by the translator who intentionally skips words or passages that he does not bother to understand (…) The third, and worst, degree of turpitude is reached when a masterpiece is planished and patted into such a shape, vilely beautified in such a fashion as to conform to the notions and prejudices of a given public.”
In this article, Nabokov provides several examples of purposefully wrong translations in which elements in descriptive passages were replaced so they no longer belonged to their original culture. For instance, in one of the novels that Nabokov cites, what originally was a crownflower became a violet. In an even more absurd example, three dogs that the author referred to by name where translated as a mere “pack of hounds”.
When reading about this “third type of evil”, we might ask a few questions about localization. When we’re translating a work of art, such as a movie, a TV show or a book, shouldn’t we make sure it's understood by its new audience as well as possible? And shouldn’t this involve taking the defining traits of the book’s original culture and replacing them with more relatable elements? Well — it depends.
A brand can completely change its ads, its website content and its marketing collateral to appeal to a new public because its purpose is making a connection with new customers and growing a business. But novels are works of art with the goal of telling a story in a very particular tone.
It’s true, replacing elements in a description because they might not be a part of our readers’ everyday life might not have a great impact on the story itself. But would we smudge or cover a part of a painting just because we don’t like what the artist did there?
On the other hand, if you watch dubbed episodes of The Simpsons in three different regions, you’ll find out that some cultural references are changed to adapt to new audiences. That’s mostly because, as a comedy, The Simpsons’ main goal is to make people laugh. A joke can be ruined if its pun involves a reference that the audience doesn’t understand. Translation is not mathematics. There are lots of gray areas, and some things are just matters of taste. What should and shouldn’t be adapted is always left at the discretion of the translator. That’s why we shouldn’t leave our literary translations in the hands of amateurs.
In conclusion, literary translation is vital for cultural exchange. But, to make sure readers across the globe can experience a literary work to the fullest, we need to count on specialized translators that know how to make the work accessible while fully understanding the author’s vision and goals.