Tag Archives: translation

“The 21st Century Greatest Novels”

The BBC asked a number of well-known literary critics to name “The 21st Century greatest novels”. And just as I imagined it: all the 12 books on the top of the list are written in English!
That says little about “The 21st Century greatest novels”, but a lot about the state of (mono-) culture in the English-speaking countries, where hardly three percent of the published books are works translated from other languages.
© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-7. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

On literary translations – a respectful objection

Book bloggers and reviewers should pay much more attention to the work of translators of literary works as they usually do – I am no exception, although I have devoted some blog posts in the past to translation issues and will do so also in the future. Sometimes we bloggers and reviewers do not mention the translation at all, not out of bad intentions or disrespect, but out of habit. We all should make efforts to change that.

One of my favourite fellow bloggers, Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life has recently brought a text to my attention which was published some time ago on the website of Words without Borders, the always interesting online magazine for international literature. As a part of their series On Reviewing Translations, three excellent and renowned literary translators (Susan Bernofsky, Jonathan Cohen, and Edith Grossman) submitted “Some thoughts for reviewers of literary translations“.

As much as I appreciate the work of translators (and these three are excellent!), and as much as I agree with the general tendency of this document, I disagree with their argument regarding the appraisal of translations.

A reviewer can only judge the quality of a literary translation when he/she knows the language from which the book is translated well; a translated book can be a smooth read and set in the most elegant prose, but if it renders the words and choices of the original author correctly is something I cannot know when I am not able to really compare it with the original. And let’s be honest – how many readers and reviewers are able to do that? Praising a translation for its elegant prose without knowing the original – I personally would feel like a cheat if I would do that.

The second disagreement I have is with the last point they make. Sorry, but a literary translation is not supposed to contribute to the literary life of the English (or any other) language, to our speech, art, and sensibility – a translation is supposed to render faithfully, and congenially a literary text into another language, not more and not less.

So, let’s pay more attention to the difficult and extremely important work of translators, but let’s be also honest. Sometimes we readers are not really able to know how well they did their job; and the same goes for the vast majority of reviewers.

Just my two stotinki…


© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A short rant on the translation of book titles

You probably all know the phenomenon: you read a translated book, the quality of the translation is excellent, good, average, poor, a crime – and all shades in between; if the language is good or not in the original edition you usually don’t know for sure unless you are able to compare. Many great books have been spoilt completely by an inadequate translation and there are also cases when the translation reads much better than the original. Fortunately, there are many excellent translators, and for a translated book the name of the translator has for me great importance because I know already what I can expect in terms of quality of the translation.

A particular annoying case are book titles that are not a translation of the original title, but that reflect the fact that nowadays the marketing departments of publishing houses seem to have greater importance as, mind you, people who wrote, edited and translated the book.

A few examples: Elias Canetti’s Die Blendung (The Blinding) becomes Auto-da-fé, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Morts sans sépulture (The unburied dead) becomes The Victors or Men without Shadows, or Boualem Sansal’s Le village de l’allemand (The village of the German) transforms miraculously into An Unfinished Business or The German Mujahid. The Sherlock Holmes novel The Hound of the Baskervilles was for decades published as Der Hund von Baskerville (as if the English title would be The Hound of Baskerville!) and only the newer translations use the correct Der Hund der Baskervilles. Most German editions of Dostoevsky’s Преступление и наказание have been published under the title Schuld und Sühne (Guilt and Atonement), some under the title Raskolnikov, when the obviously best translation would be Verbrechen und Strafe (Crime and Punishment), which was used for the translations of Alexander Eliasberg in the 1920s and by Svetlana Geier in the 1990s and which now fortunately seem to stick. And, dear publishers, there was a reason why Herta Müller chose the poetic Der Mensch ist ein grosser Fasan auf der Welt (Man is a great pheasant in the World) and not the prosaic Der Pass (The Passport), as the English edition of one of her books suggests. It is a lack of respect to the author and also to us readers to change such a title – do you marketing guys even believe that the book sold better because you invented a new title for it?

It would be easy to add dozens, if not hundreds of examples of wrong title translations. I am sure most readers of this post have their own list for this phenomenon.

There are a few cases when a different title for a translation seems acceptable or necessary. Not in every case the book appears in the original edition under the title which the author had in mind. Ismail Kadare’s The Siege (an exact translation of the Albanian title would be The Castle or The Fortress) should have been published under the title The Drums of Rain (in Albanian), and the title of the French edition Les Tambours de la pluie is therefore highly appropriate.

Another case may be copyright issues or the existence of a book under the exact same title that is already on the market. Nigel Barley’s Island of Demons was published in German as Das letzte Paradies (The Last Paradise) probably because almost at the same time another book by Lothar Reichel about Bali was published as Insel der Dämonen – both books referring to Walter Spies and Victor von Plessen’s movie Insel der Dämonen, and both with a cover illustration based on paintings by Spies. In such a case when even the content of the book is similar, a different title seems unavoidable.

The worst are for me always such title translations which seem to be more or less correct, but are indeed not and that even by that change the intention of the author or suggest an interpretation of the text that is wrong or misleading.

An interesting case is the title of Christoph Hein’s novel Landnahme in English: Settlement. Settlement is an excellent novel which I intend to review later and the translation is overall good. My first reaction was that the title is obviously wrong. But the case is more tricky as it seems.

The main character is what was called in West Germany a Heimatvertriebener (literally “one who was expelled from his home place”), a German who had to flee from what was after WWII becoming Polish territory and resettled in his case in Eastern Germany, the future GDR (where these people were called Umsiedler, literally meaning “those who have resettled”).

The word Landnahme in German means literally “to take the land”, it is clearly an active, possibly even an aggressive act, depending on if the land was already occupied by someone (in that case it would be translated as “conquest” in English), or if the land was acquired by legal means (buying or acquisition by a lawful redistribution of the land).

Settlement is therefore under no circumstances a literal translation of Landnahme. The author plays with the ambiguity of the word in his text, showing how difficult it is for the main character to make this land (in every sense of the word) his own, and by all means.

Acquisition would have been a much better literal translation of this word, or even Conquest – although the ambiguity of the German word would have been lost. So what to do as a translator in such a situation? Go for the “correct” literal translation and decide to use either Acquisition or Conquest? Or go for another solution? The translator went for the second option, and rightfully so I suppose.

Settlement means in English either an inhabited place, a village, a community of people living in a place, but it means also an arrangement to settle a conflict or a dispute, so although it is not a “correct” literal translation of Landnahme, it keeps the ambiguity of the German title – and that is what counts most in my opinion. So contrary to my first reaction, I have to concede that Philip Boehm, the translator, has done an excellent job to find this title for Hein’s novel in English.

Do you have annoying examples of wrong translations of book titles, or of ingenious one’s as the last example?



Christoph Hein: Settlement, transl. by Philip Boehm, Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York 2008

(review to follow)

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

L1, L2, indirect – and a few more words on translations

When I have some free time, I love to browse blog posts of my fellow book bloggers. It is always interesting to see what the colleagues and friends are doing, which books I missed but should read soon, what they think about books I reviewed recently – and sometimes what they are thinking about other book-related topics.

As I have said several times before, I am much more aware now of the fact that translations matter and are extremely important. Even when you can speak and read five or six languages it will still widen your horizon beyond imagination when you have access to translated books. The availability and also the quality of translations are therefore two of the most important defining elements of an existing book market.

In an older blog post which I have just recently discovered, one of my favorite blogger colleagues, Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, was writing about an interesting book by David Bellos, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? – Translation and the Meaning of Everything. Among other authors Bellos has translated the Albanian author Ismail Kadare into English – from the French, not the Albanian language. This is called “indirect translation”, contrary to the direct translation from the source to the target language. Depending on the question if the translator translates into his or her native language, or from his native language into the target language, direct translations are differentiated into so-called “L1” or “L2” translations. Many experts view L2 translations with scepticism or reject them completely, while some consider indirect translations as acceptable when there are no translators available for this particular combination of languages.

I think what counts at the end of the day is the quality of the translation, no matter if it is L1, L2, or indirect. Of course, chances that the translation is excellent are much higher with direct translations. When writers are sometimes using a language that is not their native one, why shouldn’t some translators be able to do the same? (Since Nabokov grew up bilingual, I wouldn’t include him in this list of writers, but there are plenty of them and not the worst) –

An indirect translation might be a kind of second-best solution in cases when there are really no translators available for this particular combination. For Kadare it shouldn’t be a problem to be translated directly into English, since there is not one, but plenty of literary translators for that combination.

But Kadare is a special case: he revised and rewrote all his books that were originally published in the time of communism in Albania when he prepared them for publication in France. That means that a translation of the same book from French to English contains a sometimes very different text than when you would make a direct translation from the Albanian version. And for the novels originally published before 1990 Kadare considers the French and not the Albanian version as the “real”, uncensored text. The revised editions of the pre-1990 novels of Kadare in Albanian language were published after the French versions, if I am not mistaken. For the past-1990 novels, the situation is different: as far as I see they are translated directly from Albanian to English because there is no need for a text revision.

There are also other authors we know mainly from indirect translations. The works of Israel Bashevis Singer are usually translated from English – there are even a lot of people that think Singer was an English-language author. Especially in the case of the translations of Singer to German that is a real pity: Yiddish is so close to German, so why not translate the books directly? (The result would be a very different text, much more close to the original, as I can say from practical experience when I made a sample translation of one of his stories once from the original text to German, comparing the result with the “official” translation from English)

Why do publishers choose to publish indirect translations instead of direct ones? One reason may indeed be a shortage of available translators for the respective combination – although this case may be much rarer as some publishers make us believe. But the problem exists: when I investigated for the possibilities to translate a book from Indonesian to Bulgarian, I realized that there is only one person who can do the job – now imagine if he would be not available for some reason: the only option remaining would be to work with an indirect translation. Otherwise the book would be never available for the potential readers whose native language is Bulgarian and who don’t read in other languages. Although an indirect translation might not be perfect, in the best case it could be a reasonable approximation of the original text. And that would be still far superior then the virtual non-existence of a book in that particular language.

Another reason for indirect translations may be that in some cases publishers can save money – it is cheaper to translate from languages where you can find plenty of competing translators than from languages where there are only a very few translators, or where possibly the translation rights might be cheaper to acquire (depending on the contractual relationships between the involved publishers, the author and the literary agency).

Also literary agents can play a role in this process. Agents try to increase the income of their clients (and by that their own income), so they try to redistribute money from other stages of the book value chain – mainly the publishing houses, but obviously to a growing extent also from translators – into the pockets of their writing clientele, by auctioning off book and translation rights, increasing the royalties for the author, etc., and by that forcing everybody else in the book value chain to decrease their income. There is nothing wrong with this in principle, as long as professional and ethical standards are respected, which is not always the case.

A particular vicious example is a recent case in which Egyptian bestselling author Alaa al Aswany and his agent Andrew Wiley (together with Knopf Doubleday publishers) are involved and that was made public by the Threepercent website of the University of Rochester.

A completely unacceptable treatment of a literary translator – and hard to believe but obviously true: a world famous author, the Godfather of all literary agents and a renowned publishing house use their combined power and leverage to cheat on a hard working professional, for reasons that are as it seems of exclusively pecuniary nature.

By the way, I find it very interesting to see the approach of different writers to the question of translations of their works. While some authors take a great interest and discuss details of the translations with their translators, or even organize like Günter Grass (on their own costs) workshops for their translators to ensure a high quality of the translations, others like Thomas Bernhard show the extreme opposite approach. From an interview with Werner Wögerbauer, conducted 1986 in Vienna:

“W.: Does the fate of your books interest you?

B.: No, not really.

W.: What about translations for example?

B.: I’m hardly interested in my own fate, and certainly not in that of my books. Translations? What do you mean?

W.: What happens to your books in other countries.

B.: Doesn’t interest me at all, because a translation is a different book. It has nothing to do with the original at all. It’s a book by the person who translated it. I write in the German language. You get sent a copy of these books and either you like them or you don’t. If they have awful covers then they’re just annoying. And you flip through and that’s it. It has nothing in common with your own work, apart from the weirdly different title. Right? Because translation is impossible. A piece of music is played the same the world over, using the written notes, but a book would always have to be played in German, in my case. With my orchestra!”

And for those of you who are familiar with Georges-Arthur Goldschmidt’s books with the untranslatable titles Quand Freud voit la mer and Quand Freud attend le verbe, it may be not surprising that I am very sympathetic to Bernhard’s opinion. A translation is indeed always a different book, and sometimes – as is the case with the terms created by Freud in the framework of psychoanalysis, the meaning and specific connotation of central words and expressions are so inseparably linked to the particular language in which they were created (in the case of psychoanalysis: German) that each translation is already an interpretation, over-simplification, reduction of ambiguity, and even falsification of the original text. – But I guess I am digressing a bit. The highly interesting books by Goldschmidt would deserve a more detailed review as is possible here.

Translations are a wide field – I have the feeling that I will return to the issue again sooner or later.


David Bellos: Is That a Fish in Your Ear? – Translation and the Meaning of Everything, Particular Books, 2012

Georges-Arthur Goldschmidt: Quand Freud attend le verbe, Buchet Chastel, 2006

Georges-Arthur Goldschmidt: Quand Freud voit la mer, Buchet Castel, 2006

Chad W. Post: A Cautionary Tale

Chad W. Post: The Three Percent Problem, Open Letter, e-book, 2011

The interview with Thomas Bernhard was originally published in the autumn issue 2006 of Kultur & Gespenster, the English translation by Nicholas Grindell was published here.

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or 
duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

The Translation Dilemma

The Frankfurt Book Fair that closed just a few days ago, is the world’s biggest book fair. When I was living in Frankfurt, I used to visit this event every year – and each year I was overwhelmed by the sheer size of the fair and by the presence of publishers, authors and other less visible participants from the book industry.

One of the features of the book fair in Frankfurt I like most is that (almost) every year, a country or a linguistic region is the Guest of Honor of the event and has the opportunity to present itself in a thematic pavilion. This year, the thematic pavilion presented Finland – and not only the literature – which is beside Finnish also written in Swedish or Sami language – but the culture in general. (Next year the Guest of Honor will be Indonesia.)

Now what I find interesting is that for a week almost all – so it seems to me – important writers and intellectuals of the guest country are in this medium-sized German city, and this comes with a visibility in public that is quite remarkable. Not only that you have plenty of readings and discussions with writers (and not only from the guest country), but also in TV, print and electronic media, the presence of writers and books is immense.

Knowing well that the thematic choice of the Book Fair is also a marketing instrument to focus the interest of the public on a region that is usually not so much present in the mind of the ordinary reader, the publishing houses include in their programmes also a considerable number of translations from the respective guest of the year.

As a result of these combined efforts (of which of course the translators are a crucial part), I counted 130 new translations and editions of belletristic texts (fiction) from Finnish to German in 2013/2014. Of these, about 70% are books that have never been translated before. Additionally about 60 belletristic books from Finnish authors that write in Swedish or Sami language have been translated into German in the same period.

Just for the record: according to the Three Percent database of the University of Rochester that lists all translations from foreign languages that are available via publishers in the US, in the same period only one (1) fiction book was translated from Finnish to English!

Poor readers in the US (and in the other anglophone countries the situation is almost the same) – when you don’t read Finnish (or Swedish or German), your chances to ever have an opportunity to read a contemporary Finnish novel, story book or poetry collection are almost zero. And the same goes for many many other books even from “major” languages. (I don’t want to insinuate in any way that “small” languages, i.e. languages with a comparatively small number of native speakers produce “small”, i.e. unimportant literature – the contrary is true! I am just referring here to the negligence even of languages with more than 50 or 100 million native speakers)

Maybe Warren Buffett, Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg could sponsor a major translation programme to make all important works of literature available to English-speaking readers? Just asking…

Blogging really opened my eyes about the fact how very important translations of literary texts are. When they are – for whatever reason – not available, many readers are cut off from the chance to really understand what’s going on in the world and how other cultures really are.

The result of this possibly distorted world view is becoming a serious problem – even geo-politically. I am convinced that a lot of the misconceptions and blunders of policy makers are the result of a lack of knowledge – which frequently is the result of a lack of translated information and literary texts.

If this blog and those of many similarly devoted bloggers makes a few people sensitive for this question or in one case or the other finds an important translated book a few new readers – or even a publisher! -, then it has achieved already quite a lot.

By the way, have you read any Finnish fiction? I will for sure later review one or the other book here as well, but I am curious to hear from my readers what they can possibly recommend.

 © Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

From Bulgaria with Love

German Literary Spaces (Nемски литературни простори) is a new collection of essays by the Bulgarian poet, essayist, aphorist, and translator Venzeslav Konstantinov.

Konstantinov is one of those very important mediators between different countries, languages, cultures that make literature or other works from the cultural sphere accessible to us and whose work is so important and frequently underestimated. As for Bulgaria, a considerable part of the classical and modern literature in German language was translated and edited by Konstantinov and his translations are accompanied by essays that help the reader to understand the context of the work and the writer. Konstantinov is a particularly gifted translator of poetry. The “Bulgarian” poetry of Erich Kästner for example is so close to the original that it sounds as if Kästner has written the poems himself in Bulgarian.

A collection of twenty of Konstantinov’s essays on German literature is now published in the new book announced here. Each chapter is devoted to the work of one author, and the range of writers covers the period from the 18th century (the first essay in the book is devoted to Goethe) until today (an essay on Martin Walser concludes the book). All essays are comparatively short (five to ten pages), only the one on Elias Canetti (“From Rustschuk with Love”) is longer. And all of them make the reader curious to discover the work of the writer that Konstantinov is describing in the respective essay.

Konstantinov proves not only to be a congenial translator, but also a successful ‘literature seducer’, someone who knows how to wake up the wish in the reader to discover new literary horizons.

With two small critical remarks I want to conclude this review. First, it would have been great to make it clear that the essays are not dealing with the 20 most important German authors (there is for example no essay on Kafka, and an essay on Katja Mann instead of Thomas or Heinrich Mann). The essays reflect Konstantinov’s interests, and that’s absolutely fine. But they are not (and not meant to be) a systematic introduction to German literature. That’s in no way meant as a criticism of the author, but a short remark in this sense would be useful to readers that are not so familiar with German literature.

Additionally it would have been nice to mention if the essays were written for this book or if it is a collection of previously published articles. Nothing wrong with collecting previously published essays, it is even a commendable deed from the publishing house Iztok-Zapad (East-West) in Sofia. But as a reader I just want to know what exactly I am reading.

These remarks diminish in no way the excellent work by Venzeslav Konstantinov and his publisher. This collection of essays is worth reading and deserves a translation, and of course many Bulgarian readers.


Venzeslav Konstantinov: Nemski literaturni prostori (German literary spaces), Iztok-Zapad, Sofia 2014

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.