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As I mentioned in my earlier post Adventures in Russian Translation, I read a lot of foreign books. Nowadays, I estimate that I read more books that have been translated from foreign languages than originated in my own. I’ve even bought foreign books in their original language just so I can chip away at them slowly (I’m looking at you, Koji Suzuki). And I always make an effort to learn at least the fundamentals of any language that I read a translation of. It may sound crazy, but my father became fluent in ancient Greek just so he could read the original text of the Bible. So in comparison, I may be overenthusiastic, but I’m not that overenthusiastic.

What I mean is that I have a lot of experience in reading translations from foreign works, and I know what I’m talking about when I recommend one translation over another. I once sat on the floor of the bookstore with five different versions of Anna Karenina open in front of me, just comparing passages for twenty minutes before deciding on one. Of course I can’t suggest this for everyone, because most people won’t care enough to spend the time. But, for anyone looking to buy a foreign book of which multiple translations exist, I can help simplify the process with a few key points to look for that, in my own experience, tend to mark a high-quality translation. For some quick-and-dirty “cheats” that only take a few seconds each to find all these things in a text, scroll to the bottom.

1. A good translation is the truest to the language and culture.
First and foremost, something truer to the original language is always preferable over a version that has been Americanized or “smoothed over” to make it an easier read. Some translations of Tolstoy’s (non-War and Peace) work play down the Russian culture and time period so much that you might think it was all going on in your own backyard. What the hell is the point of that? If you’re going to read a classical foreign novel, for God’s sakes, read it right. Things like original names and slang of the time/place are a must. But more about that later. Bottom line: pick the translation closer to the original language. There are extremely rare exceptions; chances are yours is not one of them.

2. A good translation uses original character names, including prefixes, suffixes, nicknames, and traditional formats.
This is very important, especially in languages like Japanese or Russian where nicknames and suffixes are crucial parts of character relationships.

Example: You cannot properly read a Japanese novel or manga or whatever without honorific suffixes. You just can’t. All those -sans, -chans, and -kuns are absolutely crucial; it’s not just a way of saying “Mr” or “Miss”. In Japanese, suffixes are almost always used for any relationship. Only some family members and good friends are allowed to drop suffixes, and even then, they are still occasionally used.

Suffixes hint at social hierarchy and the closeness of relationships. Girls and small children are often given the suffix -chan (as in, Ayumi-chan), which means small, and it can be used to indicate cuteness or perceived cuteness. It can be added on to last names or first names. The suffix -sama is given to those above one’s own position, or whom one respects (as in, Yamaguchi-sama). There are others: -kun indicates a friend or someone one is familiar with (usually male); -dono is an archaic term for ‘Lord’ or ‘Lady’ or someone to be greatly respected, and is essential to be retained in classical Japanese literature; -senpai is used in high school dramas to indicate an upperclassman. These suffixes hint at the nature of relationships between the characters, and it can be a big deal in a story when a suffix is dropped or an honorific is changed from -chan to -san, or from -senpai to -kun. They represent growing relationships between the characters.

Similarly, classical Russian literature has characters referring to others by nicknames that can reveal the nature of their relationship. In The Brothers Karamazov, for instance, almost everyone in the book refers to the character Aleksey Fyodorovich Karamazov by his nickname ‘Alyosha’. his indicates that he is well-liked and on informal terms with everyone he knows. On the other hand, he mostly refers to other characters by their given names, being more polite. His brother, Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov, is by contrast very serious and morose; he calls everyone except Alyosha by their formal names and no one, not even his brothers, call Ivan by any nickname. This suggests rightly that none of the characters are close to Ivan. Their father, Fyodor, constantly refers to his son by extremely “cute” names (Alyoshechka/Alekseychick, Vanechka, Mitenka) while drunk; the drunker he gets, the “cuter” and more elaborate his nicknames for them become.

The only exception to this rule is when an extremely literal phonetic rendering of a name spoils the intended meaning. For instance, the Japanese manga/anime Death Note has a main character named Light (actually written in Japanese to sound like the English word, not the Japanese word for light). Some translations give the the character’s name in English as “Raito”, which is how it is written with the Japanese alphabet; however, it is written to be pronounced as close to “Light” in their language as possible, because there isn’t an “L”- or terminal “T”-sound in Japanese. “Raito” is just an extremely literal rendering of “Light”, but English audiences that don’t know anything about Japanese would never pick that up, and besides, it ruins the author’s original intentions for that name. Translations that do this sort of thing are just silly. My name written with the Japanese alphabet spells “Kurisuteiin”, but would I ever want it translated back into English as that mess of letters instead of “Kristine”? No. That’s just stupid. That kind of phonetic rendering has no meaning outside of its home language and shouldn’t be translated literally anywhere.

3. A good translation retains language-specific words that cannot be directly translated.
Words that do not have any direct translation, such as a kind of food or clothing, should not be omitted from a translation. They are much more descriptive than another language’s attempt to work around them. A footnote and explanation is always, always superior to a smoothing over of the text. There aren’t any exceptions to this one. Aside from cultural things like food and clothing, some languages have words for things that others do not, and they should be properly explained in a footnote rather than indirectly translated.

For example, the English version of the popular anime series Inuyasha translated the Japanese concept of youkai to “demon”, which is not culturally correct. In Japanese folklore, a youkai is kind of a supernatural creature or spirit that typically has both human and animal body parts. Depending on the subtype, their behavior ranges from melancholy to mischievous, to neutral or destructive. In our language, a demon is something evil and associated with religion and Satanism – very far from the concept of Japanese youkai. Introducing the creature called “youkai” to western audiences would have been preferable to associating it with Satanism.

4. A good translation retains original puns and references to something about the language.
It’s better left intact and explained with a footnote than worked around or ignored altogether. Would Shakespeare’s plays with puns upon puns be as effective in French or Japanese? Of course not. References to aspects of the language are just as important.

For instance, this scene from The Brothers Karamazov makes a reference to an aspect of the French language, which both of these Russian characters are aware of: the use of the informal tu over the formal vous to mean “you”. In this scene, the character Ivan is having a hallucination, and he is aware that the person he is speaking with only exists in his head and is an extension of himself.

“I am pleased that you and I have passed straight to addressing each other as ‘tu‘,” the guest began.
“Fool,” Ivan laughed, “do you suppose I would address you as ‘
vous‘?”

This is important, because in context, it shows us that even while Ivan is hallucinating, he is aware of it, and is able to understand that the person he is talking to is just himself – he is commenting on how strange it would be to refer to “himself” by the formal vous. The hallucination’s goal in the conversation is to convince Ivan that he is real, and not just a figment of Ivan’s imagination; addressing his hallucination as tu over vous shows that Ivan is resisting and remains firmly convinced that his hallucination is his own mind playing tricks on him. In comparison, this is the original and more popular translation (it was the first on the market) of the same passage by Constance Garnett:

“I am glad you treat me so familiarly,” the visitor began.
“Fool,” laughed Ivan, “do you suppose I should stand on ceremony with you?”

In this translation, you don’t see the same amount of detail that you do in the previous one. The concept of tu and vous is ignored altogether, and while it does still indicate that Ivan realizes his hallucination for what it is and refers to it informally, it’s not as obvious. It could just as well mean that Ivan doesn’t feel like wasting formality on this guest he does not want. The superficial meaning of his words is retained, but the deeper meaning is lost.

5. A good translation is true to the writing style and “voice” of the original author.
This can be the rare exception to #1 that I mentioned above: a translation that retains many aspects of the original language is nothing unless it can imitate the voice of the original writer. This isn’t easy to spot, because if you’re looking for a translation, theoretically you don’t know the original language and can’t judge the original voice of the author. Try anyway. A linguistically correct translation of Voltaire is worth nothing if it doesn’t read easily like the original French, or if it downplays his casual and witty way of writing. Translators of authors with a very unique writing style sometimes have to omit technical correctness in favor of style, and that’s fine. Optimally, though, you should be able to find a translation that preserves both the original voice and is true to the original language. As a warning, this is particularly hard to do for Asian languages (which really don’t translate well into English, especially Chinese!). However, there are many, many good translators who recognize this and try to compensate it as best they can. If their translated work shows many of the qualities of the above, chances are they’ll be respectful to the voice of the author as well.

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So how do you actually pick a good translation without meticulously going through every point above?

Well, I’ll share a secret with you about that: there are seven quick-and-dirty ways that I’ve found to cheat on determining all of the above. Each of them only takes a couple of minutes tops. When you want to determine the quality of a translation in a few minutes or less, here are some very quick things to look for that can signal high-quality right away.

QUICK AND DIRTY “CHEATS” TO FINDING A QUALITY TRANSLATION:

a. Footnotes.
Are there any? Look both at the bottom of the pages and the back of the book. A version with plenty footnotes is almost always preferable to a version with little or none. What kind of footnotes are they? Do they explain foreign phrases, puns, cultural aspects, historical background, relevance to the author’s personality or experience, the author’s original intent? Are there any footnotes where the translator explains a passage that could be translated ambiguously? (‘Yes’ answers are all desirable here.)

b. A long and thorough preface or introduction by the translator.
You don’t have to read it, just see if it’s there. This can replace footnotes if they’re not present (though they should be). Take a quick look at what it includes. Does it explain anything about historical background? The author’s life and views? Translation notes? Themes to look for while reading? Again, you don’t have to read the whole thing, but a good, thorough introduction is often a sign of a dedicated translator.

c. Use of foreign words and phrases when appropriate.
If a word cannot be accurately translated into English (see above), it is usually italicized and possibly footnoted. Flip through the book and look for italicized words. Even if they’re not explained on that page or footnoted, it might mean that they’ve already been used once or twice and explained then. Looking for italicized words is a quick and dirty way to judge the translator’s attention to accuracy.

d. Rendering of names, if appropriate.
If you know anything about the original language, flip through the body of the book and see if you can pick up anything about the character’s names, especially when spoken by another character. If the language attaches any suffixes or prefixes to names or otherwise renders them in a different way from English (eg, Russian), then it should be apparent in the text.

e. Obvious “fudges”.
This one is hard to explain, but just use common sense. Skim a couple of pages and use what you know. If you know that the book is supposed to take place in 19th century Russia and all the main characters’ names are in English throughout the book, that should be a red flag going up in your head. Or if the book takes place in medieval China but the main character’s name is Fred for some reason. Just use your common sense to look for obvious fudges.

f. Consistencies between translations.
This one requires a bit of comparison, if you have the time, but it’s very simple. If the accepted, translated title of a book is The Brothers Karamazov and is titled thus by a dozen different versions, a lone translation that calls it The Karamazov Brothers may not be as “standard” as the others, which may cause confusion if you try to discuss a particular passage with someone. This is particularly for classical literature. (However, it’s not always accurate; most translations of TBK call the main character “Alexei”, whereas my personal favourite calls him “Aleksey”.)

g. Detail and consistency in the first paragraph.
If you have the time, read the first paragraph of each translation. How do they differ? Which ones go into more detail? Which ones strike you as more accurate? Which ones are you more comfortable with? Any versions that see wildly different from the majority of the others should usually be discarded.

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Of course, not all of these things need to be present in a book for it to be a good translation. If you can find one with all of the above, that’s the optimal, but shoot for the translation with the most. Read the opening paragraph of each version. Think about the time period and country or origin and look for cultural hints like rendered names and italicized words. Look at the quality of the footnotes and the introduction. The most important thing is that you think about whatever you do and use your own judgement and common sense to pick the best translation, especially if it isn’t apparent. And the more foreign books you read, the better idea you’ll have of what else to look for in a translation.

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At the moment, I’m studying both Japanese and Mandarin Chinese. I bring this up because until I became immersed in the world of Asian languages, it never occurred to me how little English and other European languages actually connect with the world. The imagery and abstract thinking involved in these languages is astonishing… and in a purely linguistic way, quite beautiful. So, in this post, I’d like to share some examples from the world of the Chinese language that I think are particularly clever.

First, a quick introduction to Chinese. As probably everyone already knows, Chinese is a pictorial language. Words are made up of a combination of symbols that are called ‘characters’, with each character representing a word or idea. Each character is composed of radicals, which are smaller, simpler characters that also represent an idea. Here’s a picture to help explain:

Nihao - hello

That’s the gist of the structure of words and characters. Now, for the more fun stuff.

Some of the more simple (ie, one or two radical) Chinese characters often (but not always) resemble what they represent. For instance:

Examples of Chinese characters that look like the object they represent

Often, the radicals that make up a character can help you determine what that character means if you don’t already know. However, it’s not always obvious. Sometimes the radical combinations relate to the meaning in a completely abstract way, and sometimes background knowledge of Chinese culture and history is required to make sense of characters this way. Sometimes, the radical combinations just don’t seem to make sense at all.

Some radical combinations that make sense (Example 1), make sense with background information (Example 2), and don't make sense at all (Example 3)

In Example 1, the meaning of the character is very obvious… composed of the radicals for “not yet” and “woman”, it clearly means a young girl. Example 2 is a little less obvious, and could be figured out with some knowledge of Chinese values. The character means “good” and is composed of the radicals for “woman” and “child (specifically ‘son’)”. This is because it is implied that if your life is “good”, you will have a wife and child (more specifically a son). With Example 3, I can’t even begin to wonder how that character was formed.

Likewise, compound Chinese words (two or more characters) can be combined in the same way. Some are very obvious, and most, I think, can be figured out with reason. There are indeed some word combinations that require a knowledge of Chinese culture or some really funky reasoning, or are just plain odd, but most are manageable. In fact, a lot of the combinations are really, really cool! Whereas in English a word can just stand for a thing, compound words in Chinese usually convey a concept, or something more descriptive about the thing or idea itself rather than being a bunch of words thrown together. Here’s an example of a really cool (IMO) compound word:

liuxing - popular, composed of the characters for 'flow/current' and 'walk/travel'

Since I first learned this word in Chinese, I’ve always loved it. We translate it as “popular”, but it means so much more; I don’t think you can accurately translate something this clever. The word means “popular”, but it captures the concept of “popular” as a flow. Things are “in”, things are “out” – popularity is indeed the flow of trends. Isn’t that such a great way of describing it?

Here’s another one that’s not really a concept, but I have my reasons to like it:

Riben - Japan, composed of the characters for 'sun' and 'origin'... loosely translated, 'Land of the Rising Sun'

This compound word is actually used by both Chinese and Japanese to mean “Japan”. In Japanese, it’s pronounced “Nihon (nee-hone)” (characters are “ni” and “hon” respectively, and each means the same thing as its Chinese counterpart). Japan is often referred to, both by the Japanese and outsiders, as “the Land of the Rising Sun”. Liberally translated, it could be taken as “the sun’s origin”, or “the place where the sun rises”, or indeed, “Land of the Rising Sun”.

Cities, countries, and continents are some of the most interesting words in Chinese. While some that were discovered, founded, or named later (such as Canada, Singapore, Australia, etc.) are simply made of characters that sound like the word in English, a lot have to do with the place itself. It’s more descriptive about places than English. Some examples:

The names of cities, continents, and countries in Chinese can sometimes give a clue about the kind of place it is

As you can see, Chinese is a pretty cool language whose words are often more than mere abstracts – and it goes much deeper than everything I’ve shown above! I just thought I’d bring up a small number of the interesting things I’ve come across in the language. Chinese words are so intriguing because descriptive… they’re concepts… and if you’re just learning the language, you have to really think about meanings and connections when you come across a character or combination of characters you don’t know. They’re not just meaningless arrangements of letters, as English can be sometimes. If you’re looking for a cool language to learn, I’d recommend Chinese, or Japanese, or another pictorial Asian language. It takes a good memory (there are thousands of characters to learn, but knowing your radicals can help), but it’s very manageable, and at least in my experience, it teaches you more about the meanings of English words, too.

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