The Books Briefing: What the Best Translations Share

Rendering a work in a new language often becomes a collaboration between the interpreter and the original text: Your weekly guide to the best in books

Words in different languages layered on top of one another
The Atlantic

Haruki Murakami’s English translators may have skyrocketed the Japanese author to global success, but they took enormous liberties in the translation process, the writer David Karashima reveals in his book Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami. The English version of An Adventure Surrounding Sheep—titled instead A Wild Sheep Chase—dropped all references to its 1970s setting, because the editors believed readers would prefer something contemporary. Translators shaved some of the more explicit scenes from Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. A whopping 25,000 words were cut from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

Translators constantly wrestle with remaining faithful to an original work and ensuring success in a foreign language; these changes to Murakami’s books represent one extreme. At the other end of the spectrum, one finds writers such as David Bentley Hart, who published a “pitilessly literal” translation of the New Testament in 2018. “Where an author has written bad Greek … I have written bad English,” Hart notes. His fidelity to his source material is so great that in at least one instance he chose to forgo his most fundamental duty—to translate—and simply kept the original Greek word, Logos.

Regardless of the degree of intervention, many works of translation read as collaborations between the translator and the original text. A version of a work in a new language invariably bears the marks of the interpreter, no matter how subtle. In this sense, Elena Ferrante’s work is ripe for translation: Her novels reject any notion that storytelling is solitary and instead acknowledge that narratives are shaped by all of the people they pass through, including Ferrante’s own English translator, the retired New Yorker editor Ann Goldstein. The author Jonathan Franzen reflects on the value of this mode of collaboration, which he experienced while translating the Austrian writer Karl Kraus’s work into English for his own book The Kraus Project. As Franzen considers how a single word might change the implication of the text, he seems to enter Kraus’s mind—and emerges with a deeper understanding of how humanity and technology intersect.

Gerard Reve’s 1947 novel, The Evenings, was long considered untranslatable—too Dutch to ever appeal to a mainstream audience. The tale of how it came to exist in English shows the payoff for undertaking this messy enterprise. When an English version was finally published, it both stood on its own and captured the humor and stylistic brilliance of the original. It embodied the best of translation, transforming national specificity into universal relatability.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading

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DPA Picture Alliance / Alamy / The Atlantic

Who you’re reading when you read Haruki Murakami

“When a person buys Murakami’s books in English, they are receiving both author and publishing machine.”


illustration

Jason Raish

A mind-bending translation of the New Testament

“Herein lies the fascination of this thing: its deliberate, one might say defiant, rawness and lowbrow-ness, as produced by a decidedly overcooked highbrow.”


book cover

Europa

The surprising story of Elena Ferrante’s American translator

“Ferrante challenges our ideas about the act of writing itself, so that we are left wondering if a writer’s work always and inevitably contains traces of the words and stories of others that came before it.”


page from a book

Doug McLean

Jonathan Franzen on the 19th-century writer behind his internet skepticism

“Throughout The Kraus Project, Franzen’s copious annotations combine comic personal reflections, close textual analysis, historical background, and precise, sometimes hilarious takedowns of Internet-era writing—from bizarre and offensive headline juxtapositions on AOL’s homepage, to vapid, adjective-laden travel pieces in The New York Times.


book cover

Pushkin Press

Why it took so long to translate a Dutch classic

“In a time of increased divisions, recognizing the universal—even an impish, adolescent universal—in the unfamiliar is more important than ever. Translation helps us do that.”


About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she’s reading next is Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness, by Kristen Radtke.

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