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The Challenges of Literary Translation and How to Overcome Them

Posted by Anne Quach on November 22, 2019.

Book localization, especially literary translation is extremely important for an author to reach their audience from different parts of the world, and it is regarded as one of the most challenging translation tasks. Even the most experienced linguists make mistakes when translating books.

In today’s post, we will find out what challenges translators face when translating a book and how to deal with them.

Difficulties of Literary Translation

(1) Translating without Changing the Original Tones of the Author

While business translation requires high accuracy and localization involves changes in layout, formats, colours, etc., literary translation takes a step further. To have a great translated book, translators do not only need excellent insights into literature and subject-matter expertise to guarantee the accuracy of the knowledge writers want to share.

The translator also makes sure that the literary translation process does not affect the authors’ expression and their unique writing styles. That means the word choices should not be too literal or too exaggerating compared to the original book. They should be “perfect” words to evoke the same understanding and feelings from the readers as the original. Trust me, it’s no easy task.


(2) Culturally-Specific Expression

Sometimes, the name of a famous person or character in novels or poems is used as a personality adjective. Don Juan, for instance, is an infamous fictional character in a play by Tirso de Molina in 1630. Don Juan is a wealthy libertine who devotes his life to seducing women. As the popularity of the character grows, Don Juan becomes a generic expression for a womanizer.

The question is when performing a literary translation referring to this character, should translators keep the name as the original and add a footnote. Or should they find an equivalent fictional character in the target language’s culture?


(3) Play-on-words and Tongue Twisters

Wordplay or tongue twisters are no doubt a real headache for any translators while working on a literary translation task. It requires more time to translate more than anything else. “She sells seashells by the seashore” or, “You know New York, you need New York, you know you need unique New York” to name a few. The translators do not stop at finding an equivalent expression for the sentences, but they also find words that carry the same pronunciation challenges for the readers.



(4) Dialects and Slang

The use of Slang or Dialects in novels or poems is no stranger to readers, but it’s also a challenge for translators when dealing with a literary translation project. How can they translate these words into a new language while retaining the characters’ unique talking styles? Gone with the wind by Margaret Mitchell is a representative of this case. Most black people in the novel speak in a different dialect. Let’s see how linguists handle with the dialect.

The original:

“Is de gempmum gone? Huccome you din’ ast dem ter stay fer supper, Miss Scarlett? Ah done tole Poke ter lay two extry plates fer dem. Whar’s yo’ manners?” – Mamma in Chapter.

The Vietnamese translation:

“Mấy cậu về ‘ồi sao? Sao không mời người ta ở lại dùng bữa? Tôi đã bảo Pok’ dọn thêm hai bộ dĩa cho họ. Đó là lối xã giao nào vậy?”

Refer to the original and the intention of the author, the translator illustrates this dialect in Vietnamese by cutting out some syllabus like ‘ồi instead of rồi, or Pok’ instead of Poke.


Literary Translation Process

An excellent literary translation requires the involvement of many experienced linguists who must put a great amount of time as well as effort into the translation. A clear working process will be a great and indispensable assistant to guarantee the quality of the book and meet the deadlines of the publisher. The process may vary upon the working styles of translators, yet it stills include the following basic steps:

Literary translation process

(1) Read the Original Book

This step can be considered as the cornerstone of the whole translation project. Why? If the translators do not understand the ins and outs of the book themselves, how can they convey the exact message of the book to the readers?

At this step, the translators should read the original book (over and over again) to get the idea, message, and writing tone of the author. But reading the original book is just the first preparation. The translators may use the next few days to read the previous books of the author (to fully understand the author’s literary style), do research on relevant topics or cultural references referred to in the book, and discuss with the native about unclear points of the book if necessary. Only when the translators know the book inside out should they start translating it.


(2) Translate and Self-Review the Translation

To avoid conflicts in literary styles, only one translator should work on translating the book. The translator then keeps self-review the first translation a couple of times until he or she is satisfied with the outcome.


(3) Edit the Translated Version

A second native linguist will review the whole translated book again to correct possible mistakes. The editors make changes in wording or language-use mistakes, sentence structures, inconsistencies, and misuse terminology.


(4) Proofread

Unlike the editor who reads and compares the target to the source text, the third linguist only reads the final translated version to guarantee the smoothness and visuals of the book. The proofread focuses on spelling and punctuality, grammar mistakes, typing errors, consistent language, and the overall format of the translation.

(5) Desktop Publishing (DTP)

After the TEP process, the book is laid out and indexed in a proper template. It is reviewed again (in-context review) before being printed and published.


5 Useful Tips for Literary Translators

(1) Don’t Forget to Communicate with the Author

More than anyone, the book author is the one who creates and understands the book the most. So don’t waste such a good reference for your literary translation task. Ask them about the obscure chapter you have been bothering about, or talk to them about the inspiration of the book and the characters. Any information would help you during the translation process.

Of course, this communication is not a piece of cake. The author, in many cases, has passed away or is unable to communicate directly with you. However, you still can read up and refer to other novels of the author or some old interviews the author did about the book. It is worth noting that, the translated book must convey the voice and tone of the author, so their involvement would very much be crucial.

(2) Don’t Start Translating until You are Confident about Their Knowledge of the Book

As mentioned, if translators do not understand and convey the meanings properly, they cannot expect the readers to have the right perception of the book. A book translator erases the language gap between the author and the readers, and let the knowledge spread. So make sure you know all aspects of the book before translating it.

(3) A Bilingual Translator is not Enough for Literary Translation

Being native doesn’t equal good writing and word using skills. In fact, only a small number of native linguists are qualified for literary translations. The translators should be themselves a writer, a blogger, or a person who love playing with words and languages.

(4) Follow a Strict Literary Translation Process

Follow an optimal process to guarantee the progress and quality of your translated book. You should also consider working on CAT tools and using other checking tools to have an accurate translation.

(5) Read, Read, and Read

Even when you are already in the process of translating, don’t stop reading relevant books and topics to expand your vocabulary and knowledge that have a direct effect on your translated book. What’s more, reading might evoke your inspiration and take your project to a new level.


To Sum Up

Literary translation is no doubt a challenging task. It requires more than just translating words between two languages. Translators need to have solid language commands, along with great writing skills and creative minds. We hope that by understanding the challenges translators have to face when working on a book as well as applying our tips, you will achieve a successful book localization project.

If you are looking for a trustworthy book localization partner to bring your book closer to global readers, look no further than GTE Localize. With years of experience in translating different types of books, we are confident to bring you comprehensive book localization services, at the most value-for-money rate. We offer a flexible workflow that best suits your literary translation project.

Book Localization Service - Literary Localization Servicess

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