Or, why I don’t read translations from English and haven’t for nearly three decades.

Living in Germany means you get a lot of books in translation, just like films. There is no need for learning a foreign language, I can just go to the bookshop and get the desired book in my mother tongue. But, not all English books are being translated into German. Or sometimes it takes ages for a book to be translated. That latter one was the main reason I started reading books in English. I was tired of having to wait for years for the next instalment in a forensic thriller series. Since then I have read more books in English than I have ever read in German. However, today, the main reason for sticking to books in English is the quality of translations.

Being aware of the quality of translations has been part of my reading process ever since I finished my first full novel in English. Whenever I read a book in translation now (90% with my kids and that’s dwindling), I’m more often appalled at how bad some of the translations are, rather than surprised at how well some are done. I’m going to give you a few examples while I continue contemplating making this a Twitter #:

  • There is Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows tag line: No mourners, no funerals. In the German version “mourners” is translated as “Klageweiber” – professional female mourners lamenting the death of a person. I don’t think this is what Bardugo had in mind.
  • Hagrid and Harry are visiting vault 713 at Gringott’s which is 719 in the German version of the first Harry Potter book.
  • There are very diverse characters in some books, they start out as male and suddenly turn female when we get to their first names for the first time, or vice versa.
  • Or that time the translator misunderstood the British “V-sign” (flipping the bird; Americans need only one finger for this) and translated it into the victory sign, which gave the whole paragraph a very odd meaning.

I know that the casual reader might never spot any of the mistranslations, factual errors, cultural errors, or left out parts, nor notice the translator’s attempt(s) at improving the story. For me though, knowing the original text and then reading the translation, I’m often wondering whether the success or failure of a book or series of books at least partly depends on the quality of the translation. There are lots of good books/series out there with lots of fans and gazillion copies sold in the English speaking world, but the translations never really take off; or series fizz out after a few translated books. Publishing houses surely must be interested in the success of a book, considering they go to such lengths as to pay for a translation; meagre pays, as I am aware, translators aren’t well-paid at all. Why then don’t publishers try to make the translation as ‘perfect’ as possible? And trust me, I am fully aware of the fact that you just can’t translate every minute detail from one language to the other one; but does the book really have to sound as if Google Translate did most of the work?

I wrote that I am shying away from translations. Now I have to say, that with growing proficiency in English, even my children are turning their backs on translations. They have noticed that some are just atrocious (we should offer our annotated German copies to the publishing houses), or that they have to wait ages for a translation to come, or that some books won’t ever get a translation, or that some series are only translated up to a certain point and then no more book is forthcoming in German. So, they have decided to venture forth and read books in English. I’m actually very glad. This way we can buy more books, because we don’t have to have two copies of everything.