Thursday, April 12

Dear Translator, Don’t Screw with Me

I’d love to read the original manuscripts of every book that takes my fancy but I can’t. Books are altered, depending on who wrote them, who publishes them and who is going to read them.

The Picture of Dorian Gray’ was originally several chapters shorter and has some of its content removed and changed in the rewrite by Wilde. The result was still used as evidence to incriminate him and he was sent to prison.

Some American authors write books set in England but their spelling still screams, ‘I’M AMERICAN!’ Publishers change terminology and remove crude language, for the sake of clarification and minimal offence. In French, “Hufflepuff” is translated as “Poufsouffle” and “Tom Marvolo Riddle” is “Tom Elvis Jedusor.”

At different stages during school, I took classes in Arabic, French, Dutch, Spanish and Japanese. All but the last were mandatory. What I learned from all that was I cannot hope to know another language.

There are books I wish to reach which aren’t written in English. Plenty of the classics will have multiple English translations. So, which am I meant to read?

I am intrigued to know more about steampunk, so I thought I would venture to read some of the works by Jules Verne, who helped to inspire the sub-genre. I was thus pleased to discover a free ebook of ‘A Journey to the Center of the Earth.’ Score!

What impressed me was how fluidly the beginning of the book read. I couldn’t help but wonder what it was like in comparison to the original text. Of course, not having a copy of ‘Voyage au Centre de la Terre’ or being able to read French, I could only wonder.

Did I mention I’m inquisitive? I looked up the novel online and discovered that the English version I had begun reading had changed the names of the characters. I was reading about some bloke named Harry when the character’s real name was Axel. How infuriating not to even know the true name of a character you are reading about!

Thus, I wrote a short letter to the translator of the book. Okay, not really. I’m certain the translator is dead. Let’s call it an open letter to translators.
Dear Translator,

I know you aren’t perfect and you are far more accomplished than I could ever be with foreign languages. However, please give me some credit as a reader. I don’t want character names to be anglicised and I would prefer if important terms weren’t changed at all. If it is necessary for the comprehension of the text, it would be great if you could include some note of the alterations that have been made. Enjoyment of the story is important but I don’t want to feel that I am being robbed of any essentials through ignorance.


Not English, Only Reading It.
I’m going to have to leave ‘A Journey to the Center of the Earth’ alone for the time being. I’m not sure I’d devalue a book the name of its protagonists just to read it for zero dollars.

What do you think about alterations made to books, especially in the process of translating it from one language to another? When is it necessary and when is it nonsensical?

*This post was inspired by Sydnee’s ‘Being Bilingual.’

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