The Pitfalls of Literary Translation

by Martha Simons

When we start dreaming about an exciting profession of a translator, we imagine ourselves working on a soon-to-be fiction book bestseller everybody would talk about. I guess, there are not so many people dreaming about translating legal documents and manuals to vacuum cleaners. However, literary translation is a very demanding and challenging process. There are a lot of difficulties to overcome when trying to communicate the beauty and uniqueness of a source text.

Endless Creativity

No one can deny that translation of any text is a creative process. But nothing requires you to use more creativity than a literary translation. The first thing to remember is to be proof against the temptation of making the text better. We all have a subjective perception of something and decide whether it is good or not. Keep that judgment to yourself and let a reader decide. It's not your text after all. The goal of literary translators is to save the meaning, mood, and rhythm of a source text. It's very difficult to reach this goal, especially when the target and source languages are very different. That's when you'll need to turn your creativity on.

Culture Differences

Every language creates its own unique social environment. The cultural background has a great influence on how we react to a literary piece and this aspect has to be addressed as well. It is immensely difficult to find the right words and effective techniques to make a reader feel those emotions intended by the author of the source text. The author created his masterpiece with a specific target audience in mind, and your task is to make everything possible for this text to appeal to people with a completely different worldview.


Authors love playing with words and making their readers find the hidden meanings in the text. That is very nice and intriguing for the readers, but not for the translators. They then have to struggle searching for the options of resembling these meanings. Many authors put much effort into inventing the names for their characters. For instance, it is infinitely complex to let the Russian readers of Harry Potter books understand that Lord Voldemort's name origin is French for Flight of Death unless you just make a footnote. Another example of the series is Tom Marvolo Riddle being an anagram of I am Lord Voldemort.

Translating a wordplay is a task of a whole new level. The best example of this is Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.

“Mine is a long and sad tale!” said the Mouse turning to Alice and sighing.

“It is a long tail certainly,” said Alice, looking down with wonder at the Mouse’s tail.

“The master was an old Turtle – we used to call him Tortoise –”

“Why did you call him Tortoise, if he wasn’t one?” Alice asked.

“We called him Tortoise because he taught us,” said the Mock Turtle angrily.

You can spend hours and hours trying to find an appropriate idiom or word in the target language to show the wonderful play of words here. Almost always there's an elegant way to do it. Almost...


Humor is one more challenge for a literary translator. Here, again, there's a problem of different cultural backgrounds. Something Germans will find funny won't be amusing for, say, Spaniards. And vice versa. The main task is to find the common ground or an alternative way of presenting a joke or pun. If you can do that, you'll be able to translate anything. One more thing to keep in mind is that over-explaining a joke will certainly kill it for a reader. The more details you have to make clear, the less funny it gets.

These are just some examples of challenges a literary translator can face. There are numerous ways of overcoming them and practice remains to be the most effective one.

About the writer

Martha Simons works at the translation service Translateshark.


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