Easier Said than Done: How to Navigate Literary Translations?

Literary Translation

Translations, to be of good quality, require excellent grasp of the target and source languages, as well as an in-depth knowledge of the cultural background of both languages being translated. American anthropologist and linguist Edward Sapir developed the theory of linguistic relativism, stating that each language represents its own worldview and certain thoughts in one language cannot be expressed in equivalent ways in another. The theory has been later contested, but nonetheless the task of recreating the effect or the feelings emanating from the original text in a target language becomes infinitely more complex when dealing literary translations that need to address peculiar cultural contexts. In the case of literary translation, various layers of complications come into play, mainly involving creative license and interpretation of the original text, as well as the rendering of subtle stylistic elements that are presented in a literary text.

Creative License in Translation: Yes or No?

Literary creativeness is needed during the writing of the original work, but also during the translation of it. However, the latter differs in that it is not freestanding, as it is intrinsically linked to the form and tone of the original work. A literary work is the product of various elements such as rhythm, syntax, and punctuation, but also non-linguistic elements such as cultural context, target audience, and puns. All these elements work together in a dialectical relationship with the literary work and the relationship needs to be kept and reproduced in the translation. Easier said than done!

Regional Varieties and Names

First of all, regional varieties of language may be used in a literary work as well as cultural references that are linked to the time period the novel or poem is set in. One of the hardest parts of literary translation is in fact finding the equivalent of regional varieties or cultural references. For instance, in the case of Harry Potter books, careful research had to go into translating Hagrid’s speeches. Since he speaks with a regional accent and frequently uses multiple colloquial expressions, equivalent regional varieties for each target language had to be identified to convey a similar feel in the translation. Names are also some of the most difficult features to translate into a target language and a target culture. For example, Oscar Wild’s play names and characters in Italian have been translated as well as possible, but ultimately the title you are most likely to find in an Italian bookstore (L’importanza di chiamarsi Ernesto) does not reflect the same puns and play-on-words intended in the original. Ernesto in Italian is only a first name, and does not have the double meaning of earnest as in “serious and intense.”

Sometimes the Original is Kept or it is Omitted Altogether

In the Italian translation of Oscar Wilde’s above-mentioned play, the last name Worthing is kept, even though the pun might escape Italians who don’t have a fair grasp of the English language. Often times names in literary works are carefully crafted to suit a particular setting, time, and geographic region and it is impossible to recreate them in another language in a way that is as relevant to the target audience. Sometimes it is better to keep the original expression, sometimes it is better to completely remove it in the translation and replace it with a word or phrase that captures a similar feeling. For instance, there is an episode in the novel Nineteen Minutes when a police officer enters a walk-in freezer. He raises his gun and ironically says: “Freeze!” The linguistic humor is completely removed in the Spanish translation, as the equivalent linguistic pun in Spanish (double-meaning between a police arrest and a freezer) does not exist.


It is up to the translator whether they want to embellish and stray from the original text in order to capture a sentiment in the target language. However, some puns, jokes, feelings, or socio-economic/historic references simply are untranslatable in the target language. Giving a translator enough latitude and flexibility to creatively adapt a work’s culturally relative meanings makes a translation stronger and more enjoyable to the target audience.

This article is written by a professional writer, Ilaria Ghelardoni, associated with Ulatus.  

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