5 Shining Examples of the Art of Translation Posted by on Dec 10, 2014 in Archived Posts

To the unknowing reader, a translated text is simply a copy of the text re-written into the target language. This perspective fails to classify translators as what they truly are: artists. Sure, translating court documents may be more cut-and-dry (though I give serious kudos to anyone who has learned all of that legal jargon in more than one language!), but there’s another side of the translation spectrum.

From proper nouns and pop culture references to completely made-up words, there’s a lot to be considered when translating a story. Add the pressure of doing the storyline justice, accounting for ever-present subtext, and interpreting any cultural differences, and I’d say literary translation involves a lot more thought and care than simply one-to-one transcription into another language. The quality of the translation can truly make or break the story! To help you appreciate this formidable task, below are 5 shining examples of how translation requires just as much creativity and discipline as more traditional art forms like painting, dancing, or even writing.

The Harry Potter Series

The 100+ million foreign language copies sold of the Harry Potter series sent translators through the whole gamut of difficult-to-translate elements. Spells, rhymes, and anagrams, oh my! The series’ French translator, François Ménard, for example, had to make important choices about every little play on words. He did not keep the name of the wizarding school, Hogwarts, choosing instead to translate it as “L’École de Poudlard” (a play on “poux-de-lard”), meaning “bacon lice”. Hogwarts conjures up images of a swine with skin problems— Ménard’s translation presents a similarly unpleasant image to French readers. With that level of scrutiny, surely the same amount of thought and creativity went in to Ménard’s translation as it did to Rowling’s original work.

The Hobbit

No one could imagine such a vividly real world quite like R.R. Tolkien, whose stories gave life to a slew of new creatures, places, and even languages. (Any speakers of Elven languages out there?)  Surely, by now, we all know what a hobbit is, but how would one go about translating such a term? A hobbit, after all, isn’t even a real thing! The Mandarin Chinese translator, Li Yao, came up with an equivalent I’m quite fond of: 霍比特人 (huo bi te ren). This literally means “quickly compare special people,” which, on first read, is entirely too confusing. It was chosen as a a close phonetic match to “hobbit”, but think about it, what better way to describe the lovable little creatures we call hobbits? They are a special group who can be immediately distinguished from their less height-challenged counterparts in Middle Earth.

Don Quixote

As with most art forms, sometimes translations vary from translator to translator. Edith Grossman, a renowned Spanish-to-English translator, tackled Don Quixote even though it had already been translated to English. She paid special attention to the first line, one of the most famous lines in all of Spanish literature: “En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme.” A previous version had translated this as “In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind”, but Grossman didn’t think this did the original version justice. Instead, she came up with “Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember.” She tried to evoke a more lyrical style of translation, which changes the mood entirely, don’t you think?

The Stranger

When it comes to opening lines—we all know how important those are—sometimes it’s just one single word that causes translators grief. In Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” the perplexing word may just make you laugh: mother. The first line of this classic novel is pretty straightforward: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.” Originally, this was translated as “Mother died today.” Simple enough, right? But translators debated the use of “mother” rather than “maman.” In French, “maman” implies a certain amount of affection, an indication of the narrator’s relationship with his mom. But what about “mother”? It doesn’t quite have the same ring in English right? “Mother died today” gives almost no clues to how the narrator feels about her. Very subtle? Yes. But you can see why it matters.

Alice in Wonderland

Nobody doubts the difficulty of translating an intricate work like The Stranger, of course, but even children’s literature presents unique translation challenges. Lewis Carroll captivated readers of all ages with his frequent use of personification, puns, homophones, poems, and metaphors. Russian translator Vladimir Nabokov tackled this challenge in a way that never reveals to Russian readers that the novel was originally in English. For example, Alice’s penchant for reciting poems poses a unique problem: Russian children wouldn’t be familiar with the popular English poems that Carroll is referring to (such as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Bat”, Carroll’s play on the nursery rhyme “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”.) Instead of translating the poems Carroll whipped up—a potential disaster—Nabokov invented his own fake poems based on popular Russian poetry. Still think literary translation isn’t impressive?

Have you read any translated versions of your favorite novels? What are some of your favorite examples of the art of translation?

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About the Author: meaghan

Meaghan is the Marketing Communications Manager at Transparent Language. She speaks enough French and Spanish to survive, and remembers enough Hausa to say "Hello my name is Meaghan, I'm studying Hausa." (But sadly that's it).


  1. Adam Dowrick:

    Hi Meaghan
    I really enjoyed this post. I was contemplating this topic earlier in the year when I was reading an English version of Anna Karenina. I picked up the version for free from the iBooks library and I’m sure that it was quite a poor translation (I know, you get what you paid for right! – unfortunately I didn’t reach this conclusion until I was too far in to start another, better version). With Murakami being so popular at the moment, I really question whether the translator is able to convey the subtlety and beauty of Russian (in Tolstoy’s case) or Japanese (in the case of Murakami). Though I have been told that Murakami has had the same, authorised English translator for something like 30 years, and that would give me some confidence in those translations. I’m keen to tackle War and Peace – is there a version that anyone could recommend?

    • meaghan:

      @Adam Dowrick Hey Adam, I’m glad you liked the post! You’re right – the quality of a translation makes a huge difference. If you think about it, the translator has control over almost every aspect of the story except the plot itself. When it comes to tone, mood, pacing, etc. it’s really up to the translator to remain faithful to the original (and we could debate forever what it really means to be “faithful”, too!)

      As for War and Peace, I just sent a tweet to our Russian-learning community to see if anyone on there has suggestions for a quality English translation. I’ll let you know if I hear anything:

  2. Adam Dowrick:

    Thanks Meaghan, that’s great. I appreciate your help. I’ll be sure to follow the tweet to see what the Russian Language followers come up with.

  3. Patrick Chia:

    Hi Meaghan

    On the Chinese translation, just a comment
    霍比特人 the word 霍比 read as huò bǐ is used because it sound like Hobbit in English.
    Whether it actually mean anything is secondary.

    If you are British, you may find the Chinese translation 不列颠 for Britain unflattering, it could literally mean “not classified ‘as’ top”, but you should not because it just sound as close as it is to English and in itself has no meaning.

    • meaghan:

      @Patrick Chia Duly noted, Patrick! The phonetic relationship didn’t even dawn on me, though I’m still fond of the actual translation. I’ve updated the post accordingly. 🙂

      • Kyle:

        @meaghan The Chinese Harry Potter series has a translation I particularly like: 伏地魔 (fúdìmó) for Voldemorte.
        It’s at once a transliteration that sounds like Voldemorte and the characters literally translate as “demon crawling on the ground”, which captures Voldemorte’s “snake-iness” perfectly.
        Good example of when transliteration and translation of meaning are made to coincide beautifully.

  4. Ken:

    I was surprised when I ran into Nabokov’s translation of Alice in a used bookstore a few years ago. Seems it was one of his first published works. A little difficult to read as it is written in the old-style (pre-revolution) orthography but interesting nonetheless (I read somewhere that many expats continued to use the old style for some decades after the official change). Part of the Russification involved giving the heroine the more typically Russian name Аня, rather than Алиса as in other translations (as in your illustration).

  5. Israel:


    thanks for the post. I also like to measure the translator’s creativity whenever I compare a work with its translation. It might not be book-related, but there’s this show I like to watch: Person of Interest.

    Long story short:
    Turns out there’s this hero who finds and adopts a belgian malinois but can’t decide on its name yet. This hero also needs to save a certain someone who just stole millions of dollars in bearer bonds from some neonazis. In a moment of distraction, the dog eats and chews the whole bag of bearer bonds. The guy being rescued said: “It ate my bearer bonds!” The hero says to the dog: “That’s right, you name will be Bear!”

    That got me curious. I’m not used to watch american tv shows or movies in my language (latin american spanish), but I decided to make an exception here to see what interpreters did with this scene. The guy shouted: “¡Se comió mis bonos!” The hero to the dog: “¡Eso es! Te llamarás Bono.” I felt satisfied. For a moment I thought they’d use the literal translation for “Bear” (which could be “oso” because of the animal) but they actually took a risk and nailed it.

    So I decided to compare: I asked to the show’s fanbase in reddit how was the dog called in their language (, I wish I received a lot of answers but the thread was quite unpopular) and surprisingly most of them came out with words that literally mean “dog”, “little bear” or even “bear” (the animal itself).

    Conclusion: whoever translator/interpreter did this, you rock!

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