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Lost in translation

About untranslated books

· translation,literature,books

I find it strange that some books remain untranslated. I grew up in a culture where most of the world’s literature was translated; Robinson Crusoe, Winnie-the-Pooh, and Karlsson-on-the-Roof I first read in my mother language, Russian. In the beginning of the 90-ies, literature that was available in Russia became obsolete. Suddenly, people were starting businesses and wanted to read literature about business. Many business books were translated from English into Russian – but other books needed translating too, such as novels and pulp fiction. After many years of reading only classics, Russian women wanted to read something other than War and Peace.

The demand for American and English books was so high that there was no practical way to satisfy it. Publishers didn’t want to pay translators good fees but they set tight deadlines. Some “wannabe” translators, hardly knowing English, took on complex assignments, provided poor quality work, and made a laughing stock of themselves. One Russian web page (appropriately called “sad translations”) was even devoted to gathering translations that were so bad, they were funny. Good or bad, this kind of literature formed a huge part of Russian culture.

When I moved to Germany and started to read German books, I never asked myself whether those books had been translated into other languages or not. I assumed that these books would be available in any language, simply because literature translators existed. It was a completely false assumption. I could not imagine that some of the great books I had read remained untranslated. When I started to read English, I understood that this is a common problem. Absolutely unconceivable!

The first book I found that had not been translated for a Russian or English audience was, ironically, about communication: the famous “Kommunikation als Lebenskunst” (“Communication as an art of living”). This book is written by a well-known German psychologist, Friedemann Schulz von Thun. I could not find this book in English. My German friends could hardly believe that nobody knows Shulz von Thun, this famous expert in communication.

I also discovered a book that was translated into English from Hungarian, but was not available in Russian or German at the time. The author was Kato Lomb, a famous Hungarian polyglot, who spoke 16 languages. I found an article about this book in the 90-ies in an old Soviet newspaper that had been carefully saved by my mother. At that time, I didn't know that I would one day become a translator and interpreter. So finding this book later on meant a lot to me. Since I discovered the book in English, it has now been translated into Russian, but not into German.

At the moment I am reading another wonderful English book called “Let It Go” by Dame Stephanie Shirley. It is a memoir of a businesswoman from post-war England who founded her own company (“Freelance Programmers”) in the early 60-ies. A very powerful book about a powerful woman. Of course, very few women worked in those days and even fewer went back to work after having a baby. So a mother who founded her own IT company was an exception to all known rules. Unfortunately, I could not find this book in Russian or German.

Books hide their own worlds. To see these worlds, we need good translations. I’m sure that with these translation, we will finally see our planet as one big home, a home for many inter-crossing worlds.

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