Literary Translation

Translating literature, especially fiction, is not about the words. It is about the feelings those words trigger. The way this is accomplished depends on many factors, including culture. Therefore, when translating fiction, translators have to master the knowledge about those factors in both languages and find how to “re-write” the same text as the author would write it if he/she were immersed in the target culture.


Word meaning seems to be straightforward – that is why dictionaries are for. However, literature allows some degree of liberty to use words with a slightly different meaning that the one we are used to or to use them as a metaphors. And the specific word the author uses in that specific context is important. So, the translator has to ask: why did the author decide to use that specific word there and not some other that could be equivalent? Plus, the same word can be translated in different ways depending on the context.

Then, there are the expressions: idiomatic and informal expressions; expressions natives use on a daily basis. Simply translating each word is not usually a good solution. The translator has to know the true meaning of those expressions and how they are used in every context, and know which expressions native speakers of the target language would use in the same contexts.

Culture also plays an important role. There could be references that are well-known to the original language readers, but totally unknown to the target language readers. Facing this challenge, translators have two possible solutions: whether they find a similar reference that the target language readers would relate to or they find a way to explain such a reference. The latter can be made using footnotes or adding extra words in the text.

Fundamental is also to know the background of the authors and their influences. In a nutshell: what made authors write that text in the first place? What were their life experiences, their motivations, their inspirations? This helps the translator understand the text itself, the style, the references, the choice of words.

Talking with the author is highly advisable. Translators have the opportunity to learn more about the author’s background and motivations, but also to ask questions about the meaning of words, expressions, messages. Sometimes, misinterpretations can wrongly influence the readers. And the image readers will have about the author and the author’s books is given by the translator.


It is said that the number of possible translations equals the number of translators. In truth, translation is about the options one makes. There could be two very different translations of the same text and both of them be correct. However, translators must keep in mind that this is the author’s text and they need to respect and follow the author’s choices. For example, if you do not agree with some lines, you are not authorised to change it as you like it. If you do, you are not translating, you are simply recreating. That is wrong because it ceases to be the author’s text. Yes, sometimes translators translate texts they do not like or do not enjoy.

However, translators must have a good dose of creativity. After all, they are writing a new text. Literary translators have to be very good in writing. They need to have some artistic skills to make the text fluid, rhythmic, and nice to read. Have you ever read a book that was “painful” to read because the translation was so close to English? The words may be correctly translated, but then the structure can be just off. Plus, people really need to understand what is happening… if the structure is confused, readers can be lost.

Consistency is also paramount. If the translator chooses a certain word for a certain term, then he/she has to maintain such a choice throughout the text. Yes, sometimes authors use two or more words for the same term (for example, pistol and weapon). In this case, it is advisable to follow the author’s option. However, if it does not make sense, the translator can use the same word every time. But, in this case, the option should be maintain all the time.


Translators dissect the text to exhaustion to make sure they understood the meaning correctly. Then, they need to make sure that the reader captures the same meaning and has an enjoyable reading. Finally, they need to check if it is consistent. A book takes several days to translate and new ideas about how to translate the terms and the expressions pop in the head all the time. It is crucial to go back and forth and check if the options are maintained.

Technically, the translation itself is just the first version of the document. Afterwards, there are several revisions to refine it. There are revisions to make sure the message is correctly conveyed, others to make sure there are no spelling and syntax errors, and then others to make sure the text is a good reading for the target language readers.

Authors with more than one book published could take advantage to have the same translator for every given language. The translator builds a very comprehensive knowledge about all what was said above and, therefore, the probability of the translator be closer to the original is higher.

For more information:

  • “What makes a good literary translator?” – BRITISH COUNCIL 45762-200
  • “The Challenges of Translating Literature” – THE LANGUAGE BLOG 45762-200
  • “Literary Translation: Important but Quite Challenging” – DAY TRANSLATION BLOG 45762-200

    «Translation is that which transforms everything so that nothing changes.» Günter Grass