Problems in Interpreting Translated Literary Works

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In this lesson, we will discuss some challenges that readers face when reading texts that have been translated into another language. We will also learn about different approaches translators take when interpreting texts.

Translation Errors

Have you ever used an electronic translator to change an English phrase into another language and then back into English? Jimmy Fallon of the ''Tonight Show'' has turned this concept into a recurring comedy segment showcasing song titles that have been humorously been mangled in translation.

For example, Sir Mix-a-Lot's ''Baby Got Back'' translates into ''The Baby Escaped'', and Ed Sheeran's ''The Shape of You'' translates to ''Your Body's Curves.'' While translation errors may be comedic in this context, these kinds of errors in works of literature that are intended to describe the human condition in another culture can lead to misunderstandings and division.

Let's examine some of the challenges associated with reading translated works.

Word-For-Word Translation

One approach that a translator might take is a word-for-word translation, in other words, a literal translation of each word at a time. This is not a recommended method as word order varies greatly from one language to the next.

Many Asian countries end sentences with a verb while Western languages, such as English, generally use a subject/verb pattern followed by a direct object or modifier. For example, using word-for-word translation, the sentence ''I ate a cookie'' in Korean would be translated as ''I cookie to eat'' in English.

Another challenge when it comes to word-for-word translations is that some words are untranslatable, meaning they are so unique to a language that there is not another term that matches it exactly. For example, the German word schadenfreude refers to a positive emotion derived from hearing about other people's problems. There is no English word that means the same thing, therefore translators are forced to infer approximate meanings.

Translation for Meaning

When translators translate for meaning, they consider phrases, sentences, and even paragraphs holistically to determine the writer's intent. This type of translation requires the translator to think in terms of ideas rather than relying on their understanding of vocabulary.

This type of translation is particularly difficult when translating poetry, as poets tend to carefully put together words not only for their meaning, but with consideration for poetic effects, such as meter, rhythm, and rhyme. Humor, irony, and plot twists in literature also require some poetic license on the part of the translator to produce coherent work.

Cultural Considerations

Another consideration related to the accuracy of a translation is culture. Many times, authors might vaguely reference something that would be easily understood by readers in their own country, but could cause confusion for readers that are unfamiliar with the culture and customs of a particular region. Frequently, translators will attempt to compensate by incorporating some background knowledge.

The translator's own cultural biases can also impact how a work is interpreted. This is particularly true with idioms and metaphors. For example, a red herring in English is an idiom describing something that is misleading or a distraction. This term would have no meaning for someone translating the term to Arabic.

Similarly, some cultures view tigers as fierce and dangerous, while others think of them as lazy creatures. Metaphors involving these animals don't make sense to readers unless the translator makes adjustments.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account