Overcoming the Challenges of Literary Translation

Overcoming the Challenges of Literary Translation
Beth Worthy

Beth Worthy


Literary translation is the translation of prose works into other languages. Examples of such works include poems, creative novels, modern fiction, essays, and more.

Why is Literary Translation Important?

Literary translation helps to introduce an author’s ideas and thoughts to a new audience. 

Translated literary works, such as the classical Homer tales, provide readers with a glimpse into history, philosophy, politics, and much more.

On the other hand, contemporary translations help readers to appreciate life in different cultures or countries by expanding their knowledge and experiences through them.

Challenges of Literary Translation and How to Overcome Them

Literary translation is one of the most challenging types of translation.

With other translations, for example, medical translation, translators have to be careful to provide a word-by-word equivalent translation.

However, with literary translation, things are not so straightforward.

Here are some challenges that literary translators have to deal with.

4 Challenges that Literary Translators have to Deal

1. Creative wordplay

Literary works are creative text content beautifully woven by the authors to speak to a particular audience segment.

The audience typically understands the wordplay and expressions that the author uses to bring out various points.

When translating literary works, translators have to be careful not to disrupt the creative flow of thoughts and ideas.

To deal with this problem, translators need to use equivalent interpretive, approximate, and creative words that will bring out the intended meaning in the environment envisioned by the original author. 

All languages are different, and translators need to be highly creative to correctly map out any ambiguity, assonance, or idiom in the literary works they are translating for a target language.

2. The author’s original tone

Business document translation requires high accuracy and localization. On the other hand, literary translation takes things to the next level. 

Literary translators need an in-depth understanding of the author’s subject matter expertise.

The translators also need to ensure their translations do not change the original tone of the author.

After all, literary works are all about creative expressions that evoke feelings and understandings.

Therefore, literary translations should retain the author’s unique expression and writing style. 

To ensure that the original tone is captured in the translations, literary translators may need to go the extra mile to learn more about the author.

This may involve interviewing the author to understand his/her motivations, background, or life experiences that contribute to the unique literary styles.

In cases where the author is unreachable, translators may need to read more of his/her publications to understand the writing style.

3. Cultural-specific expressions

Literary works are usually written for a specific audience. The author uses familiar cultural and everyday expressions that the audience understands.

The use of cultural expressions, even though elementary in the native language of the target audience, can present significant challenges to literary translators.

For example, Don Juan is an infamous fictional character in the Legend of Don Juan. The character, which is known for seducing women, grows larger than life, and his name comes to represent a womanizer. 

When translating the Legend of Don Juan, literary translators have to decide whether to use the name exactly as it is or give the character an equivalent name that the target audience will resonate with.

Literary translations may not make sense for an audience that does not understand the mannerisms or culture of people who speak the native language that the author chose.

Therefore, translators need to adapt or change the characters and expressions used in the literary works to resonate with the culture and mannerisms of the target audience’s language.

4. Dialects and slang

The use of slang and dialects in poems, essays, and other prose works can be challenging for translators.

These expressions have to be translated to retain the character’s unique talking style or cultural expression. 

Translators need an in-depth understanding of vocabulary usage in both the source and target languages to successfully translate dialects and slang.

In most cases, translating these prose word-of-word will not make sense. This is why being bilingual is not enough to make someone a great literary translator.

An in-depth understanding of both the author’s language as well as the target language is the only sure way of ensuring that the translated works reflect the author’s intended meaning and are understood by the target audience.

Literary translators may need to research not just the language but also the culture of the audience that speaks the author’s chosen native language, to have a better understanding of the context and meaning of dialects or slang vocabulary used in literary works.

This way, the authors will know the right linguistic expressions to use that will not change the meaning that the author conveyed in the original text.

Work with a Professional Literary Translation Services Company

The complexities of translating literary content require specific language skills.

Choosing the right words, depending on the purpose and context of the content, is critical to driving the original author’s point home to a new audience.

This makes it imperative to hire a professional translation services company that specializes in document translation services.

The above are four common challenges of literary translation and how they can be overcome.

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Beth Worthy

Beth Worthy

Beth Worthy is the Cofounder & President of GMR Transcription Services, Inc., a California-based company that has been providing accurate and fast transcription services since 2004. She has enjoyed nearly ten years of success at GMR, playing a pivotal role in the company's growth. Under Beth's leadership, GMR Transcription doubled its sales within two years, earning recognition as one of the OC Business Journal's fastest-growing private companies. Outside of work, she enjoys spending time with her husband and two kids.