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What Is Literary Translation?

Posted on: May 22, 2023 by admin


If you’ve ever read Alice in Wonderland, The Adventures of Pinocchio, or any of the Brothers Grimms fairy tales (like Hansel and Gretel, or Cinderella) in English, then you have benefitted from literary translation. All of these books and stories have been translated from one language to many others (including English) in order to reach a wider audience. What you will notice about each of these literary translations is that they are engaging to read and have the ability to evoke powerful emotions in the reader, which are typical signs of a well-translated literary text. Literary translation is widely considered the most complicated and difficult form of translation, due to the specific challenges it poses. Read on to understand more about how literary translation works and the special skills required to produce a high-quality literary translation.


The Definition of Literary Translation

Literary translation is the process of translating creative writing in the form of poetry, plays, novels, or other literary texts into another language in order to reach a wider global audience.


Why Is Literary Translation Difficult?

Literary translation is widely considered the most challenging form of translation and most who are familiar with the process would agree it is more of a creative and artistic endeavour than a technical one. This is because the translator doesn’t simply need to convey the information contained in the written text (as with other forms of translation such as business, medical or legal translation). In literary translation, the translator must create an entirely new text which evokes the same emotional response in the reader as the original, using their own mastery of the target language. The three main challenges of literary translation include:


  • The length of the text – Novels and plays can often be hundreds of pages long, making the translation a mammoth task. Not only is it a lot of work, but the translator also needs to have a continuous working knowledge and understanding of the entirety of the text as they work, to ensure their translation remains consistent throughout.
    • Balancing accuracy and creativity – The primary job of all translators is to stay true to the meaning of the original text. However, when it comes to translating literary texts, the way the words flow, the emotions and ambience they conjure and the tone of the writing are also essential considerations. In some cases translators will need to take artistic liberties, slightly tweaking the original text in favour of better capturing the author’s intention in terms of evoking a certain emotional reaction in the reader.
  • Cultural considerations  – Novels, poems, and plays are all full of culturally specific references, expressions, and even names that are specially chosen to evoke a specific response or mood in the reader. Literary translators will need to consider whether these should be directly translated or localised to better resonate with the intended audience.


The Qualities of a Skilled Literary Translator

While every translator requires strong written skills in both the source and target language, literary writers also require an additional specialised skillset. Considering the unique requirements of literary translation, a good literary translator will need the following skills:

  • Strong creative writing skills – This is essential to ensure the translator is able to tweak the original as needed to evoke the appropriate response in the new audience. In some cases, the translator will need to take their own artistic liberties to produce the best result.
  • Confidence – Literary translation involves making a lot of judgment calls, particularly on whether or not to stay true to the original, or make changes. Even one word, for which there is no direct translation can cause significant difficulties for a translator. A good literary translator will need to have the confidence to decide how to proceed during these challenging sections of text.
  • Dedication and deep concentration – As many literary works are very long, and translation can take months or even years, a literary translator will need to have a strong ability to stay absorbed in the text, and to remember the facts and content of the story.


Types of Literary Translations

Literary translation refers to the translation of any literary work, but the most commonly translated literary texts are poetry, novels, and plays. Each of these texts presents its own unique challenges.


Poetry Translation

Poetry is perhaps the most creatively challenging form of translation, as each word is very specifically selected by the author because of the way it sounds, the feelings it evokes, the cultural connotation it carries, and even the number of syllables it contains. Translating poetry is a deeply artistic and creative task, whereby the translator must fully absorb not only the meaning of the poetry, but also the feelings it intends to evoke. They must also attempt to recreate the rhythm of the original piece, despite the fact that translated words will often sound completely different. Even the way the written words of the poem appear is of integral importance, so the length of words will also need to be considered.


Novel Translation

Novels are generally very long, and each word and phrase has also been carefully chosen by the author to convey a certain atmosphere, while humour, irony, puns, implied meanings, and cultural references also play an important role. The job of the translator is not only to stay true to the plotline but also to try to convey the moods, personalities, humour, and subtexts introduced by the original author. Considering that translated novels will often be read by an audience with a different cultural context, and direct translations often don’t exist for the specific language and phrases used in novels, the translator must be a skilled creative writer themself in order to produce a highly readable translated novel.


Play Translation

Translating a play presents very similar challenges to translating a novel in terms of the length of the text and the importance of capturing meaning, mood, subtexts, and humour. However, play translation also needs to consider the fact that the words are to be spoken out loud. Therefore the timing and rhythm of the text become integrally important. Translators usually continue to work with actors and directors throughout the process of workshopping the play in order to tweak dialogue during early rehearsals.



As you can see, literary translation is one of the most complicated forms of translation, requiring a mix of technical expertise and creative flair, as well as a sense of dedication to what can often be a gruelling and deeply challenging process. If you require a highly skilled literary translator, contact the experts at Speak Your Language today.