Lost in Trans-literature

6 min readSep 11, 2020


Literature is what makes us human. We communicate in a language, sort of like a computers operating system and it makes us more richer as a person. One person could not solely strive on a mac os, without trying the pleasures that a windows pc can provide. Trying to run a windows software on mac os would be incompatible. This is sort of the same thing we get when we try and communicate in two different languages. Just a lot of shouting and very minimal progress.

Imagine if we communicated like this

Translation of literature could be best described, sticking to this analogy, as a software that allows compatibility through the two operating systems. Sure it may not be perfect, but it gets the job done. It allows people from other languages, operating systems with this analogy, to read the original. But this would leave the question of why does translation of literature lose some meaning?

Translations of another form such as physical skills from one person to another does not lose any meaning. What I mean by this is if I teach you a skill for instance, with the correct amount of practise and knowledge, you should find yourself performing the same skill to the same level as myself. Literature does not work like that. It is a very articulate art form. With one slip up, with a singular word all emotional depth can be lost with the click of a finger. This is the beauty of it. A good analogy to best describe this process would have to be when you watch a great film. Your head over heals so you want to tell your friend about it, but as you explain the plot to them, you realise that you are rambling. Your words have no meaning and you feel as if you are reading an instructions manual for some of Ikea’s wide range of furniture. You see how their facial expression changes from excitement to pure boredom. Then the fact dawns upon you. You just ruined such a great piece of literature for them, permanently scarring their view of it. See what I mean? Despite you describing the same film, the way you described it with your words made it significantly less pleasing. I like to think about this as whenever you are writing literature, you are walking on egg shells. One slip up can ruin the whole piece’s worth.

Now that I have explained the power that the translation of Literature holed, allow me to draw your attention to one piece of literature that I believe does do the original writer justice in terms of translation. Vienna by a Lebanese author, Sahar Mandour. Of course I am unable to read the original writing, as it was in Arabic and I only know how to read English, but i also greatly enjoyed reading the translation. Vienna follows a general chapter of a young woman’s love life, and although this may seem mediocre and overplayed, I believe that the way that the translator worked in tandem with the author is unmatched. This begs the question; “How much value was lost in translation?”

An aerial Image of Lebanon

If you ask me I would say; “not much,” as, reading many different translations from good to bad ones, one aspect takes the largest toll in translation and this is the emotional depth the original has. Reading Vienna I felt as if I was actually inside of the story, awkwardly watching on from a corner, as the plot continues to unravel. We felt as if we where there for the characters. This is an extremely difficult feeling for the writer and translator to create. Creating this feel would also be more challenging considering that we all come from different walks of life, and have had different experiences. To create a piece of literature that replicates this feeling keeping in mind that we all have had different experiences in our lives is a true testament to the author’s but also the translators skill.

When considering translating poetry, we are opening a completely new can of worms. Previously I discussed Vienna, a short story, and although short stories roughly share the same aspects such as pacing and flow with poetry, these are all magnified when taking poetry into account. This is due to non other than how poetry is built.

Angelique Caffrey describes poetry’s unique structure here, but in essence what she touches on is that poetry has a heavy stress on rhythm and flow, more than short story or an instruction manual for that matter. Translating poetry is completely changing the rhythm and flow. You are changing the words to a completely different language for heavens sake!

Poetry is an art, so to speak, it works with a blend of all the words working in tandem to create the same mutual end goal. To create a surreal experience for the reader. The words feed on each other, depending on the very fineness of each other. Whether its the rhythm of how the words work, or the texture it creates. They all are completely dependent on each other.

Spanish is widely known as the simplest Language to learn rhythmically wise
Mandarin is widely known as the most complex language to learn.

What i was trying to illustrate was how would translators go about translating from Spanish to Mandarin? They have completely different rhythm, and the words do not sound similar for that matter.

Translations always differ from each other despite being a translation of the same piece of poetry. This is due to the translators having different takes on the poetry.

Original of “Der Panther”
Translation one by Leonard Cottrell
Translation two by J.B. Leishman

as seen above, translations one and two are not the same, only sharing the same original piece of poetry.

However, translation of poetry has been done and quite effectively for that matter. One translation that I quite like is Escape!. By Najwan Darwish, a Palestinian poet, the piece was also translated by Atef Alshaer.

I believe that the piece was translated well for a number of reasons, mainly assisted by its simple nature. The piece is set in a dystopian era, where a person, who is not disclosed, is trying to “escape.” Its vagueness leaves the reader to make assumptions for themselves, this is something i quite like. It would have been quite simple for the translator to completely disregard this affect, but Atef took this on board and rolled with it.

Atef also stuck true to the pieces simple nature, revolving around the single word. Escape. It is such a simple word that can be perceived in so many different ways.

All in all, translations of short stories and poetry, is an underrated skill that should be met with the same amount of respect as the writer themselves as it takes into account the different cultures and experiences the writer could be writing from.




Just one person, trying to make a positive change. :)