Leopold Broom Investigates: Lost In Translation?

leopold-broomby Lee Cross

So the question was posed to me, ‘can you truly experience a book if you are reading it in translation’?

It’s an old question certainly, one I’ve considered at length and cutting straight from the beginning to the end – I don’t know.

It’s as simple as that; I speak, read and write English, making a comparison of one novel in two languages is (to my shame) beyond my abilities

That said, I do have an opinion, which is that the question itself isn’t entirely valid. My response is to counter with a question of my own… ‘Do two people ever really experience the same book in the same way’? – regardless of language.

From my own personal Library, I always draw on The Catcher in The Rye at this point. I freaking hate that book! Reading it was a 200-page waste of my time I and wouldn’t wish it on the bastard offspring of… well, Holden Caulfield.

“…oh but you didn’t understand it….” “…the message is so subtle…” “…you just don’t want to like it…”

All arguments I’ve heard from Catcher’s legion of fans, all perhaps valid – all completely irrelevant. Catcher is a bad book because I read it and did not enjoy it; regardless of any of my own failings of education and insight, I didn’t enjoy it, so I think it is bad.

It’s a great example because nearly every other serious reader I know loves the bloody thing. Who’s right; me? them? the reviewers??? …it doesn’t matter, it’s fiction, there’s no right or wrong, only personal interpretation. One man’s Da Vinci is another’s Da Vinci Code and [spoiler alert] Dan Brown has made a shit ton of money…

Anyway – Translations specifically: The initial assumption, that something is lost in translation, is something else I like to challenge.

A big kick I get from reading books initially written in other languages, is the way ideas are formulated. As I child I was brainwashed by American/British TV – I couldn’t avoid it. It was everywhere around me and without realising I came to have pretty set-in-stone values about what was right, true and normal in story structure.

Culture shock; the other parts of the world aren’t JUST differentiated from us by the language they speak. Every single nation on earth has some subtle difference in ideals and sensibilities… sometimes they’re entirely alien to our own.

Have you read The Girl with Dragon Tattoo? It’s thriller 101, straight out of the playbook but there is something different about it, only slightly for sure but it’s enough to grab your attention and give the plot some extra ‘oomph’.

My argument as to the where that X-Factor comes is simple, it’s because it was written originally in Swedish. Stieg Larson approached the story as a Swede

Stieg Larson approached the story as a Swede would, formulated his ideas in the same way and expressed them with the sentence/story structure of a Swede, and that’s where the extra element of mystery came from…

Would a person used to reading a Swedish language/structure novel have experienced that same rush of the unknown as I did? – I don’t know.

And I’m back at the beginning. Does a book noticeably change in Translation? – I don’t know.

Perhaps it does…but why should that necessarily be a bad thing. 


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