Translations, posted by Maureen Lang

This past week I finished a book called The Hangman’s Daughter, a translation from the original German by Oliver Potzsch. The book has been something of a sensation, at least the e-version at a discounted price, and has garnered a number of reviews, mainly positive.

Basically it’s a well-told story about a hangman in 16th century Bavaria. One of the things I love about it is the historical detail. The book gave me wonderful details about what village life was like back in those days—not to mention a plethora of information about the duties and social status (or should I say lack of social standing) of the hangman and his family. Of particular note is that the author is a descendant of a hangman, which evidently sparked his interest in exploring exactly what that meant.

For those reasons, I would recommend the book. But that’s not to say I loved the book, because I didn’t. I think part of my issue is because it was a translation. The language was so passive, and I wondered about a few word choices that sounded more modern than 16th century Bavaria. There were also point of view shifts between omniscient and various characters within the same scene. Minor details, very likely the kind most readers would either not notice or, if they did, wouldn’t let it get in the way of the entertainment value. Kind of like the reviews of a “regular” movie-goer rather than a film student, two parties who often have an entirely different experience at the very same movie.

I’ve had no such issues with books originally written in English by authors whose primary language isn’t English (Life of Pi, The Kite Runner, and Ursula Hegi books for example). Nonfiction translations have never bothered me, either, perhaps because I’m mainly looking for information rather than style. I think of The Art of War and The Communist Manifesto. (The latter two for research purposes only, lest you think I’m a militant communist!)

And of course I read the Bible almost every day. We all know the English version is a translation. 🙂 Perhaps style for this specially inspired book still works in any language.

Since I can’t read German (much to my forebears disappointment were any of them still alive) I have no idea if the original language was as passive as it turned out to be in the English version of The Hangman’s Daughter, which is my biggest disappointment with this book. It’s a shame, really, because there was so much action, which the passive voice diluted (he was running, for example, rather than the more immediate he ran).

What about you? Have you read any translated books where you feel it was the translation that got in the way, rather than the author’s storytelling ability?

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About Maureen Lang

Author of a dozen novels, Maureen Lang has won the Selah Award, a Holt Medallion, FHL's Reader's Choice Award, and been a finalist in such contests as the Christy, the Rita, the Carol, Book Buyer's Best, and others. Before publication she was the recipient of a Golden Heart and a Genesis (then called the Noble Theme). She resides with her husband and kids in the Chicago area. Titles by Maureen Lang All In Good Time Bees In The Butterfly Garden Springtime Of The Spirit Whisper On The Wind Look To The East My Sister Dilly On Sparrow Hill The Oak Leaves Remember Me Pieces Of Silver
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7 Responses to Translations, posted by Maureen Lang

  1. Maureen, I think that’s the problem with translation. Very difficult to make it read the way we like to read our books, with active prose, etc. It sounds like a very interesting book, but too much would throw me out of the story. That’s because I’m a spoiled reader.

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    • Maureen Lang says:

      I’m a spoiled reader, too! I guess that’s why the style details stood out so much, and made me wish I could read it in the original language.

      It also made me wonder how my own translated books sound. Something I didn’t even know I should worry about!

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  2. The story sounds fascinating but I agree, I would be distracted with the translation. This is a thought-provoking post.

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    • Maureen Lang says:

      Thanks, Julie! I guess until reading this book I never really pondered what an impact a translation could be to a story. I’m still glad I read the book, but it’s made me pause about reading another translation any time soon (sadly).

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  3. Sarah Goebel says:

    We had discussed publishing one of my non-fiction books in Spanish. If a translation can have that kind of impact to a story, I wonder what kind of impact it could have on a non-fiction writing? Uhm….

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    • Maureen Lang says:

      I wonder, too, Sarah. When I think of non-fiction, I think first of the information I’m looking for, not necessarily the style issues I had with this translation. Clarity is important to both fiction and non-fiction, but it really has to be on target for non-fiction, doesn’t it?

      The good news is Spanish has so many similarities to English, whereas The Hangman’s Daughter was translated from German which has some but not as much in common.

      I wonder if you know someone who is fluent in Spanish and can read the translation for you? It might be interesting to see if there are any discrepancies – but the bottom line is we just have to trust our publishers, don’t we? They want the best product out there.

      Keep me posted!

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