What Makes a Translated Book Feel…Translated?

Yesterday, I was pestering translator Maia Tabet (Elias Khoury’s White Masks, Archipelago, 2010) about the use of contractions.

I’m reading a book right now that I think is wonderful, but that—in perhaps a dozen tiny ways—reminds me constantly “I am a translated book; I was not written in English.”

There are some books where I never feel this translated-ness. Anthea Bell’s rendition of Austerlitz (W. G. Sebald) her The Dark Side of Love (Rafik Schami). Edith Grossman’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold (Gabriel Garcia Marquez). Humphrey Davies’ Yalo (Elias Khoury), Maia’s White Masks (Khoury), Paula Haydar’s Touch (Adania Shibli), except of course where the narrator discusses fos’ha and 3meya.

Perhaps these are all strong authors who make their translators’ jobs easier. And perhaps sometimes the feeling of “translatedness” is useful, a way of reminding the reader that there is a cross-cultural exchange going on, that “you are not at home.” Perhaps the feeling of being at home is not always a good thing.

But I’m also not sure it serves the translated novel, when—to use the theater metaphor Humphrey Davies favors—I am made aware that I’m watching an actor interpret a character.

And the book I’m currently reading is giving me this sensation. It’s certainly better-written than many novels in English where I don’t get that strange, vertiginous feeling. So thought I had it pinned down to contractions: There are very few contractions in the dialogue.

But Maia was doubting me. So perhaps it’s, instead, choices in sentence structure, or the result of just one or two awkwardly phrased metaphors?

And you? What gives you that translated feeling?


  1. I’ve had that feeling very strongly in a book translated from French recently. I think the problem was that the translater stayed to close to a literal translation, especially in dialogue, and didn’t spread his mind out to find natural colloquial English equivalents. Humphrey Davies’s translation of Sunset Oasis, which I read next, reminded me that something more is possible.

  2. Perhaps it is the dialogue, more than anything else, that gives this impression. I sense I’m going to need to re-read the book and examine closely when I get that “translated” feeling…

    Humphrey said he felt the prose of /Sunset Oasis/ is clear because Bahaa Taher’s prose is clear, but I’m sure that’s not the whole of it.

  3. With me it’s interestingly the opposite that makes me wonder. Let me explain, when I read something that’s not originally in English and yet uses an English idiom so naturally you forget it’s translated. But then you think: Okay, how did they say that in the original language?
    I read a Persian novella translated into English and one of the characters said: “Ignorance is bliss.”
    I wonder how they’d say that in Persian, or Arabic.

  4. to pick up on your theatre metaphore: depends on whether the translator is an acolyte of brecht or of stanislavski/strassberg 😉 i never actually thought of it that way.
    an interesting note about using contractions: for sophie calle’s project “prenez soin de vous” (do look it up, it would take me way off course to explain) the english translator chose to use full forms to convey the coldness of the original letter, which uses the formal french “vous” form. maybe something similar is true for your novel? that the original is also awkward?

    @ abdulrahman: i do that, too!!!

  5. That’s certainly also true (although I’m not sure the opposite). Whenever I see something idiomatic or cliche, like “beating around the bush,” which I remember distinctly from Mansoura ezz Eldin’s /Maryam’s Maze/, it immediately smacks me in the face.

  6. And Bibi… I have an email out to the translator, and yes, I should try to dig up a copy in Arabic, shouldn’t I. Is the dialogue in fos’ha, and is that the reason for its formal nature in the English? Etc.

  7. I get that translated feeling when I see something that is so idiomatic in English that it feels awkward even to me. And sometimes in dialog that seems too correct. I don’t tend to notice contractions, although, a book full of cannot in speech would probably get a little old.

    I also wonder how things were originally written especially when I read something translated form Spanish, a language I speak and read.

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