Translators: Equal Power as the Author?

One of my favorite books is Anna Karenina. It’s a bit long, but I’ve read it several times. Plus it’s one of the only books where I actually love the movie adaptation.


(Which has nothing to do with my intense love of watching Aaron Taylor Johnson like a hawk.)

It also boasts arguably the greatest first line in all of literature:

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

I love that quote. It makes an impact, it’s relatable, & it sets the tone for the entire story.

But, wait…Tolstoy never actually wrote those words. In fact, every time I finish Anna Karenina I have to sit back & remind myself, this whole thing wasn’t even in English at one point.

That quote above is actually a very specific one by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Had I read another Louise and Aylmer Maude’s translation, it would read:

“All happy families resemble one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Translating content so that it’s initial meaning is still in tact is difficult. For example, the word for “room,” “seat,” & “place” in Russian are all the same! What’s the point of a great sentence if nobody can read it properly? There’s been debate & comparisons over which translation is most favored for years. I’ll include some sources for that at the end of this post.

But Anna Karenina isn’t just translated from Russian to English, it’s translated through time. I’m able to feel emotional for characters who would’ve existed in the nineteenth century. Had Tolstoy been writing today, maybe he would’ve written blogposts. Anna Karenina was written in installments after all. But I wouldn’t have been able to read them!

What if the translation to English had been completely botched? What if the first person to read & translate Anna Karenina was completely awful at it? They’d make inaccurate translations. The book is long, it takes time to translate, halfway through they’d start making huge mistakes. The book never gets translated into multiple languages. The book never reaches the huge success it currently has!

Okay that’s a bit of a stretch. I’m sure Tolstoy would’ve prevailed no matter what. But businesses aren’t all Tolstoys. What happens to businesses when they want to translate their documents, mobile apps, or even websites? You can get a translation system to translate your content, but most systems don’t allow for real-time, web-based access. Traditional tools used to translate content have to go through every possible translation of a word.

I’ve seen several bloggers recommend Smartling, a translation software company that translates websites so that businesses can effectively communicate with their audience in the same way that Tolstoy effectively reaches his readers. Smartling is cloud-based & cuts down on manual labor. They can provide consistency across different media and help businesses grow internationally. It simplifies & speeds up the entire process.

Everybody should be able to connect with their audience in the way literature so directly connects with theirs. Tolstoy’s dated phrases, could be updated today to reflect their audience & it’s times. Translation software should have the same growth & ability to support every language.

Choosing a translation software is just as important as choosing which translator’s edition of a book you want to read. Now as for which translation is best? I still like Pevear and Volokhonsky after having read Maudes’ version this past year. After reading Masha Gessen’s review, I think I’m leaning toward trying Garnett’s translation next.

Let me know if you’ve read Anna Karenina & which translation you read it in! Also feel free to comment on any other texts you’ve read that were translated, whether it was to or from English. Also, let me know if you like these types of posts! I’ve been thinking about writing one about the importance on an author’s intent when reading a text. I think I’m missing my English major classes just a bit…

3 thoughts on “Translators: Equal Power as the Author?

  1. Fantastic post! I never realised the importance of a good translation before I read a badly translated copy of “The Metamorphosis” by Kafka. It must be such a difficult task to remain faithful to the original text whilst still making it readable in the language it’s being translated into.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Which translation was it?! I’ve read quite a handful of bad translations but most of them have been with poetry, Anna Karenina is such a favorite of mine that it’s the only one I’ve read in multiple translations so far


      • Oh yes, I’ve read some awful poetry translations. Putting them together is fun to see which ones are wildly different! I’m not sure, it was the Dover Thrift Edition one.

        Liked by 1 person

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