Weird Translations

There is this great article by John McWhorter that is being shared widely on the literary translation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Anybody who is interested in language and how translation of words and concepts works will enjoy this brilliant piece.

I want to explain the origins of the phenomenon that McWhorter describes in the article. There is this theory that has dominated translation studies and has held literary translators in the US captive for 30 years. The theory is that when you translate a literary text and make it sound normal and smooth in the target language, you are committing an act of colonialist aggression.

So instead of looking for words and expressions in English that transmit the meaning of the original while not sounding completely weird to a native speaker of English, you should do the opposite. Translate but in a way that just sounds off and slightly bizarre to an Anglo reader. Because that’s the only way you avoid colonially aggressing against the culture of the author you are translating.

Got it? Make the author you are translating sound weird on purpose to avoid colonial aggression. It’s an actual theory, and it has had an enormous impact on the practice of literary translation. Without knowing where it all comes from, the phenomenon that McWhorter so beautifully analyzes is incomprehensible. If you come across such a translation, you will now know why it sounds so quaint.

17 thoughts on “Weird Translations

  1. “Translate but in a way that just sounds off and slightly bizarre to an Anglo reader”

    That mindset certainly exists but I think in the case of P&V something else is going on… years ago I read an account of how they work. My summary of that is that she (not a native speaker of English) does the first version and he (not fluent enough in Russian) tries to edit but too often she bullies him into accepting her awkward unidiomatic phrasing… often claiming that the original was awkward too….

    “Make the author you are translating sound weird on purpose to avoid colonial aggression”

    How much of this is audience driven? If your average American reader starts a novel set in early 19th century Russia the last thing they want is a bunch of people who sound like their next door neighbors… they want an experience that’s weird and exotic (not exactly the right word but close enough).

    I’m wondering how much purchases this school of thought has in other languages… In Poland the problem isn’t translator-imposed quirkiness but (when translating from English) a kind of artificial English translation register that seems at least partly due to lazy and/or underpaid translators. This is also found in audiovisual translation.


    1. The most stunning example to me was the “dear heart” for голубчик. That a Russian speaker would make such a mistake is incomprehensible. The word is absolutely closer to “buddy”, like McWhorter says, and more often than not, it’s “buddy” in a slightly hostile, mocking way that I use it.

      It’s an interesting question about what the readers want when plowing through an indigestible, mile-long Russian novel. I’d think that the names (with the patronymics and the weird diminutives) provide tons of exoticism already but who knows.

      In Russian, we now have a ton of expressions that have been recently introduced by lazy, underqualified translators. One I hate is “какие-то проблемы?” which is a calque for “any problems?” It just sounds so clumsy in Russian but people don’t hear it any more.

      Another thing that sounds ridiculous in Russian is “привет, как дела?” which is “hi, how are you?” The “how are you” part is deeply unnatural. I shudder every time when people do it.


      1. “как дела”

        I think I’ve seen a Russian textbook with that title…. weird.

        In Polish there’s “miło cię widzieć” (nice to see you) which originally sounded weird and then people got used to it and I’ve even heard it a time or two in real life.
        There’s also the translation of the multi-facted ‘friend’ too often as ‘przyjaciel’ (which refers to an intense friendship bordering on love or used to… it’s been largely blanched of meaning now).


        1. @cliff arroyo
          The influence of Anglo-American parlance may seem harmless enough, but it is actually deadly, as you splendidly illustrate with your example from Polish. It is not just the host language that gets colonised, but its culture, too. As people “friend” each other over the Internet without ever having shared any meaningful interaction apart from bland groupthink about their likes and dislikes, the concept of friendship is bartardised into some mish-mash of moralistic, therapeutic feel-goodism.


          1. It’s curious how people have a sense of what you are saying, Avi, without ever verbalizing it clearly. For instance, let’s take the word “friend” that you mentioned. In Russian, we don’t translate it with the Russian “друг” in the context of online interactions. A true friend is a друг. But an online connection is a френд (which is a transliteration of the English ‘friend’). This way, the difference between the concepts is preserved.


            1. That’s a lovely example of subconscious cultural counter-resistance. I wonder if there are other languages where this is happening.
              It may explain why, in Italian, concepts coming over from the USA and relating to social media or information technology are left in English and not translated. A computer mouse is “un mouse”, not a “topo”. This might well be a topic for a PhD thesis in linguistics.


  2. Semi OT (but remaining kind of in 19th century Russia):
    Have you seen the Russian TV series Gogol? I finished it a few weeks ago and enjoyed it as a silly bit of nonsense…
    In accordance with what you’ve written here the male characters are mostly useless (stupid, drunk, vain or weak of character) the closest it gets to halfway competent man is barely in it
    The finale is a battle of wills between two women and the (literally) strongest most resourceful character is a 10 year old girl.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t seen it but this is so typical. The crisis of masculinity in the post-Soviet space is a fascinating topic. So much of support for Putin, for instance, is driven by the female fantasy of him as a sober, physically strong, and dominant male that is there to alleviate their burden of having to supplement for the lack of any productive masculinity in their lives.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. ” their burden of having to supplement for the lack of any productive masculinity in their lives”

        Have you seen the Ukrainian series “Artist”? I hadn’t thought about it before but the role reversal (from a western viewpoint) is very strong there too.
        The female lead is strong, drab, kind of longing for something and overburdened and the title character has all the silly infantile qualities that typify American feminine characters (including primping his makeup in the mirror). He’s kind of a manic pixie dream boy for her world weariness….

        Now I need to think about Prjatki again… maybe the ending makes sense in terms of role reversal…


        1. What’s really funny is that I’m seeing this even in Mexican soap operas. The one I’m watching right now (Quererlo todo), the male protagonist is the most pathetic, hen-pecked, passive fellow ever. The evil male antagonist is also kind of pathetic. The only what you’d call machos are older men. It’s like they can’t find a way to depict positive masculinity that’s not completely castrated.


          1. “It’s like they can’t find a way to depict positive masculinity ”

            If you’re convinced that masculinity is toxic (most people’s takeaway) then it’s gonna be hard to represent it in any kind of positive way….

            Do you know what (if any) role La Casa de las Flores played in this process in Mexico? I enjoyed the first season (all I’ve seen so far) but there is nothing remotely like a positive portrayal of masculinity to be found…. was it riding a trend or forecasting one?


    1. I’m talking of the Venuti school of translation, of course.

      A few quotes:

      “Translation rewrites a foreign text in terms that are intelligible and interesting to readers in the receiving culture. Doing so is akin to committing an act of ethnocentric violence by uprooting the text from the language and culture that gave it life. Translating into current, standard English at once conceals that violence and homogenizes foreign cultures.”

      “Translation is a form of passive aggression. In doing it, a writer chooses to forgo original authorship so as to play havoc with a foreign original in a process of imitation, zigzagging between the foreign and receiving languages but in the last analysis cancelling the first in favor of the second.”


      1. Gosh, I gave up on him years ago as faux theory. I hadn’t read far enough in him to find these things. God. When I have people begging me to translate them so they can get into English. And I am teaching a book that the author translated himself (it’s a theory book, and I’m having Spanish majors & minors read the original and people taking the course as an elective read in English if they want) and we’ve determined that while the translation is correct, it would have been a great opportunity for the author to do some rewriting for clarity. A second edition, a version.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. “Anybody who is interested in language and how translation of words and concepts works will enjoy this brilliant piece.”

    I never knew how much I loved language until I read this piece. The article he wrote makes me wish I had the luxury of a college degree. I have been trying to read “The Gambler” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky for 2 years. I pick it up and put it down. I want to know what happens but the language is just so clunky. I felt the same way about “The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas. I read the 1400+ unabridged version. The story captivated me–not because the language was fantastic–but because the characters were so human and flawed. I never realized how a brilliant author could be butchered by a translator until John McWhorter just taught me.

    Years ago I fell in love with “The Neverending Story” by Michael Ende (translated from German). It was beautiful! He make me want to learn German because many of his books are not translated into English. But I’ve been busy working full time and raising a family for the past few decades. So I am blissfully stunned by how much I learned in this one article by Mr. McWhorter. I’m so glad he took the time to write it.

    And THANK YOU for sharing it here. God, I love this blog!


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