Discussion, OwnVoices

Discussion: Languages, Storytelling, and the Need for More Translated Books

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Bookstore in China

The topic of translated books and storytelling in different languages and cultures has been on my mind a lot recently. There were two particular things which combined to prompt this:

  1. This Twitter thread regarding the upcoming Death Note Netflix adaptation, the issues with it and why it’s so quintessentially a Japanese story.
  2. Something that I’ve been thinking about for a while, about the way language makes a difference to how stories are told; especially from reading (listening on audiobook) to a children’s book in Chinese by myself for the first time, and this book is itself translated from Japanese.

So today, I’m sharing some of my thoughts on this topic, and I’d especially love to hear the thoughts of readers from non-English-speaking/non-Western countries; I’m well aware of how limited my perspective is as an Australian and would welcome your insights.

Why we need more translated books in English

Reading translated books allows us to gain insight into different countries, cultures, and their worldviews. It’s so meaningful to read these insider perspectives that such writers share on their respective cultures. Even the simplest things regarding differences in school and home life are a delight to discover, especially in learning about the details, but it also helps me to expand my worldview.

There is also so much we can learn from the storytelling of different countries that is inherent in the way they are told, regardless of whether they’re rooted in their respective cultures, or are more speculative. This post discusses the significance of plot without conflict by explaining Kishōtenketsu, a centuries-old Chinese and Japanese plot structure where conflict is not intrinsic to the story. This is a clear contrast to the Western idea that the former is necessary to create the latter, and shows how books from cultures outside our own can push us to look past certain ingrained ideas regarding storytelling.

Learning from an insider’s point of view on Asia, in particular, is important in helping me to connect to my culture and others related to it, as a diasporic person. It’s also important in resisting the Other-ing, consumerist gaze of the West towards these cultures. Mainstream media chooses to appropriate non-Western cultures, if they’re recognised at all. If reading translated books from different countries was more normalised and prevalent, it would help overcome this perspective. Hopefully it would also encourage ownvoices stories of culturally diverse writers, who are marginalised in Western countries, by valuing different cultures, ideas and points of view.

Languages and Storytelling

Of course, there will always be nuances and meanings that are lost when translating stories from one language to another. I wish I could read more books in Chinese, but I’m far from proficient at it. However, I’ve there have been small passages from the books I study from, and one nover I read together with family. Even from these small samples, I’ve noticed differences in Chinese writing from English that make a huge difference to the story:

  • Language makes such a difference to humour. There were so many times when reading the Chinese book that I thought, wow, the humour here clicks with me in a way that jokes in English-language books usually don’t. It was so clear that these lines would be almost impossible to translate in a way that carried across the same meaning.
  • Points of view – in English, I usually stick to reading and writing deep, usually first-person, POV; omniscient points of view feel detached and head-hopping is irritating and jarring. In Chinese however, there’s something about the language that makes point of view shifts completely smooth and normal.
  • Grammatical differences – in Chinese, there aren’t really past/present/future tenses in the same way as there is in English; instead, the language is heavily context-dependent. So whilst the choice of tense may be very important in telling a story in English, it isn’t so in Chinese.
  • Voice – when listening to the audiobook for the Chinese translation of the Japanese book Totto-Chan, the Little Girl by the Window, I was intrigued by the voice of the narrator, which doesn’t clearly fit into the categories of voice in English-language children’s books. It’s an omniscient narrator who head-hops, who comments on the actions of children in a more reflective point of view, yet somehow feels like it’s being told in a child’s voice.

All of this reflects the importance of knowing more than one language and how much I wish I was better at Chinese (at least I’m working on it now!). Unfortunately the environment in Australia and similar countries is not catered towards encouraging, and lacks tolerance of, linguistic diversity. When we think about the value of reading in other languages, it becomes so clear why it is important to change that.

Translated/non-English Language Books I Recommend

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

You’ve probably heard of this one, but yes – I also loved this imaginative, timeless childlike fantasy.

玫瑰之翼 (Rose Wings) by 月星汐

The humour in  Yuè Xīngxī’s(月星汐) books is incredible and engaging — appealing to me in a way English-language humour often doesn’t, as I said above. I loved this story about the way the relationship developed between Yin Shichen (originally on a nefarious mission for a student secret society) and Armaiti, martial arts girl; it was an incredibly fun read. Sadly I think it’s only available in Chinese, and as I said I can imagine much of the nuances in the language would be difficult to translate into English.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby.

After suffering a stroke that left him almost completely paralysed, Bauby used the code of blinking his left eye to tell this story. A beautiful and moving tribute to the value of life and living fully in one’s mind.

Totto-Chan: the Little Girl by the Window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi

The author is a famous Japanese actress, talkshow host and a UNICEF ambassador. Based on her childhood, it’s a carefree story of the delightfully unconventional school (e.g. using train carriages as classrooms) where she was so valued.

Translated/non-English Language Books on my TBR

The Smell of Watermelons by Kaori Ekuni (Japanese Edition; Chinese Edition)

Liu Cixin‘s books

Haruki Murakami‘s books

To anyone who has thoughts on this topic, I’d love to hear them, especially if you’re from a non-English speaking country!

Have you read many translated/non-English language books? Are you multilingual? What are some translated books you recommend?

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21 thoughts on “Discussion: Languages, Storytelling, and the Need for More Translated Books”

  1. I love this post!! I can only speak English so I can’t really talk about reading in other languages, but I definitely get what you mean when you say that language really makes a difference to a story. For example, I read the Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen last year, and the story itself just felt quintessentially Scandinavian, though I can’t quite describe to you why. (Good book, btw.)

    Also, thanks for the link about the lack of conflict in Eastern Asian literature – I’d definitely noticed that before when I read Kokoro and A Riot of Goldfish, but I’d not been able to put it into words before. I definitely need to read more Chinese and Japanese literature, I find it so fascinating 🙂

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    1. Thanks for reading Wendy! 😀 Yeah, I found that post on lack of conflict so fascinating the first time I stumbled across it as well! I don’t watch Asian dramas but from what I know of them, that kind of storytelling is also evident there. And thanks for the rec — ooh, about a literature society? I like the sound of it ^_^

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  2. I’m from Austria so my native language is German, and I’m currently living in Japan… it feels strange since German has quite a different sound to both English and most Asian languages, so I almost never read anything translated in German. I’ve tried, but somehow it felt so off.

    It’s funny, when reading translated books from within Asia, I tend to read them in Japanese even if my English is better, it seems weird but it makes sense in my head for some reason.

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    1. Hi Yona, thanks for dropping by and reading! That’s so fascinating to hear about your experiences. There’s definitely an intuitive/inexplicable element in terms of different languages and storytelling, it makes sense to me that you’d want to read such books in the original Japanese ^_^

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  3. Fab post!

    I think English speakers get lazy, sometimes, when it comes to learning about other cultures etc.

    I would add that I think it’s important that more English language books are translated into endangered languages (those languages that are in danger of disappearing,) to encourage/allow people to learn them more easily. I’ve been working on my Welsh language skills by reading Roald Dahl (a Welsh writer who wrote in English) translated into Welsh, and it’s easier b/c I already know the story 🙂 Plus, there’s no word for rat in Welsh, so Matilda’s father is ‘big-mouse-faced’ XD

    (There’s a full list of endangered languages @ https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2011/apr/15/language-extinct-endangered if you’re interested)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks CR! Welsh, that’s awesome — and that makes sense to read Roald Dahl, I also have a bilingual Chinese/English edition of The Secret Garden which I plan to read sometime, and it’s definitely so much easier when you already know the story and aren’t figuring that out at the same time as you’re figuring out the words xD Really interesting about endangered languages, thanks for the link! I know that in Australia that’s a serious issue regarding a lot of Indigenous languages, which is sad, so translating more English books into these languages definitely sounds like a good way of encouraging people to learn them/to preserve them.

      Definitely yes regarding English speakers being lazy sometimes :/ As I said, the general culture in Australia really lacks tolerance of linguistic diversity (probably because we’re so far away from everyone else, unlike countries in Europe; but also doesn’t make sense because we have so many different cultures and languages). Very few students at my high school studied languages up to our final year (according to stats from recent news reports, it’s diminishing more and more as the years go by) and many people tend to have a “languages are too hard and English is enough” kind of attitude 😦

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  4. This is a great post and such an important topic. English is my native language and I’ve struggled over the years to improve my German (my Mom’s native language) reading skills. She found reading comic books in English to be helpful when learning English. I haven’t found comic books to be helpful and had intended to try reading German novels that I’ve enjoyed in English such as The Readers by Bernhard Schlink, but dropped the ball. Your post has motivated me to get back into my language studies.

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    1. Hi Chris! Thanks for dropping by and awww that’s so great to hear that I’ve inspired you! My motivation for Chinese tends to go in waves as well so I understand, but persistence is definitely important ^_^

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  5. Indeed, a very important topic to talk about! As a polyglot myself, I feel a bit upset when a lot of books in lesser known languages don’t get the change of being translated into English, so that everyone could get to know more of other cultures! I can read in 2 languages fluently, that is English and Russian; despite the fact that I DO speak Vietnamese, I can’t bring myself to read fiction in that language, it’s way too hard for my brain to process information lol.

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    1. Thanks Liliana! How awesome that you can read in Russian fluently 😀 And yeah I definitely feel you, I kept on thinking that when reading the Rose Wings book I mentioned above, I wish more people could enjoy them. If you can speak it that’s already going to make things a lot more intuitive for if you do decide to learn to read Vietnamese (in terms of grammar and sentence structure). I’d kind of like to learn how to speak Japanese too, though learning to read it is slightly lower priority – also I’m worried I’d get confused with kanji and Chinese characters haha.

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  6. Awesome post! I love translation, especially translation theory. I took a module on it at university and absolutely loved it! I’m kind of dumb cause even tho I’m fluent in 4 languages I only really read in English and occasionally (like once a year 😂) in German.

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  7. I love this post! I’m a native Dutch speaker, and was only taught English at school at the age of 12. Obviously, I could speak a little before due to popular songs, TV shows, and movies… But I grew up on Belgian and Dutch stories. I have to say that I’m still so grateful for translators and their amazing works, because otherwise I wouldn’t have discovered Harry Potter or Anthony Horowitz’s works so soon in life. Yet some of my favorite young adult books were never translated into English. And I think that’s such a shame.

    My favorite author from childhood is called Dirk Bracke. He writes young adult books, and focuses on problems in today’s society. So when I grew up, I read his stories on them: a teenage guy being diagnosed with HIV and dying, a teenage girl who got pregnant, a poor girl who ended up being an escort and eventually a prostitute so she could buy what she want, two girls who fell in love, a Muslim girl with a conservative family falling in love with a white, Belgian guy, a black girl and Moroccan guy from rival gangs in Brussels falling in love… These stories really shaped me as a teenager, and I’m still so sad his works aren’t known throughout the world. They taught me what understanding and empathy really is.

    In the past few years, I’ve stopped reading Dutch/Belgian works because I got so caught up in all the amazing English books being released. This year, I’m making a conscious effort to read more translated works, and more in Dutch. Sometimes that’s a Dutch translation of a famous English book (like The Seven Realms series by Cinda Williams Chima). But I try to pick more books translated from languages I don’t speak too. I just read The Spy by Paolo Coelho. I read it in Dutch, but Paolo Coelho is Brazilian so I assume the original language was Portuguese. I’m trying to read more of the world. When I can, in its original language. When I can’t, I want to support the translators out there doing an incredible job.

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    1. Hi Jolien! Thanks so much for your thoughts. How awesome that you grew up on Belgian and Dutch stories and that’s lovely the impact Bracke’s books had on you ^_^ Translators definitely do amazing work, I’ve known of some panels at writers’ festivals I’ve been to that have involved discussions about it, but due to one reason or another have yet to attend one myself – hopefully soon! I’ve heard a lot of recs for Paolo Coelho’s books too 😀
      I totally understand re: getting caught up in English books and the need to make a concentrated effort – it’s a bit like me with my goal to read more culturally diverse non-YA books, yet getting caught up in the hype around new YA releases as part of the book community xD Good luck with your goal!

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  8. I love this post! And I completely agree with you. I grew up with many Vietnamese fairy tales which I love but that was because they were told to me. I struggle to read Vietnamese fluently so translated books would definitely be helpful.

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    1. Thanks for reading Stephanie! 🙂 Ahh I competely understand, have you tried finding audiobooks? Finding Chinese ones made it much easier for me to at least experience those stories, though being able to read books would be ideal!

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  9. Wendy, I really enjoyed this post! I definitely grew up reading a lot of Japanese fiction when I was younger and I still lament over certain favorites of mine not getting translated, although luckily enough a lot of manga does get translated.

    I agree about the humor and style being so different from the US books that I’ve read, and I can’t help but wonder if that’s why for Japan, a lot of books that get translated into English are often thriller/suspense/mystery novels, since those genres tend to translate better because those genres are universal as opposed to something like contemporary or possibly paranormal/fantasy/historical fiction.

    Eri @ Airy Reads

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    1. Thanks for reading, Eri! ^_^ Ah that’s awesome you read lots of Japanese fiction when you were younger, and interesting point re: the impact of genre. I can definitely see how history and contemporary fiction, where the story is so intrinsically tied to the local society and culture, can face barriers in getting translated…which is all the more reason to share them and expand our worldviews. I’ve seen progressively more discussion about translation and recognition of the impact of it on the literature we access in writers’ festivals in Australia, so that’s been encouraging to see! 🙂

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