THE BLOG
03/14/2014 12:58 pm ET Updated May 14, 2014

Re-Appreciate Classic Literature: Learn Another Language

Have you ever read Dante's Inferno? Don Quixote? How about Around the World in 80 Days, or Crime and Punishment?

These classic pieces and many like them that come to our hands from writers around the world, have for many of us helped to shape our understanding of the human experience and opened up a deep appreciation for the powers of the written word.

If you've read them, you know just how memorable and touching the experience of reading a literary masterpiece can be.

But have you ever read them... in the original?

If not, then you haven't really read them.

Not as hard as you think to acquire a new language

There's a great deal of richness, detail, and context that gets lost when a piece of literature is translated out of its mother tongue. So when you read a translation, you're not really reading the story -- you're just getting the gist.

Of course, we can't learn a new language every time we want to read a book from abroad, but you should know that when you read a translation, you're missing a lot. If there is a second (or third) language you're passionate about, you can open up a whole new world of literary appreciation if you are serious about dedicating the time to understanding it.

And contrary to what many think, it's never too late to learn a language. Adults can actually be better learners than children, and there are techniques that can help you get far in your target language quickly.

So there's no good reason not to learn a new language if you are genuinely interested in it. And if you do, you'll be rewarded with the rare but magnificent experience of re-reading your favorite piece of literature... for the very first time.

The language's beautiful natural flow

For example, take Dante's Inferno -- renowned as a breathtaking masterpiece that details the struggles of a man's heart as he fights through the nine circles of hell. It's inspired countless other novels, the creation of films, and even the setting of video games.

In English, its message is powerful, graphic, and moving.
In Italian, it does all this ... and rhymes.

One of its most famous lines, in English, reads as follows:

Nothing till I was made was made,
only eternal beings. And I endure eternally.
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

Now look at the original:

Dinanzi a me non fuor cose create
se non etterne, e io etterno duro.
Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'entrate

Frankly, it's beautiful. The Italian prose takes the experience to a whole new level -- it rolls off the tongue, giving the writing a pulse and a rhythm that the English translation just can't capture.

To put it in perspective, losing the rhyming nature of the original would be like reading lines from Shakespeare, such as:

For never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo

As something like: "There was never a story sadder than of Juliet and Romeo."

It's just not the same. We get the gist, but the original is far lovelier. And unfortunately, it's an unavoidable consequence of translation. You can either translate the meaning reasonably well and lose the rhythm or vice versa. Doing both all the time is simply not possible.

Lost in translation

Authors select their words carefully -- painstakingly -- to capture their meaning in the best possible way. When you read an original text you are reading the words that the author himself or herself wrote, without adding new biases that translators from other cultures are going to add, intentionally or not. No translation is ever perfect.

For instance, I'm a Jules Verne fan, so when I learned French (my fourth language) I used the opportunity to read Le Tour du Monde en 80 Jours in the original. The English version, Around the World in 80 Days by American George Makepeace Towle, had been an old favorite.

One of the first things I noticed when I reread it in French was that there is more teasing about America than I remembered!

For instance, the following passage:

Et d'ailleurs, avec les habitudes d'insouciance des Américains, on peut dire que, quand ils se mettent à être prudents, il y aurait folie à ne pas l'être.

Is translated in English as:

It may be taken for granted that, rash as the Americans are, when they are prudent there is good reason for it.

This translation is an excellent one that works better in English than a word-for-word translation from the French would. In French though, the sentence reads more like "And besides, with the Americans' tendencies to be so carefree, you could say that when they are prudent it would be crazy not to follow suit."

In English, it's more of a mouthful because languages like French (and especially German) have more words in sentences than English and more commas and parenthesis asides. This allows "And besides," as well as "you could say that" to be left in without making a sentence seem as cumbersome in French as it would in English.

I used to work as a professional translator and would generally reduce word counts by up to 20% from French into English, or regularly break one longer sentence down into two. This is necessary for it to read naturally in English.

But doing this makes you lose some of the author's original intent.

In my mind "there is good reason to be prudent" and "it would be crazy to not be prudent" are not quite the same. The playful American teasing that Jules Verne included gives the text part of its personality, part of its edge; but this is easily watered down in English versions.

Authors use their words to create a particular world

In Don Quixote, for example, the main character Sancho has a peculiar way of speaking in the Spanish text that you can't hear in the translation. Think Lenny from Of Mice and Men, or Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Imagine how differently these novels would read if their unique speech patterns were missing completely.

In Crime and Punishment, the names of characters like Razumikhin, Luzhin, and Marmeladov correspond to meanings in Russian that a Russian speaker would immediately recognize -- Reason, Shallowness, and Sweetness -- but that pass over our heads in English (unless we know to look it up).

The examples of the ways translations alter or distort the world created by the author are endless.

Ultimately, learning a new language takes time, but if there's one you're interested in, or perhaps been dabbling in already, the time spent can be well worth it. Personally, I only spent about a year and a half intensively learning French to be at a level where I could read original works in my down time and appreciate them without referring to dictionaries. And I've learned other languages faster. Each time, it was a lot of work, but it pays off in a lifetime of new original works and culture that doesn't have to be translated at my fingertips.

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