The pleasure of native reading

Waking up to foreign literature

I noticed early on in my life that some authors had foreign sounding names and many books had “translated by” written on the cover or first page. Because of my mother’s profession I knew what translators did, so the logical conclusion was that Book A had been written first in another language, then translated into another language, and become the book I had just read.

In my head this meant the book I had just read was not another version of Book A, but rather, it was Book B altogether. Even though I knew perfectly that a translator’s holiest obligation was to decipher content from one language into another without somehow creating that content, something just did not click, and I decided then and there I just couldn’t feel satisfaction finishing a translated work if I didn’t have access to the original. As you may correctly guess, this has turned me into a constantly unsatisfied person.

However, by the time I was capable of reading fiction in Japanese (with the assistance of a dictionary, of course), I realized something spectacular about learning foreign languages: suddenly I had access to stuff nobody had bothered to translate before. Ask anyone who’s lived for a stretch in Tokyo and they’ll tell you the editorial industry in Japan is monstruous in proportion. Drop a pin, and if it makes an interesting sound, a book will be written about it. However, and in spite of the size of this industry, there’s only a small proportion of Japan’s bestsellers to actually break outside of the island, so a lot of great authors will end their run without being noticed by readers of other languages.

Is it always best in the original?

Coming back to the subject at hand, regardless of the presence or absence of translated editions I always prefer to read an author in the language in which he wrote his work originally. Why? Because as far as I know, with today’s technology it is impossible to get inside a person’s head and read what he was thinking, verbatim, at the time of writing that piece.

Like practically every other artform, reading doesn’t evoke the same response in every person because it is completely up for individual interpretation. This is the reason why you may love a book I hated, and viceversa. The problem with translated works is that translation is a kind of typed interpretation: that of the translator’s. Of course, this doesn’t mean that a translator’s version of a certain book is now “Book according to Translator A”. Translators are trained to remove themselves from the equation, and so a good translator will make his presence nearly invisible to you in the book, making you feel these are the author’s thoughts put through a magical machine that makes them intelligible to you. You will not feel the presence of a stranger in the room.

However, as in real life, disappearing and becoming invisible are two different things. Two different translations of one book will often “taste” different; this is because all we as translators can do is offer an approximation, a copy of the delicious dish put out by an expert cook, but made with local ingredients (whether the result is good or bad depends entirely on the translator’s abilities).

This is why, even while being both a translator and language learner, I favor reading books in their original language. In spite of what I’ve been told I don’t do it because of some misguided sense of superiority (“Ha! I can read this in the original and you can’t!”), but because it allows me to make my own judgment about what the author meant to say, without a third person being involved. This is one of the reasons why I enjoy learning new languages so much, particularly when I take a language to a level where I can read more or less fluently: access to a new culture’s literature means access to a new world of ideas that have yet to be reinterpreted by another person.


Do you remember the first book you read in another language? If you also enjoy native reading, let me know what books you’re reading right now!

  • Stephanie ,

    Lovely post! I also come from a long line of bookish people, and reading is one of my favourite ways to practice foreign languages.