Reading in the Author’s First Language

Although I consider myself fairly proficient with both written and spoken English, I’ve never been particularly good at learning other languages. Every time I’ve tried, I’ve seemed to develop a good ear for nouns, but little grasp of grammar beyond the present tense. Over the years I’ve learned just enough of a few different languages to be able to fervently wish I was better with them. This is particularly the case when I pick up an original edition of a classic novel that was written in another language — where, depending on the language, I often find I can pick out a few words or phrases, but nowhere near enough to really understand. Translation strikes me as a tricky business, where many beauties of phrase can be lost to the tension between representing the literal words and representing the tone. Below are the authors I most wish I could read in their original language

madame bovary1. Flaubert

I first read Madame Bovary in English translation while simultaneously taking university level French language courses. The fact that my French was still in no way proficient enough to allow me to read the original novel has bothered me ever since.


war and peace2. Tolstoy

While I never read Tolstoy (only Dostoevsky) during my literature degree, I did develop a healthy appreciation for the sound of the Russian language from the teaching assistant of my Great Books class. Sadly, due in part to its use of a different alphabet, I’ve never seriously toyed with the idea of learning enough Russian to be able to read the greats of their country’s literature.


windup bird chronicle3. Murakami

I’ve taken enough Japanese to be able to introduce myself, apologise, and call basic objects by name, but my teacher at the time assured us that unless you begin learning Kanji at a young age, you can never really have a hope of catching up.


neruda poems4. Neruda

Poetry in translation is perhaps the stickiest wicket of all — how does one capture the plays on words, sound and rhythm of this art form while maintaining a literal enough translation for the reader to follow? I have great respect for the talented individuals who take on this challenge. Like my French skills, my basic knowledge of the Spanish language allows me to understand some phrases, but never enough to feel that I’m truly reading the poem.


swanns way5. Proust

Thus far I’ve only read the first volume of Proust’s masterwork. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found it to be the most enthralling of all the books I’ve read in translation. The way Proust captures how our minds and memories work, how we fall victim to our own weaknesses of character, felt like one of the best representations I’ve read of the human condition. It boggles my mind to imagine what more could be revealed by being able to understand the original text. For me, this idea is accompanied by a yearning, by the sensation that reading the original would open another, more secret, entrance into experiencing one of the most compelling books I’ve yet to encounter.

Liz Gillett


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