Reading in Translation Versus Reading in the Original Language

Reading in translation versus reading in the original languageI’ve always loved books and reading for as long as I can remember. One of my fondest pre-school memories is of copying passages out of a storybook into my notebook, just for the sheer joy of reading and working with the words, even if I couldn’t, at that age, understand what they all meant.

It was with a growing sense of horror, then, that I realized in my early 30s that I was surrounded by books that I was utterly incapable of reading. The situation was one of my makings – I had moved to Portugal with my husband.

Adjusting to New Culture and Language

It was something that we had both talked and dreamed about for years, and we had finally made it happen. Our new adventure was unfolding, and it was terrific until I visited my first bookshop.

There, it suddenly hit me what I had lost. Other than the brightly colored books of the ‘first readers’ section, I would need the help of a professional translation service if I wanted to read so much the back cover of a single book that didn’t come with built-in flaps.

Reading in Translation Versus Reading in the Original Language

I should clarify that I had made some effort to learn Portuguese before moving.

I was proficient at asking for directions, knew the days of the week and could name a variety of colors and animals – all of those essential words that language CDs and flashcard websites had delivered.

What I couldn’t do was read the latest offerings from my favorite authors – or lose myself by curling up in an armchair with a classic that I’d not yet understand.

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That sudden realization did more than anything else could have done to kick my language learning up a gear. I pored over my grammar book every night before bed, memorizing verb forms until my eyelids drooped.

I watched terrible Brazilian soap operas and Portuguese Masterchef with the subtitles on. I fortified myself with Portuguese green wine and chatted falteringly but ever more confidently to locals in the cafés and bars near our home.

I worked my way determinedly through exercise books designed to help Portuguese school children grasp the basics of their language.

Improving my Language Skills

With every week that passed, my language skills blossomed – and so did my determination to read books in Portuguese. Eventually, I took the plunge and bought a Stephen King novel. It was a book I’d read a couple of times before.

I’ve been an avid fan since my early teenage years so I had a head-start in terms of knowing the plot and characters. Even so, the sense of victory was incredible.

I read that book at a speed that most seven-year-olds would have been embarrassed by, having to stop at least every once every other sentence to look something up in the dictionary.

However, I still did it – and it was terrific.

Reading More Books

Reading in Translation Versus Reading in the Original Language

After that, there was no stopping me. I went on to read everything from modern fiction to the classics, moving from stories that I was familiar with to those I had never read before.

It was a fascinating experience and one that prompted me for the first time to think about what it meant to read books that had undergone translation.

I had read book translations before, of course: I had much enjoyed studying Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad in school.

However, I hadn’t thought about the translation process – about how translation, no matter how expert, can subtly change the flow and feel of the book.

I used reading in translation versus reading in the original language to further develop my language skills. I read everything from George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels to Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet.

Like many bibliophiles, I have eclectic reading tastes in both English and Portuguese. Interestingly, each language held its distinct charms.

It wasn’t as clear cut as the original being superior to the translation. Some of the character and location names in Game of Thrones were truly beautiful in translation, while some of Pessoa’s ideas were portrayed delightfully in English.

How Reading Novels in Portuguese Helped Me

Reading novels in Portuguese did wonders for my language-learning. With my dictionary to hand, I not only learned core lemmas that I would use almost daily in conversation, but also an extremely random selection of other words.

Reading in Translation Versus Reading in the Original Language

The experience was far removed from the kind of language learning that CD courses promote, yet it was equally valuable. I picked up words that allowed me to explore ideas and concepts in Portuguese, moving beyond practicalities like supermarket shopping and how to order in a restaurant, to something altogether more exciting.

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Moreover, all the time I was delighting in the joy of reading once more, albeit at a far slower pace than I was able to read in English. With each book I read, the task became more of a pleasure, just as it does when we first learn our main language as a child.

The lesson? Read as much as you can in as many languages as you can! The same story can carry a new charm in each language that you read it, assuming you’re reading a decent quality literary translation.

I’ve since moved on from Portugal, back to an English-speaking country after five fabulous years overseas. My native English now enables me to read with ease anything and everything that I can get my hands on.

However, I didn’t leave my Portuguese books behind – my shelves are a mishmash of Portuguese classics and contemporary English novels.

I’ve even bought a few Portuguese books for my children, hoping to inspire in them the same love of books and of languages that I have enjoyed for as long as I can remember.

Reading a book in any language is a beautiful experience. Reading one in more than one word is even more enjoyable.

Whether you read to support your language development or purely for pleasure, I strongly advice reading in as many languages as you can, as often as you can!

About the Author

Louise Taylor is a committed bibliophile who has enjoyed reading literary works in English, French, and Portuguese. She currently indulges her love of languages by writing for the Tomedes translation blog – a platform for the promotion of languages, content, and translation.

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