4 Challenges of Literary Translaton

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Written by: Trâm Anh & Huỳnh Huy


Translating is known as one of the most difficult jobs in the world since translators not only excel in at least two languages but also have deep insights into the home country of the original book and the targeted one.

Despite its difficulties, literary translation takes a step further. Not to mention poetic styles, having a wide understanding about the world ranging from society, science, etc to the uniqueness of a country’s literature is a must when translating literature. 

In this article, let us show you these 4 challenges of Book Localization.

1. Staying Faithful To The Original

Like other types of translating jobs, it is impossible to transcribe words for words in Literary Translation. In other words, translated sentences must be understandable in context and not to confuse the targeted readers of the difference in national grammar and sentence structure. 

In order to stay loyal to the original, translators must preserve the creative and imaginative feel of  a literary text while adapting for a target language. In other words, writers’ unique writing styles must not be changed in the translated versions.

The solution is that the chosen words must not be too literal or exaggerating. It must be “perfect” or “unchangeable”. It must be flawless. As long as readers believe that they are reading the original, translators have finally succeeded.

2. Finding Words That Accurately Express Many Layers Of Meaning

While finding a suitable word in context is complicated, metaphor poses a far more difficult challenge. Nguyen Du, who is one of the greatest poets of Vietnam in particular and the world in general. During his glistening career, The Tale of Kieu (Truyen Kieu) is the most succeeding poem which have widely been learned by not only students but also professors throughout the world. 

The story narrates the tragic life of a woman,Thuy Kieu, endowed with talents and beauty. Well-known as a master of metaphor, there is no surprise when this epic poem is full of hidden meanings. Every sentence, every word in the poem has at least 2 meanings. One is about life, the nature, the people around Thuy Kieu; one is about her thinkings, her feelings about her extremely miserable being. 

challenges of literary translation

          Trăm năm trong cõi người ta

          Chữ tài chữ mệnh khéo là ghét nhau

         Trải qua một cuộc bể dâu

<— Những gì trông thấy mà đau đớn lòng

         Lạ gì bì sắc tư phong

        Trời xanh quen thói má hồng đánh ghen

  • In the original “bể dâu” means a major change in life that make one’s life would never be same again.
  • But in the English translated version, it is mentioned as such a difficult thing, which is less important than the Vietnamese version. 
  • In this case, although the translator guarantees the poetic style of The Tale of Kieu, he fails to express the deeper layer of the word.

Even the native finds it hard to understand what Nguyen Du wanted to share in his work, the translators’ missions are to turn the Vietnamese poem into the aimed-language one and make sure audiences can get to know all meanings of a specific word so that the translated one can evoke the same understandings as well as feelings in readers. 

Easier said than done. To translate such a great poem, translators should carry out extensive preparatory work: Learning with the ones who master The Tale of Kieu, understanding the whole poem literally and figuratively, finding a true word to express all layers of meaning, (in some cases, adding a footnote is inevitable), etc are a must.

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3. Translating A Word's Cultural Connotations

Avoiding references to specific cultures is one of the rules of excellent technical communication, especially if your work will be translated into other languages. But what exactly is a cultural reference? In plain English, it’s a word or phrase that has significance for people who belong to a certain cultural group but has no significance, little significance, or another significance for those who do not

challenges of literary translation

Typically, concepts that are popular in one culture but not in another are ones that are culturally distinctive. It may relate to language used by one part of a nation but not by another or to phrases used by various “tribes” of that nation (e.g. differences in terms used in generational groups, industry groups, ethnic groups, etc.).

Some terminology that are culturally specific are simple to recognize, such as the names of foods and drinks (pop, soda, coke, soft drink, etc.). Other times, though, they are more difficult, especially if you don’t even consider the possibility that others may not be familiar with the term or phrase. Understanding these disparities can be aided but only to a limited extent by time spent traveling to and residing in other regions of the world.

The simplest technique to recognize phrases that are culturally distinctive is to get someone to from a reader who does not fit the profile of the target audience — Seek for individuals from various age groups (where generational language may be essential), regions, states, and nations; individuals with various degrees of education; and individuals from various tribes.

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4. Trying To Interpret Dialects and Slang

Similar to dialect, slang also has the potential to be problematic because of its intimate ties to specific locations, occasions, and cultural references. The sometimes subtle nuances in source texts can be readily mistranslated due to the delicate nature of certain linguistic traits, leading to the loss of crucial information

challenges of literary translation

Therefore, it is important to think about explaining any cultural references that can confuse the audience of the translated material, either naturally in the text or via a footnote. This is precisely what happened when the Twilight series was translated into Chinese; the footnotes describing aspects of American culture foreign to Chinese readers helped the book become a bestseller. This method can also be applied to slang to maintain the cultural context that is frequently crucial to texts.


Continue to read many books and topics even as you are translating to increase your vocabulary and understanding of subjects that directly relate to the book you are translating. Additionally, reading could spark your creativity and advance your project.

Without a doubt, translating literature is a difficult task. It calls for more than just word-to-word translation between two languages. Language proficiency, as well as excellent writing and creative thinking abilities, are prerequisites for translators. We believe that by comprehending the difficulties that translators have when working on a book and by putting our advice into practice, you may complete your book localization project successfully.

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