What’s Lost in Translation?

James Hayman:  My wife Jeanne and I recently had dinner in Portland with a Swiss friend we’ve known since our days in Ridgewood, NJ.  Dagmar left New Jersey about the same time we did and returned with her husband and children  to her original hometown of Basel, Switzerland.  Like most Swiss, Dagmar is multi-lingual.  A native German speaker she also speaks and reads fluent English and French and thanks to a PhD in Norwegian Feminist Literature, Norwegian.

Since she’s an avid reader of fiction and an excellent judge of good writing, I was pleased when I finished writing the early drafts of The Cutting, Dagmar agreed to be one of my first readers.

A little over a year after The Cutting was published in the US, Limes, one of the Random House imprints in Germany, bought the German language rights to the book and published it in Germany and Austria and Switzerland.

As soon as the German version came out, I emailed Dagmar and asked if she would be willing to read it and let me know how good she thought the translation was and how faithful to the original.  She said she’d be happy to do that.

Over dinner at Pan Miyake, (an unusual and excellent  Japanese restaurant near Portland’s Longfellow Square), we discussed her thoughts.  To my surprise she said that while she thought the German translation of The Cutting was excellent, she had enjoyed the English language version of the book more. In fact, she said she generally prefers reading fiction in English rather than in German.  Since German is her native language, I asked her why she thought this was the case.

After giving it some thought she replied that partly because English had more words than German, it was a more artful language; in some instances less precise, but more filled with nuance and words and phrases that imply multiple layers of meaning. Naturally this can be a powerful tool for fiction writers.  Dagmar also said that she was not alone in this opinion.  Many other Europeans prefer reading British and American fiction in English rather than in translation.

I wondered if Dagmar was right that the English language did, in fact, have more words than German. When I got home I decided to check. What I found was that trying to figure out the exact number of words in any language can be a tricky endeavor.

The Duden, the major German dictionary, lists about 130,000 separate words.  The twenty-volume Oxford English Dictionary lists about 171,000 with another 9,500 derived words listed as subentries.  However an article on the subject that I found on the OED website (http://oxforddictionaries.com/words/how-many-words-are-there-in-the-english-language) sensibly concludes It’s impossible to count the number of words in a language, because it’s so hard to decide what actually counts as a word. Is dog one word, or two (a noun meaning ‘a kind of animal’, and a verb meaning ‘to follow persistently’)? If we count it as two, then do we count inflections separately too (e.g. dogs = plural noun, dogs = present tense of the verb). Is dog-tired a word, or just two other words joined together? Is hot dog really two words, since it might also be written as hot-dog or even hotdog?

It’s also difficult to decide what counts as ‘English’. What about medical and scientific terms? Latin words used in law, French words used in cooking, German words used in academic writing, Japanese words used in martial arts? Do you count Scots dialect? Teenage slang? Abbreviations?”

I also wondered if more people read in English because more people speak English than any other language. I decided to check this out as well.  It turns out (at least according to Wikipedia) that English has about 1.5 billion total speakers worldwide of whom 328 million are listed as native English speakers.  Mandarin Chinese has about 845 million native speakers and about 1.25 billion total speakers worldwide. Arabic is the third most spoken language and German is 11th with 90 million native speakers and 118 million total speakers worldwide.

English also has far more readers.  Of 100,000 books published in the UK every year only 3% are translated from other languages. On Google, I found a list of the best selling authors of all time, each of whom had sold over 100 million copies of their books.  Of the 82 authors on the list (ranging in talent from William Shakespeare to Danielle Steete) 64 wrote their original works in English.  Only 18 wrote in languages other than English.  (Interestingly, The Bible, which was originally written in a combination of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek was not mentioned on the list).

While interesting, I’m not sure any of this actually means very much except that you’re far more likely to be published and read if you write in English rather than French, German or even Urdu.

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2 Responses to What’s Lost in Translation?

  1. Lea Wait says:

    For those of us who are wordies, this is fascinating, Jim! One of my mother’s best friends had been born in Russia (pre-Soviet Union) but lived in the United States as an adult. In the the 1940s-1960s she corresponded (sometimes secretly, since those were Cold War years) with scientists in the then Soviet Union and wrote (not translated) a Russian-English Chemical-Technical Dictionary and it’s various updates. It’s a thick book; I still have a copy, although it’s a book I could never use. But even as a child I found her work fascinating. Sitting in a suburban New Jersey home, in a study with typewriters that typed in several languagues (German, too,) our friend was making it possible for scientists in very different and competing political worlds to communicate with each other, and, many times, create new, jointly agreed upon, words for new concepts. Words, and translations. Communication. In those days German was the language of science. Now so much of the world’s business, in all fields, is conducted in English. I often think we Americans lose so much by not being as familiar with other languagues as your friend, or my mother’s.

  2. Barb Ross says:

    I used to say that the use of English around the world showed that a great distribution system triumphs over the quality of product every time. Not that I don’t love English. I do, both in usage and in its history. But nobody would argue that it’s logical or streamlined.

    I had a Danish friend who always read fiction in English. For one thing, Danish has a very small number of speakers, so many books, movies and TV shows are not translated into Danish. He also made the argument about English having more words than Danish. But most of all, he had picked up the habit as a young student without much money. HIs English was excellent but English books still took him just a little longer to read, so he could savor them longer.

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