Why Are Literary Translations Difficult?

All translations need an excellent knowledge of both the source and target languages, as well as some understanding of their cultural background and context to which the document is needed to be translated. In the case of literary translation, a number of concerns, like the subjective interpretation of the source text, make the translation process different from that one used in nonliterary translation.

Language: A Creative Weapon

To start with, in literary translation, the language is of itself and an end in, and its function may exceed mere communication. Therefore, literary creativeness is needed not only while writing the original text but also during its translation. However, the latter one is different because it is nor free standing and I linked to the tone and form of the original text. This is a creative translation and involves synthesizing a number of elements, such as punctuation, rhythm, mood, syntax, meaning, form and content. According to Ziaul Haque from Sylhet International University, the main problem that affects the literary translators is that they forget these elements work with each other in relationship within this literary work. Such relationships require to be saved, reproduced and approximated in the target content in order to resemble the source content closely.

Two Languages and Two Words

What does “work in the same way to the source content” or “keep or reproduce the relationship of the original” means? As soon as these questions are answered, we face another critical issue with the type of literary translations. Whenever the source and target languages are used by the people from multiple cultural backgrounds and groups, then feelings, meaning, and reaction to the literary text can be entirely different from that faced with the source audience. An American anthropologist and Linguist, named Edward Sapir, developed the theory “Linguistic Relativism”. He believed that two different languages can never represent a common social reality. Each language has its own world. So, the process of recreating the effect emanating from original readings becomes more complex.

On Practical Basis

Besides these philosophical and theoretical matters, literary translators sometimes face many complicated problems when they come into practice. For instance, dealing with literary license. This allows the authors to break grammar rules and create completely new words or sometimes languages. Another problem which they face while translating characters’ names, particularly when they want to reflect some aspect of their personality. A good example is Oscar Wilde’s. John Worthing, a character in the play “The Importance of Being  Ernest” is described as a very respectable, worthy, and responsible man. Many other examples can be found in the series of Harry Potter.

The difficulties and examples mentioned above do not show an exhaustive list. Above all, new challenges and difficulties come in the way with every literary piece while translating. Some related to the features of a particular genre, while others are linked with the uniqueness of a specific author. The probabilities seem endless, and it makes literary translation a rich topic to discuss, as well as an interesting activity to perform.


Maryum is a freelance writer and IT Professional living in Pakistan. Her technical and transcription blogs about software solutions have been published on various websites. With her hands on experience in translation tools like CATMATE, OMEGAt and TRADOS and advisor of technological tools for big transcription and translation projects. Maryum has the capability of delivering high-quality knowledge in just a few words on her articles and blogs.

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