Lost in translation


Some time ago I read a book in the Czech language and came to a statement saying literally that every cloud has a silver lining. It sounded strange to me as I’d never heard anyone to say such a phrase or saying in Czech. It didn’t fit in at all. As the book was a Czech translation of the English original, it occurred to me that the phrase might have been translated literally regardless of its possible figurative meaning so I went to look it up in a dictionary. It proved my suspicion true explaining that the saying means that every sad or difficult situation has a positive side. Properly translated it would simply be “everything bad is good for something” which is quite a common Czech saying.

This brought me to other thoughts. The book was written by Dick Francis, an English writer of horse-racing thrillers, who was very popular in the Czech Republic in the nineties. His books used to be sold out as soon as they came out. I myself have all of them in my bookcase, a few even in their English original.

Over 40 of Francis’ books were translated to Czech by Jaroslava Moserová, his exclusive translator. Her translations are brilliant – gripping, entertaining, readable – but I hadn’t attached proper importance to this exclusivity before. Well, before she died in 2006. We bought then a few new books whose authorship is shared by Dick Francis and his son Felix and which are translated by a different translator and I can tell the difference. The difference both in the authorship and translation.

I’ve arrived at a realisation that although the author of a book is most important, if the translation is bad, it may spoil the work or change its meaning thoroughly. Have you ever read a book translated by two different translators? How dissimilar the books could and surely would be.

Getting back to the saying I started with, I always remember it when I see clouds in the sky lit by soft glow shining from behind…

Sayings are so interesting, aren’t they? You beat around the bush while I “go around hot puree”. You have a bee in your bonnet while I “have a beetle in my head”. You are as sound as a bell or as fit as a fiddle while I am “as healthy as a little fish” or “as healthy as beet”. I love every new one I get to know because they show me that we all want to express the same, just finding different ways.



    1. Roy, thanks for your feedback. I agree, one could interpret the saying this way. The problem with the bad things is that we don’t want to experience them and often don’t see or aren’t able to evaluate the right resulting from them, especially when it takes too much time to let us understand.

  1. I enjoyed your post, and your sayings. A bad translation draws a lot of attention to itself. I also loved the Czech sayings. I like the "beetle in your head," which describes the bee-in-the-bonnet feeling a little better to me.

    1. JoLynne, thank you. It seems to me there exists a the-worst-translation-of-the-year award, I guess it’s not that difficult to win that.

      The beetle-in-your-head saying has found many new fans since my post appeared! 🙂

  2. I loved this, Petra. It was very well written, fun, and humorous. It was so interesting to compare some of our silly sayings with the sayings in your country. Yours sound odd to our ears, but I'm sure ours sound equally odd to the ears of those in other countries.

    1. Linda, thank you. I’m never able to assess how good or bad my writing is and your feedback is valuable.

      It’s true, some sayings used in another language sound strange or funny but I can tell you that I’d like much better to be as sound as a bell than “to be as healthy as a little fish”, the English saying makes more sense to me in this case. Sometimes it’s difficult to understand our own language but sayings are simply used, not analysed, right?

  3. You already know how much I LOVE how you write, Petra, even with (or especially with!) English as your second language. You do an INCREDIBLE job with translating, in my humble opinion!

    1. Ginnie, thank you so much. It’s so pleasing to get such positive feedback!

      Once I was told that when you want to master another language, you need to think in the language, not to translate your own structures into it and that’s definitely true. I enjoy that process of learning and although I know I’ll never arrive at the destination of mastering, I’m glad I’ve been moving forward. V&V motivates me so much now!

  4. Excellent article, Petra. I am conversant in Dutch (mother tongue) and English (was raised in Canada). Sometimes it's hilarious to translate sayings in one language literally to the other. I suspect that all languages have their peculiar sayings that may not translate well but express a similar situation or attitude. After all, the human condition is very similar throughout the world and throughout history.

    1. Rick, thank you. It is interesting that a few people wrote in their comments that they liked the Czech saying “to have a beetle in one’s head” rather than the English bee in a bonnet although English is their native language, as well as I like the English “to be as sound as a bell” that sounds perfect to me!

  5. Soosie

    I LOVE 'go around hot puree' and the bee in the bonnet I do not wear is probably more accurately described as ' a beetle in my head'. Sometimes several of them. I had never before stoped to consider that phrases might be particular to a specific language or culture. This post has stopped me in my tracks (a phrase Dick Francis would have been very familiar with) and made me think of course. A real lightbulb moment. Is that a phrase that is used in the Czech language?
    Thank you so much – another day where I have learned something is always a gift.

    1. Soosie, in the Czech language there in no phrase such “a real lightbulb moment”. The closest I can come up with is to say that one was enlightened by the Holly Spirit but it’s used rarely. Usually I say that I had a good idea or that it dawned on me, which in Czech has something to do with lighting up in my head.

  6. Anyes - Far Away In The Sunshine

    I have never had the experience of reading the same author being translated by two different person but I can totally understand how it can surely change everything. It would be like travelling in a foreign country with two different maps, the arriving destination would be the same but the way to get there different. Very interesting post, Petra 🙂
    One of the idiomatic expressions that used to be so strange to me was :"To have a frog in one's throat" which is used in English when your throat is hurting. In French we say:" I have a cat in my throat". Same pain two different animals…I wonder how it came about…

  7. Marcie

    Love these little 'isms' – especially the 'go round as hot puree'. I may have to use that one…altho I'm sure people will look at me strangely! So true about everything in life – isn't it? It all depends on who's doing the translating!!!
    And yes – it's true. Every dark cloud does have a silver lining…:-)!

  8. Sheila Eames

    This post made me smile, as I encountered similar things in Portuguese (many years ago) and Spanish (more recently). It does make learning a new language interesting. Thanks Petra for bringing back some memories, and for making me smile.

  9. Catherine

    What an interesting post Petra! As a speaker of Hiberno-English I often find other english speakers very amusing too. Our version of English is of course peppered with curses and this can be very frightening to an outsider. There is no agression in it and I believe the vernacular "f-ing and blinding" as it is known is a compensation for having to use the language of the opressor for 800 years or lose your head!! The whole idea of cursing and swearing is horrific to other cultures but in Ireland it is all for comic effect and has a hilarious charm…so there you are culture and language it tells us so much about ourselves!!

  10. Maery Rose

    Petra, with the examples you've used and Anyes' examples too of sayings elsewhere, it makes me want to know more. The same old English sayings are overused and I'd like to have more options. I especially like "go around hot puree" and "I have a beetle in my head".
    When I'm writing something I know will be translated, I try to avoid words or phrases that won't translate well but you can't exactly do that in fiction or it would lose it's local flavor. I was also told not to use contractions like "can't" and "isn't", which made for somewhat stilted English but those rules have loosened.
    As the world gets smaller, I wonder how much more of language will change and be shared? Thanks for the interesting post!

  11. Sue

    A fascinating subject you've raised today, Petra.
    While I was still teaching, I worked closely with several students whose native language was not English. I quickly learned to avoid some of the local sayings or slang words. They were often just too confusing.
    And, I can only imagine how the importance of a translator, both in reading and in communication in general!

  12. Barbara

    I have a relatively new daughter in law from Chile, who asks me often, what this saying or that saying means and it's given me pause in the same way. Why do we say what we say? Where did the saying come from? What is their history? And she can almost always, come back with something from her culture that, yes, like you said, means the same thing. All human. All have the same need to express. All play with the language and culture.

  13. Allison Wright

    How refreshing, Petra, to find an article from a reader's perspective on reading books in translation, and how interesting that Dick Francis had the same translator into Czech for forty of his titles!
    I do not translate fiction, but have developed sensitivity towards style, and possible authorship, even on relatively short texts. Years ago, I used to translate many project reports into English for a German non governmental organisation. One report in particular "sounded" different. After a couple of pages, I realised that it was a woman who had written the report, whereas all previous reports I had translated had been prepared by men. This intuitive realisation was confirmed by the organisation in question upon completion of the job.

  14. Ginnie

    Just today in the car Astrid used an expression "you knit around it" for when I go around Robin Hood's barn, without getting to the point. HAHAHA! I love language and how we say the same thing in different ways. For every idiom I have in English, Astrid has a similar one in Dutch, which makes life so very wonderful and interesting.
    This is a fun post for me, Petra. My educational background is linguistics, so this totally fascinates me. I learned early on that every language uses idioms that cannot be directly translated. You have to get at the meaning before you can translate…sometimes into a new idom of the second language. Thank you for the smile.

  15. Sondra

    Petra its great to read another of your posts! Your choice of topic here is very interesting! One experience I’ve had with translations is on some blogs I read, that are written in another language, the poster has an English translator on the blog; I have one myself that translates my blog into other languages. The problem is, as you point out, sometimes the translation is NOT exactly what one expects it to be. One fellow whose blog was written in Swedish, once translated to English by this online translator was actually quite vulgar and I'M SURE he never intended it to be that way. I had to laugh in spite of it all, because it was shockingly funny!

  16. Carola

    I haven't read an entire novel translated by two different translators, but I read different translations into English of poems by my favorite poet Rainer Maria Rilke. None of them even came close to the beautiful language of Rilke, but some definitely were better than others. It is difficult to find a really good translation. I have stopped to read books in German if I can read the English/American original (and vice versa) because for me it doesn't flow anymore.
    And yes, I do love the different sayings. I often translate German sayings into English for my American friends, and it often cracks them up. Some sayings I prefer in English, some in German.

  17. Petra OBSB

    In the Dutch version it's not puree, but porridge. This is why I always try to read in the language it's been written, if I can. Wonderful post !

  18. CherryPie

    Every cloud has a silver lining… That is one of my favourite quotes, it always makes me smile and I love your final paragraph explaining that different words (quotes) have the same meaning.
    I too am a big Dick Francis fan, but before now it never even occurred to me that the translator (into other languages) was an important factor in words in the book being understood in their original meaning.

  19. Kelly

    I do love all these sayings… my mom is a veritable encyclopedia of them, and she has so many that make me laugh.
    I have always been fascinated by how difficult it must be to translate a book into a completely different language with all the nuances intact. ANd I admire anyone who is multi-lingual, it was never something I was able to master.
    Very interesting post!

  20. RuneE

    And if you think translation of literature is bad – have a look at how they treat TV-programs 🙂
    Lost in translation is a fitting title – that is why I read all English-language books in English and wish I was fluent in any other language 🙂

  21. Sarah Laurence

    Fascinating post! When I was a teen a new translation of Machiavelli's The Prince came out in English and our teacher showed how much better it was – more powerful language reflected the original message. Translation is more of an art than a science. The translation of idiom would be especially tricky. Poetry too.

  22. Thank you all for your wonderful comments which made me think and smile, thank you for sharing your experience.

    I’ll give you one more example of how tricky these sayings really are. Petra OBSB wrote that in the saying “go around hot puree” in the Dutch version it’s not puree, but porridge. I could also say porridge instead of puree and in fact, it took me a while to decide what is the right translation of the Czech word “kaše” into English. The Czech word “kaše” can mean porridge, potatoe puree, pea puree etc. and you need to specify which kind of “kaše” you want. I chose puree because I found it in more expressions. Nevertheless, ages ago when this saying originated, our ancestors could have easily meant porridge, right? This shows how good it is to know the equivalent in the other language, you’ll spare yourself many misunderstandings!

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