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PEN TO PAPER: Clear Voice



Nick Burchell of Clear Voice discusses the art of translation becoming an art form in itself

The greatest literature has the ability to transcend national and language boundaries.  Many classic books have outgrown their modest beginnings and local readership to feature in libraries and bookshops all over the world. In today’s global economy, popular authors set out to appeal to not just national but international markets.

None of this would be possible without the skill and creativity of literary translators. However, translating a literary text is much more than a matter of straight conversion or copying. Each language portrays the world in a unique way and has its own grammar and syntax. Some have words that do not exist in other languages and so cannot be rendered in their precise original meaning.

Certain words may carry a distinct meaning for particular groups of people because of their traditions or shared experience. The choice of such a word by the author has increased resonance for that audience beyond its simple like-for-like translation.

The meaning of words often develops and changes with time. For instance, ‘dreadful’ once described someone or something inspiring awe and reverence – “the great and dreadful God” (Daniel 9:4 in the King James Bible) – but today more commonly is used to describe something bad or sad – “another dreadful display by England.”

The translator must have an intimate knowledge of the source language and of the regional culture and literature being described by the writer. A reasonable knowledge of any specialist subject dealt within the text is also important.

A particular challenge for the literary translator is to convey the meaning and ‘feel’ of the original work. The text must read well in the target language, while echoing the style and tone of the original. Ideally, it should read as if the original author were writing in that language.

So even though two translators may be given the same source text, they might produce two quite different but equally valid versions in their respective languages. Thus each translator creates something original that is specially made to ‘speak’ to a particular audience.

The law recognises this ‘original’ nature of a translation and gives copyright protection to the translation, separate from the copyright protection to which the original foreign work is entitled and also separate from the protection of someone else’s translation of the same work.

So which are the books that have been translated into the most languages? As you might expect, The Bible is a clear leader with translations in 531 languages and more than 1,300 translations of the New Testament. More than 2,000 further translations are currently in progress.

By way of contrast, the Islamic holy book, The Qur’an is only fully translated in 50 languages (but parts of it have been translated in 114).

The most translated secular publication is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (in 462 translations).

Various publications by the Watch Tower Society, religious tracts issued by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, are high up the list with half a dozen titles in the most translated list between 100 and 400 languages.

Popular classics which have been translated into more than 200 languages include Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi (from Italian); The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupéry (from French); and Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (from English).

Translated into more than 140 languages are Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (from English); Andersen’s Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen (from Danish); and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (from French).

Other well-known classics known around the world and translated into more than 50 languages are The Adventures of Asterix by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo (from French); The Adventures of Tintin by Hergé (from French); The Kon-Tiki Expedition by Thor Heyerdahl (from Norwegian); Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren (from Swedish); Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling (from English); The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (from English); Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (from English); The Diary of Anne Frank (from Dutch); Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (from English); A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen (from Norwegian); and Heidi by Johanna Spyri (from German).

It surely won’t be long until more recent books such as Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, and A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin extend their reach across the globe with similar numbers of translations.

Literary translators do a fantastic job, making sure that the finest literature is available to be shared and enjoyed by people across the world. But the only sure way to know exactly what the author was thinking when they first put pen to paper is to read a book in its original language.



Clear Voice offers high-quality interpreter and translation services and is the only not-for-profit service of its kind operating throughout the UK. The company was established by the charity Migrant Help, which fights human trafficking and supports migrants in need; all of Clear Voice’s profits go directly to the charity.

Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has demonstrated clear links between English-language disadvantage and social exclusion and deprivation. Ironically, those who most need to draw on the services of education, health, legal and social welfare professionals and officials may be least able to do this because of language difficulties.

Clear Voice believes it is important that everyone can be understood and is able to communicate effectively when they access services that have a major impact on their lives and wellbeing.

By encouraging recruitment from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups and giving profits to charity, Clear Voice is the ethical choice for organisations in need of interpreting and translation services. www.clearvoice.org.uk


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