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  • Katharina Gruber

Literary Translation - Where The Challenges Lie

While it needs in-depth knowledge of the source and target languages for doing any translation work, when it comes to literary translation, the situation becomes even more complicated.


For instance, think of translating culturally-specific expressions that are completely unknown to a foreign audience. Things like this and more make the work for literary translators more difficult. In the literary process, translation holds a distinctive place because here, it isn’t an accurate transfer of content to another language. For any literary translator, the challenge isn’t only “what to say” but also “how to say” it.


As a reputable translation services provider, we think it’s our responsibility to let everyone, especially those who want to join this field, know why literary translation is considered to be one of the most difficult translation works.



Key difficulties of literary translation

One of the biggest reasons that make literary translation different from non-literary translation is that in the latter, the absence of harmony is sometimes overlooked but in the former, it has to be performed in a way that the author’s style and the atmosphere of the content remain preserved to the full. Let’s have a look at the key challenges that come along with literary translation.


  • The language: In literary translation, the language provides much more than only communication. While literary creativeness is a must during the writing of the original piece, it’s also needed during the translation work. What makes the translation work more challenging is that here, the language isn’t free-standing. Instead, it’s intrinsically associated with the tone and form of the original work. And when you’re translating a literary work, you’ve to remember that a lot of different elements (mood, syntax, punctuation, rhythm, meaning, etc) work together in a harmonized manner. This harmony has to be kept and reproduced in the target language to create a translated work that closely resembles the original work.

  • The words: It may sound unbelievable but in literary translation, just a single word can be extremely troublesome for the translator. It becomes absolutely important for the translator to completely understand the entire story and the author’s actual intent in order to make sure that the true message is communicated to the target language faithfully. The work becomes even more complicated when there’s no direct translation of a certain word or when lots of options are available with each offering a slight variation in nuances. This is why some literary translators take the approach of retaining the local culture’s ambiance as portrayed in the content rather than the language.

  • A specific skill set: When it comes to performing literary translation, a more specific skill set is a must. You can think of idioms and aphorisms, for example. In order to translate these properly, the translator needs a specialized dictionary and a large vocabulary. With the presence of play on words in the source content, the work becomes a bit complicated. It needs special skills of the translator in order to keep ironic or humorous implications meant by the author. Also, in the case of prose and poetry, the translator needs to have an impeccable creative writing ability together with great linguistic fluency to be able to manage the creative aspect of the content.


Parting Thoughts

When it comes to literary translation, the translator must find a perfect way to deliver the original meaning without altering the true sense of the original work. Despite the above challenges, literary translation is considered to be one of the most effective means of cross-cultural and cross-language communication that steadily promote the overall development of cultures. And this is perhaps the greatest reason that distinguishes literary translation from other types of translation works.

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