Lost in Translation; whose book are you actually reading?

There’s a good line in a very bad teen movie by Nicholas Sparks (where someone inevitably dies of cancer, characters declare their feelings every other line and everybody cries a lot), when the main character asks the other, what are you reading? She tells him she’s reading Anna Karenina by Tolstoy (we’re supposed to be impressed) and he says that actually she isn’t; she’s reading the translation. It’s an astute point for a teen movie and quite true. For Karenina alone there are 1,123 different editions listed on Goodreads and surely they all must bring something different to the masterpiece.

It’s an interesting point, isn’t it? Sometimes I read a translated book and I wonder if there isn’t a better version. I loved Kafka’s Metamorphosis. I hated Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of A Window And Disappeared. Both were translated into English. So whose book was I actually reading? Is it the authors? Or is it the translator’s take on the author’s idea? How does that process work? How far can they stray?

Of course, I could test my theory and read the same book by two different translators. But I have too many books to read and too little time; I have to read one version of Anna Karenina before I can get to the other 1,122…

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