Translation — Does it enhance the original work? Or does it degrade its individuality?

5 min readSep 9, 2020


World Literature is often referred to as the creative works of myriad pieces of literature across the globe. As Italo Calvino asserts: “Without translation, I would be limited to the borders of my own country. The translator is my most important ally. He introduces me to the world”, and thereby emphasising that translation is the ultimate key to unlocking a plethora of new ideas and knowledge in literature. However, Robert Frost also states that “Poetry is what gets lost in translation” and thus insinuating that works of literature “can never be rendered with its exact equivalent into another language”. (Kimon Friar)

Throughout my childhood, my use of speech had integrated both Chinese and English and therefore required me to translate several different phrases and words. Over time, I realised that as the words got more sophisticated, translating them directly became particularly arduous and problematic. Now, this could be due to my incompetence and lack of vocabulary, but after learning several languages, it was evident that not every word can be directly translated and still retain the same connotation and meaning. Sayings such as “いただきます (itadakimasu) andごちそうさまでした (gochisousamadeshita)” are phrases said before and after a meal respectively demonstrating your appreciation to eat. Phrases like these cannot be directly translated as it would simply lose its connotation and meaning, similar to how “Bon appetite” will do so too when translated into English. “In translation, language facility is not enough; blood and sweat are the secrets”, is a phrase quoted by Samuel Putnam that I’m sure many people would concur with, and it perceives that every language has its own secret ingredient represented by their own ‘DNA’ which can’t be replicated or rendered.

Translating works of literature can be an extremely strenuous task because every word, phrase and syllable are tweaked. By doing so, it will undoubtedly lose the originality and cultural aspects of the piece of writing. Translation of literature pieces varies differently due to altering interpretations and imagination. This is especially evident in Der Panther by Rainer Maria Rilke, where it has an abundant quantity of translations, but each varied with its own set of uniqueness and individuality. As an example, Stephen Mitchell similarly interprets the poem compared to others, but his utilisation of similes to compare the panther’s movements especially gained my recognition. “Ritual dance around a centre” paints the imagery of the panther slowly creeping around a circle whereas others may have interpreted it as “dance of strength about a centre”. Both contain a similar perception but the minute features in the descriptions ultimately help establish the distinction of each piece.

During my readings throughout The World Cup of Literature, The Memory, a story written by Mitsuyo Kakuta, is a powerful story since it evokes lingering emotions of pity and sorrow. The story encompasses a girl whose ‘secret’ stems from a tragic incident relating to the presumed suicidal death of her mother. Kakuta’s story has an unprecedented plot twist which shocks the audience at the absurdity of how she obtained “her beauty”. The piece was excellently written with a masterful execution on the ending, which resonated deeply with me. Now, there is no doubt that the story has a morbid and distressing undertone, but this could relate to those who lost their loved ones to suicide. This could also possibly relate to the cultural aspects of not only the Japanese but also to other countries on how when hope or love is lost, people feel as if they’ve lost everything and committing suicide is the only procedure towards ‘relief’. Despite this being a grave and serious matter, the story curves unexpectedly, revealing the possibility that the mother was only trying to retrieve an item for the daughter only for her feet the get caught up and drown. However, the ending is extremely ambiguous, and the audience is then left to their creativity and imagination. Hence, was it not for the translations, readers across the globe would have missed out on countless short stories due to the language barrier, and thus translators are quintessential and should be appreciated as they are the ‘gate’ that connects people across the globe.

A prominent and popular form of Japanese poetry, Haiku’s are a short poem consisting of three lines, with seventeen syllables in total in a five, seven, five structure. They are often renowned for their ability to paint a vivid image in just a few phrases or words. A famous piece of haiku, A Poppy Blooms, was written by Katsushika Hokusai and goes by the translation:

I write, erase, rewrite

Erase again, and then

A poppy blooms.

A recurring feature of haikus throughout history is that the first two lines would contradict the third, and this is evident in A Poppy Blooms. The poem encapsulates the mundanity of the first two opening lines which is then contrasted by beauty. Hokusai produces a simple poem that apprehends how after persevering, the monotonous hard work will eventually ‘bloom’ into success, symbolised by the blooming of the “poopy”. Moreover, he utilises imagery of spring which comes directly after winter, demonstrating that after a time of dark and rainy days, peace and tranquillity will come to those that persist through tough times. I am constantly engrossed with how such little words can portray an explicit image with derives so much meaning and emotion out of the reader, leaving them in awe.

However, when taken into consideration the contention that a poem can’t be replicated, the fact that the translated haiku is still able to create a lasting effect on the reader highlights the Japanese ability to relate and comprehend to the masterpiece at a far higher extent. This is due to the unique expressions and phrases in every language and how it retains an idiosyncratic connotation which cannot be understood in a foreign language. While poetry might “get lost in translation” to a certain extent, if the translator is well versed in both languages, they will be able to produce a justifiable piece that may lack some cultural aspects but should still be acknowledged for their efforts.

Hence, translation is extremely significant as it enables people from all over the world to share and appreciate the countless works of literature, overcoming the language barrier. Parts of the original work will inevitably lose its unique characteristics and flavour, such as cultural aspects. However, they ought not to stray us away from exposing ourselves to infinite stories, cultivating our interests.