The Importance of Translation

Quinn Dombrowski, via Flickr

Liz Waid and Ryan Geertsma look at the important work of book translators. They help people share books and ideas across the world.

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Voice 1 

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Liz Waid.

Voice 2 

And I’m Ryan Geertsma. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

Voice 1 

Aya is a student from Japan. She loves to read all kinds of books. When Aya goes to the book store, she finds books written by writers from around the world. She loves Japanese writers like Shushaku Endo and Haruki Murakami. But she also enjoys many other writers - like Russian writer Leo Tolstoy and Scottish writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Voice 2 

Aya can only read in her native Japanese language. But she is able to read books that were originally written in many different languages. Aya never thinks about this. But, she can read these books because of the work of translators. Today’s Spotlight is on the important work of book translation.

Voice 1 

Books are a special form of communication. Writers write books to communicate ideas about things like love, faith, culture, and even politics. Books are a great way to exchange ideas between cultures. However, without translation, this exchange could never happen.

Voice 2 

Most people do not think a lot about book translators. Their names are not well-known like writers. But they do have a difficult and important job. Translators must be very good at understanding the books they translate. They must also be very good at writing.

Voice 1 

A translator’s job is not just about translating each word in a sentence from one language to another. Translators must also concentrate on translating the writer’s original meaning. To do this, translators must think about groups of words or even pages of a book when they translate.

Voice 2 

Translators must also think about the culture of the readers they are translating for. Often, ideas and even words are particular to one culture. So, translators must explain these cultural ideas.  Sometimes, a translator can simply choose a different word to express a clearer translation of the writer’s meaning.

Voice 1 

Let us look at an example. Translators have translated the book “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” into almost 70 different languages. German is one of these languages. The British English version of the book is called “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.” But the term “Philosopher’s Stone” does not translate well into German. The idea of a “Philosopher’s Stone” is an old idea. Over many years, the term has become a symbol of perfect knowledge. The term has been used in English stories throughout history. However, translators did not think that German speakers would know this term well. So, the German translator changed the name of the book to “Harry Potter and the Stone of Wisdom.” Wisdom is a form of knowledge. “Stone of Wisdom” is similar to “Philosopher’s Stone.” The words do not mean exactly the same thing. But, in German, “Stone of Wisdom” does express the idea of the term “Philosopher’s Stone.”

Voice 2 

Changing a book’s title is a major decision. However, translators make hundreds of small changes with every single book. These changes make the meaning clear. However, translators must be careful. Too many changes can change the style of the writing. A book’s style is often what makes it interesting or easy to read. So, it is important that the translator writes the same way as the writer.

Voice 1 

A good translation will be balanced. It will clearly communicate the writer’s ideas to a new culture. But, it will also represent the writer’s style. A bad translation does not capture the full meaning of words. And it does not make the reader feel the things the writer wants them to feel. A bad translation can completely change how people react to a book or an idea. Tim Parks is a writer in the United Kingdom. He wrote this in the Guardian newspaper:

Voice 3 

“If the translator is bad, you will understand the ideas, but not the style of the writer. Or the writing will represent the writer’s style, but will miss the ideas. The good translator is the one who has a deep understanding of the original writing and the best resources in his own language. This translator will bring style and ideas together. This will be something new that is also faithful to the original writing.”

Voice 2 

Becoming a good translator can take many years. Edith Grossman has been a translator for over 40 years. She recently wrote a book called “Why Translation Matters.” In it, she wrote,

Voice 4 

“As a first step toward creating a good translation, translators need to develop a good sense of style in both languages. They must expand their knowledge of the emotional effect of words. They must know the society that surrounds the words, and they must know the atmosphere the words create.”

Voice 1 

Translation has always been important for exchanging ideas between cultures. However, in the past, it was often difficult for writers to get their books translated. Large publishing companies were not interested in translating most books. Translation was expensive. It required difficult research. And communication between foreign writers and publishing companies could be difficult. As a result, only the best-selling books were translated to other languages.

Voice 2 

However, today, people from different cultures are communicating and sharing ideas more than ever before. This growing globalization has made translation even more important. And it is changing the publishing and translation markets.

Voice 1 

Now, it is easier for readers and publishing companies to learn about popular books written in other languages. Readers are requesting translations of the books they want to read.  And large publishing companies are beginning to do more translation.

Voice 2 

It has also become easier for foreign writers to communicate directly with smaller publishing companies in other countries. Some smaller publishing companies concentrate on only translating and publishing foreign works. These smaller companies are better able to serve the foreign writer.

Voice 1 

As the global publishing market changes, there is a greater demand for good translators. However, most people will still never know the names of even the most expert translators. But translator, Daniel Hahn, believes that this is a good thing.  On the website,, he wrote:

Voice 5 

“As translators, our job is to be as unseen as possible. The reader should not notice we are there at all. The reader should reach the end of the book and think, ‘Wait, I do not speak Portuguese! How did that happen?’ It is the highest honour when our work is not noticed.”

Voice 1 

The writer and producer of this program was Dianna Anderson. The voices you heard were from the United States and the United Kingdom. All quotes were adapted for this program and voiced by Spotlight. You can listen to this program again, and read it, on the internet at This program is called, “The Importance of Translation.”

Voice 2 

We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye!


What is your favorite book from another country? Do you like to read translated books?


Luis Piedra's avatar
Luis Piedra
said on February 25, 2013

Hi all
I think that the work of the translators is important because help a that all people learns much of other cultures. Without the contribution of the translators of books would very difficult to know upon themes of actuality.
Thanks Spotlight

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said on February 26, 2013

I totally agree about topic of program,really in learning a different language,we saw the importance of translation.In other words,the translation help us very much for studying as read a book,newspaper by a different language.I admire who created these useful achievement for human.One of that it’ me.It’s support for me in studying so much.Hope in the future will have much amazing inventions to dedicating for human society!

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said on March 19, 2013

are you Vietnamese , nature187_vn ?

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Đào Xuân Thái
said on January 10, 2014

Many Vietnamese people here :)

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said on March 26, 2014

It is true, we regard the translators’ work as obvious and do not notice it actually. However, if the book translation is bad, it will certainly decrease the pleasure of reading. The book translation needn’t be entirely exact but it particularly must be created with the deep sense of writer’s feeling, ideas and a method of expression too. Nowadays, we can read the interesting books we want due to the excellent translation from many different world’s languages.

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said on March 27, 2014

I was impressed with the states of the translator who modified how they do their job in a perfect way. I think translation of novels or poems are harder than scientific article. Because, this sort of texts include emotions that are mainly affected by the culture of writers.  As it known culture has such important impact on the emotion and feeling of people. Sometimes it couldn’t be found the synonyms of the original words in the other language.  At that time, the translators have to show their talents. In this case, maybe they can’t reflect exactly the same meaning of original sentence, but they might express it in a way without disturbing integrity of the text.

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said on March 27, 2014

i’m from vietnamese too. I think, if you good at english language, you can read all kind of books in the world.

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said on March 28, 2014

It is true. translators are play role important to translate and spread the information from books.

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Jimmy Roberto Espinoza Mercado
said on March 28, 2014

For a translator is very important to know the native culture where people whom he targets his translations is living. But sometimes the cultural environment changes too much that is boring even for the people of native language where the book originally was written to read it. There are many customs, traditions and words stopping to use. Thank you very much!

Kaleb Kolaibi's avatar
Kaleb Kolaibi
said on November 03, 2016

I think that the translation is hard work but really fun and a great source of money, in the rich countries and communities that read, of course.
I had a dream, probably still have the rest, to become an translator, not for money (in the Third World), but hobby and cultural desire.
I always preferred to read books translated to because I think that it be more fun and benefit and that the Arab writers takes from it, often.
I enjoyed the writings of Leo Tolstoy and Ernest Hemingway and other.
God bless you

Severino Ramos da Silva's avatar
Severino Ramos da Silva
said on November 05, 2016

From: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) (Severino Ramos)
To: spotlght programme
Subject: answer to the questions above
Date: Saturday 05, November 2016
São Paulo SP Brazil

Dear Liz Waid, Dianna Anderson, and Ryan Geertsma:

At first, I want to thank you to bring us readers and learners of English more one great article, thanks!

My favorite book from another country is The Essential Grammar in Use. A self-study reference and practice book for elementary students of English, the second edition. From Raymond Murphy Cambridge University Press.
I am a learner of English. So, I prefer a book in the original language to learn more and to practice my reading in English.

The best regards,
Severino Ramos

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said on August 02, 2018

The translater is so important for culture.

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said on August 03, 2018

My favourite book in English language is “Rain”, written by Somerset Maugham. It is compound for some short stories and every one is a model on to write short stories. I like too books by Agatha Cristie and by Arthur Conan Doyle. Actually, I don’t like translations and I would prefer reading originals. I can read in Portuguese, Italian, Spanish and English (I need to perfect my reading in that language). I’m studiyng English and French for, in the future, read more and more in this languages.