Why Can’t I Say What I Mean?*

Mice and men in SpanishOne of the things that can make a story memorable, even great, is the language that’s used in it. Language can be used to set a context and to give depth to characters. It can also place the reader both geographically and culturally.

And that’s the challenge when it comes to translation. Anyone who’s ever translated something from one language to another can tell you how challenging it can be to preserve not just the story itself, but the nuances of communication. And if you’ve ever read a translated book and found it uninvolving or ‘clunky,’ you know how important translation is.

So what, exactly, does need to be preserved when a story is translated? There are several answers to that question, because any story is composed of a lot of elements. I’ll just touch on a few, using John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men to show these elements.

Why Of Mice and Men? For one thing, it’s a classic story that many people have at least heard of if not read. For another, Steinbeck used dialect and aspects of the narrative to place readers at a certain time and among certain people. So (at least to me) it’s a clear example of a novel that would have to be translated with special care to preserve those elements that make it unique. And (this is a crime fiction blog after all) it’s got elements of the crime novel.

The novel tells the story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two migrant workers who’ve been forced to leave their previous employment and are heading to their next job. Lennie is of limited intelligence, but he is strong, hard-working, and absolutely devoted to George. Steinbeck uses dialogue to show both Lennie’s limitations and his loyalty to his friend. At one point, for instance, the two stop by a stream, and Lennie gets some water:


“That’s good,” he said. “You drink some, George. You take a good big drink.” He smiled happily. 


Throughout the story, Lennie needs to have things explained him more than once, and repeats things to himself as well to help him remember. Any translation of this story would miss an important aspect of it if those subtleties weren’t there.

When George and Lennie get to their next employer, they check in with the boss and are assigned places to sleep. Then they meet the boss’ son Curley. A short time later, Curley’s new bride makes an appearance:


“Oh!” She put her hands behind her back and leaned against the door frame so that her body was thrown forward. “You’re the new fellas that just come, ain’t ya?”
 Lennie’s eyes moved down over her body, and though she did not seem to be looking at Lennie she bridled a little. She looked at her fingernails. “Sometimes Curley’s in here,” she explained.
George said brusquely. “Well he ain’t now.”
“If he ain’t, I guess I better look some place else,” she said playfully.


This bit hints strongly that Curley’s wife is flirtatious, perhaps dangerously so. But Steinbeck uses nuances that could easily be lost if the story were translated without preserving those gestures and the tone of voice.

That flirting turns out to be central to what happens in the story. So does Curley’s arrogant, rude nature. So the language that expresses these things is just as central, and would need to be translated deftly.

The characters in Of Mice and Men are largely uneducated migrant workers and their supervisors. Steinbeck uses their dialect to depict both their social status and their educational levels. Here, for instance, is the way George describes Lennie to a new workmate:


“Sure,” said George. “We kinda look after each other.” He indicated Lennie with his thumb. “He ain’t bright. Hell of a good worker, though. Hell of a nice fella, but he ain’t bright. I’ve knew him for a long time.”


Those nuances – of the uneducated, but not stupid, worker – would be a challenge to capture effectively in another language.

This is arguably a crime novel, so tragedy does befall the farm where George and Lenny are working. That aspect of the story would likely not be particularly difficult to translate. Even so, the tragedy is impacted by the culture and socioeconomic status of the characters, and the context during which the story takes place. So a translator would have to be very much aware of those factors, since they play roles in what happens.

Steinbeck also uses precise language that describes the farm, the barn, and so on. For example, here is what he says about the harness room:


‘On the wall by the window there were pegs on which hung broken harness in process of being mended; strips of new leather; and under the window itself a little bench for leather-working tools, curved knives and needles and balls of linen thread, and a small hand riveter. On pegs were also pieces of harness, a split collar with the horsehair stuffing sticking out, a broken hame, and a trace chain with its leather covering split.’

It’s descriptive, but not ‘flowery.’ A translation would need to capture both the precision in the language and the fact that Steinbeck doesn’t get wordy in this story.

This is, of course, just one example of a novel in which the subtleties of language add to the story. There many, many others. In fact, I think it’s probably fair to say that just about any well-written novel includes nuanced language that would need to be carefully preserved in translation. Which of your top-rated novels comes to your mind?


Late addition…

I’ve been remiss in not thanking Smartling Translations for inspiring this post. We had an interesting email conversation about translations, and it really got me thinking….

ps  The ‘photo is one of the few on this blog that I didn’t take myself. Thanks, Amazon.es.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Big Man on Mulberry Street.


Filed under John Steinbeck

34 responses to “Why Can’t I Say What I Mean?*

  1. Which of your top-rated novels comes to your mind? The Montalbano Mysteries by Andrea Camilleri are the ones that first spring to my mind, Margot.

    • José Ignacio -I love the Montalbano series too for a number of reasons. Not the least of them is Sartarelli’s fantastic translations. He preserves nuances of wit and culture and history in such effective ways. I really do hear Camalleri’s voice as I read those books.

  2. I am surprised that so many novels do well in translation. Either from English to other languages or vice versa.

    • Tracy – Translation is most definitely tricky. It’s hard to put across a sense of the culture, the wit, and the ways of thinking when you translate from one language to another. I admire authors who do that very well.

  3. I think translators need a lot of credit when translating a nuanced novel. It’s not an easy task. For instance there are subtleties in the English speaking languages that can cause issues between British and American written to read novels never mind a completely different language. I am a fan of translated novels though. I loved Alex and didn’t feel any particular issues but I wouldn’t know if anything was missing or not.

    • Rebecca – I couldn’t agree with you more, both about the credit translators deserve, and the challenges of the job. And you’re right; even between two dialects of English there are differences that can give a reader pause. With a completely different language, it’s even more of an issue, I think. And as you say, even with a translated book one’s truly loved, it’s hard to say sometimes whether one might have missed something.

  4. Translation is a tricksy business – you can only admire the people who do their best for us, despite all the difficulties. You make your points beautifully with Of Mice and Men. I’m thinking hard-boiled, noir crime fiction must be hard to translate – with so much irony, sarcasm and slang to deal with.

    • Moira – Thanks for the kind words. And I think you have a really interesting point about translating noir fiction. It’s not just the actual words used, it’s also those subtleties of language you mention that would be difficult, I think to translate.

  5. While reading William McIlvanney’s ‘Laidlaw’, I wondered how any translator would get the subtleties of the Glasgow dialect over while still retaining the ‘Glasgow-ness’ of it. Like any established culture, there are phrases and shortcuts that seem fairly untranslatable, especially literally. For example, there’s a phrase we use in Glasgow and other parts of Scotland, ‘Aye, so I will’ which specifically means ‘No I won’t’ or ‘No way!’. But as well as the words it’s the nuance – ‘cos it also has a kind of sub-meaning, implying that the person who’s asking is either a bit stupid, or annoying, or that it’s a daft question. And that all depends on the tone of voice and the context. And there’s a specific facial expression that usually accompanies it too… Tricky! Mind you, I also wondered how much would be missed by non-Glaswegian English-speakers, and therefore, how much do I miss in other English-language dialects…

    • FictionFan – Your example of ‘Aye, so I will’ is exactly the kind of subtlety that would be very, very difficult for a translator. It’s not just the words; it’s the layers of meaning behind the phrase. What’s more, people unfamiliar with it could very easily misunderstand it if it’s used in a story (i.e. It doesn’t make sense he’d agree given the context, but he did!). And as I read your comment, I was thinking how I probably miss some of those things even though I’m a native speaker of an English dialect. It’s got to be all the harder for a translator to preserve those things in another language, if you even can.

  6. As you so succinctly pointed out, Margot, I would think it really difficult to translate Steinbeck’s classic and I wonder how well the translator succeeded. I live in a bilingual environment (French/English) and some of my friends when they read English novels that have been translated into French at times complain about the translation. I also think some of the Scandinavian novels could in part be lost in translation.
    Still, I admire the patience and diligence of translators.It’s a difficult job.

    • Carol – Oh, so do I! There are so many things that need to be kept in mind when one’s translating: layers of meaning, wit, irony and all the rest of it. When you think about it, it’s not surprising at all that your friends would notice those differences. And I’d bet that the same thing is true of Scandinavian novels translated into English. It seems to me there are a lot of subtleties there too that could be missed.

  7. Margot: I would be interested in knowing if you can say how translators deal with humour that is particular to a country. Translating it accurately would not convey the humour and it is almost impossible to explain humour. (I think of the movie, Good Morning Vietnam, and Robin Williams naturally funny and the earnest young man replacing him tries to define humour.)

    • Bill – Oh, that film is such a good example of how difficult it is to define humour and really explain why something is funny. Perhaps that’s why so often people who consciously try to be funny…aren’t. And you’ve got a point that it would be difficult (if even possible!) to convey what’s funny across cultures. Some things, I suspect, are universal. But there aren’t all that many of them, are there? That’s an interesting plate of ‘food for thought’ actually, and I appreciate it. I feel a post coming on….

  8. I do like the way you’ve illustrated this point, usually the translator only is noticed when their translation ‘doesn’t work’ if they get it right as a reader I soon forget that it wasn’t written in English in the first place. I wonder though whether you need to have a similar culture for it to work at all? One of the reasons I’ve been interested but not tried books translated from Japan for example, is that I wonder how much of the ‘unsaid’ the ‘known’ is lost if you don’t have the reference points. In your example labourers conjure up a stereotype and the interesting point is where they vary from that whereas I know about Geisha’s but I don’t actually understand how they are viewed in Japan – a fairly crude example to make a broad point?

    • Cleo – I think that’s an excellent example actually. And you do make a well-taken point that when a translation is well done, we don’t really think about it. We simply immerse ourselves in the story and feel that we understand the characters, the wit and so on. When a translation isn’t well done, I suppose that’s when we stop and ask ourselves whether we’ve perhaps missed something. And as I think about your comment, I do think about some translated books I’ve read from very different cultures, and I wonder if it’s exactly that difference in reference points that comes between me and a complete engagement in the story. Hmmmm….lots to think about, so thanks.

  9. Sorry I’ve been missing in action – away on business – and didn’t respond more rapidly to this post. As you know, as an anthropologist and linguist, I have strong opinions about translations! I think a good translator is a full creative partner of the original author – in a sense, they are rewriting the novel for the audience in their own culture, while also preserving the flavour of the original. A very tricky balance to achieve. There are some translators who are so brilliant that they almost surpass the original: I’m thinking Anthea Bell and her translation of the Asterix comics – Dogmatix for the dog Idefix is sheer genius! I like comparing translations to the original (when I can read the original language) or comparing translators (for Russian, for instance – it’s amazing what a huge variety of ‘Crime and Punishment’s I’ve read).

    • Marina Sofia – I’m so glad you took a moment to read this post; I was hoping for your thoughts on it. I really like the way you view the relationship between the translator and the original author. It really does have to be a creative partnership doesn’t it? Otherwise the disconnect comes through, even if the reader isn’t entirely aware of why there is a disconnect. For that reason, I think the personal interactions between the translator and the author are critical. That is, they have to have as you say a full partnership.
      It’s interesting too that you’d mention reading more than one version of a book. I’ve done that too, and I think that’s when you can really tell just how ‘tuned in’ the translator is to the author’s original intent.

  10. I’m with you on this. There are so many books where there is so much nuance that could be lost in translation. And, since we’re usually not fluent in the language our story is being translated into, it’s hard for us to check behind the translator.

    This seems to be why so many indie authors are selling foreign rights outright instead of hiring translators, themselves. Better to have a foreign publisher and their team take it on.

    • Elizabeth – Oh, now that’s an interesting point! As authors, we can’t always see just how well a translator conveys the points we’re trying to make. Even if one speaks another language, that doesn’t necessarily mean one understands that culture thoroughly enough to pick up on those subtleties. Given that, it really does make sense for authors to consider selling foreign rights. By doing that, one does at least have a better shot at getting the original story, as it was intended, out to audiences.

  11. Patti Abbott

    So true. Many books seem flat in translation.

  12. I think most books lose their flavor when they’re translated. The English language is a powerful one and, therefore, the theme of a novel can get lost along the way. Though I’d still like to see my books translated into several different languages. LOL

    • Sue – I think it’s always exciting to an author to know that her or his books are being read worldwide. And you make a good point about language. All languages are powerful: it’s the way we express ourselves and communicate. So language is absolutely loaded with nuances. If the translator doesn’t tap into those subtleties and convey them, several tools in the linguistic toolbox go missing.

  13. Margot – great post on the mysteries of translation. Moira’s point is so well taken about the hardboiled style being hard to translate, not only the tone but also as she mentions the streetwise slang from the Twenties and Thirties that’s peculiarly American.
    It occurs to me that translation issues also apply, at least in part, to non-English movies, mysteries or no, that are dubbed, which for me have an artificial quality regardless of the merits of the translation and how well the words are in sync with the character speaking them.
    I much prefer the authenticity of watching a movie in its original language, and not only because of hearing the original language, but also for other more subtle qualities like the actors’ speaking voice and the background sounds.

    • Bryan – Thanks for the kind words. I’m very glad you’ve brought up the issue of film, because I think there are very similar challenges in translating film as well. Your comments remind me of the time I saw George Roy Hill’s The Sting dubbed in Brazilian Portuguese. As I watched the film, I listened to the English of course, and also read the Portuguese sub-titles. There certainly were several differences in the way the language is used. Even the title shows that. In Brazilian Portuguese the title was Golpe de Mestre (Master Stroke) which doesn’t convey the same nuances as The Sting does. And that brings me to your well-taken point about American streetwise slang. It’s indeed very difficult to convey that in other languages.

  14. Very good point, Margot. It’s something I’ve wondered about myself, when wading through old-fashioned translations of some absolute classics (The Three Musketeers, for instance). While I appreciate that a translation has to follow the feel of the language used at the time, I can’t help wondering if a slightly more modern translation would be easier to read and introduce more readers to some wonderful old works…

    • Tess – Oh, you bring up a fascinating question!! In fact, I had that very conversation not long ago with a rep from a publisher of books for pre-teen readers. This publisher has put out a series of classics (The Hound of the Baskervilles is one) that have re-written with simplified modern language. The idea is exactly the one you expressed: it’s a way to introduce young readers to these classic stories. There’s an interesting debate there about whether the original language should be maintained, but your point (that more readers would read those works) is a good one.

      • It would depend very much on how it was done, wouldn’t it? Too much simplifying and you lose the ‘feel’ of the original text, but I still wonder whether old-fashioned *translations* are more to blame than the original book itself!

        • Interesting question, Tess! And you’re right; if you simplify language too much or change words too much, you lose the sense of the original book. But of course, if you don’t make changes, you could lose readers. It’s an interesting process figuring out that balance.

  15. I love the thought of my book being translated. One day maybe. I’m working my way through translating a Greek crime novel. I’m doing it slowly as I have lots of other stuff to do but I’m enjoying thinking about language and, in particular, individual words as well as on a sentence level. It’s a fascinating process.

    • Translating is fascinating, isn’t it, Sarah? It’s not just knowing which word means what. It’s also conveying all of the nuances of language. And deciding how to do that really is interesting. Oh, and I hope your book will be translated.

  16. Kathy D.

    Cheers to Stephen Sartarelli for his translations and end notes in the Salvo Montalbano books; he adds a lot to them. And, he gets the humor and often has to stop working to laugh at sections he’s translating.
    On the question of translations that are correct for a particular country, I read a piece by Sian Reynolds, who translates Fred Vargas’ wonderful Commissaire Adamsberg books into English. She explained that one has to know who the audience is and translate differently for American English readers and British readers because the idioms and many words differ.
    So, if the publishers are doing this right, they have to deal with this.
    Many of the translators from the Nordic languages do a terrific job in the English versions over here.

    • Kathy – You’re quite right. Part of the work of a translator is really understanding the audience. If the translator understands both the author’s culture and the culture of the people who will be reading the book, it’s easier to ensure that meaning/nuances aren’t lost. And I agree: Stephen Sartarelli does a great job of translating Camilleri’s work.

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