Reading Translations: Old Books in New Languages


The first books I read in my current target language of German were Der Kleine Prinz by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Fauler Zauber in Afrika by Jean-Claude Fournier, Harry Potter und der Stein der Wesen by J.K. Rowling, and Bis(s) zum Morgengrauen by Stephenie Meyer. All of them were translations.

And with one exception, all of them were “old books” because I had first read them in English.

I chose them for practice because the books I’ve always wanted to read in German are also Young Adult novels: Die Unendliche Geschichte von Michael Ende and Die Tintenwelt Trilogie von Cornelia Funke. But I did not want to start them until my reading skills were much better. It seemed like a good idea to begin with translations of their English “cousins,” with a French bande desineé for good measure.

Now that I have finished them, I can tell you: it was a very good idea!

Why read an “old book” in your new language?

When you already know what is happening in a story, you can focus on its words. Instead of trying to understand both new sentences and a new situation, you will see how new sentences fit into a familiar situation. Knowing the context will also help you “guess” what unfamiliar words mean without using a dictionary.

The characters do not use “textbook language” to say hello or goodbye, to state likes and dislikes, or to ask for information. Instead, they are “native speakers” whom we can imitate, to sound more natural. For instance, in Bis(s) zum Morgengrauen, when Bella meets a new classmate, he asks about the difference between their town Forks and her old home Phoenix by saying, “Ein ganz schöner zu Unterscheid von Phoenix, was?” It was the first time I saw the phrase “ganz schön” used instead of the basic “sehr” (“very”). Since then, I have used it whenever I want to sound more enthusiastic.

Even descriptions of characters and places will use more natural-sounding expressions. After reading Fauler Zauber in Afrika, I have joked that people who are very good at things are “darin Weltmeister” (“world champions in it”).

Translations can also teach you what not to say. Thanks to the scene in Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen in which Hagrid demands tea from the Dursleys, I learned the question, “Was ist nun eigentlich mit dem Tee?” (“What’s up with the tea?”) Since I already knew that Hagrid isn’t very refined and that he doesn’t like the Dursleys, I guessed that it wasn’t a very polite request . . . and an Austrian friend later confirmed it was quite rude!

Is reading translations “cheating”?

Is riding a bicycle with training wheels “cheating”? Of course not!

Starting to read novels in your target language can be a very big step. Just thinking of how big the step is might hold you back from taking it. But breaking it up into smaller steps might help you get started earlier. And it really helps to start as early as possible, so that reading in your target language feels like a normal activity for you.

Beginning with Michael Ende and Cornelia Funke would have been a very big step for me. I did not take it because I worried that I was not yet good enough to appreciate their writing properly. It was much easier to take the smaller step of starting Harry Potter in German. I did not worry that I would fail to understand or enjoy the story, because it was a story I already understood and knew. Reading it gave me good practice; finishing it gave me real confidence.

From here, another small step could be reading the translation of a “new book.” For instance, if I started a series in English, I could finish it in German. I would still have a mix of familiar and new elements, but fewer familiar elements to help the new ones.

Just remember that you shouldn’t use training wheels for too long. They prevent you from doing really cool things, and reaching really cool places, with your bicycle.

But are translations “real” German, “real” French, “real” Italian, etc.?

My copies of Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen and Bis(s) zum Morgengrauen came straight from a Berlin bookstore, thanks to a friend who was visiting the city. They are not easy texts created for learners, but the same books that German children and teenagers read. In this respect, yes, they are real German.

But my translated books don’t really come from Germany (or from Austria or Switzerland), but from America, England, and France. They tell me very little about German culture . . . except that globalism has reached Germany, too.

By next year, I would like to take the training wheels off and to start reading Michael Ende and Cornelia Funke at last.

Special Mention: Le Petit Prince

One of the most translated books in the world is Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. And it seems that reading it in your target language has become a rite of passage in language learning.

I once asked an Italian friend to recommend Young Adult novels from his country to me, and his suggestion was Il Piccolo Principe! He had read it as The Little Prince when learning English. I got my copy of Der Kleine Prinz from a friend who learned German before me; and he had inherited it from another relative who had studied German!

Another friend of mine, who is learning French, insists that the best language in which to read Le Petit Prince is its original language. I argue that the best language is the language you are currently learning.

Have you read any “old books” in your new language?

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