Should Language Learners Read Translated Books or Original Works?

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My very own bookshelf!
A lot of language learners feel guilty for their choice of reading material.

After all, in language classes in school or at university, we read the Big Works, the classics. Classic poems, classic short stories, classic plays, classic novels.

And then, when we learn languages on our own, this sets us up with a snobbish mindset that classics or original works are most beneficial for our budding language skills. In other words, no translations. What’s the point of learning a language if you’re just going to read books translated from English?

Books in translation offer all sorts of advantages

First of all, reading translated books in your target language (like Harry Potter, Roald Dahl, any popular writer you enjoy, the works) will not harm your language abilities. It’s not useless to read authors you know you enjoy in order to learn a language. I, for one, am more familiar with English-language writers, and I know I can find these in my target language. They’re easy to Google, and I know I’ll be entertained with a familiar story.

You can rest assured that the translations are of decent quality. Translations are popular with native speakers for a reason– they must not sound too out of the ordinary for them, right?

A lot of native English-speakers have a weird relationship with translations, due namely to the fact that native English-speakers hardly ever read translated works. They’re not taught to us in school, and they’re not marketed to us in our bookstores. It’s kind of a sad thing when you think of all the international literature we’re missing out on.

A secret advantage: translations are easier!

This might not apply to all languages, but in my experience, it has applied to French and Spanish. Translated works tend to use subtly simpler language and grammar patterns that are slightly reminiscent of the original language. So, if you’re an English speaker reading something translated from English, you’ll probably be able to understand a tiny bit more, even if you were completely unfamiliar with the book. This, of course, will probably apply less if you’re reading high literature, but for young adult and popular fiction, translations can be great for the beginner or intermediate learner.

Of course, you shouldn’t avoid native target language novels– this is just a cool thing to be aware of.

What about original works?

As always, read what you want. Your interest level dictates your understanding way more than the actual reading level.

Nevertheless, from personal experience, I’ve stuck to books-in-Spanish-translated-from-English (whoa) for some time. They were more comfortable, and they kept me reading. Early on in my Spanish project, I tried to read La sombra del viento only to give up thirty pages in. It wasn’t that I couldn’t read it; it was just that it was too tiring. It took a lot of effort to keep track of the story. I suspect that Carlos Ruiz Zafón (the author of La sombra del viento) was taking full advantage of creating beauty with Spanish’s unique vocabulary and sentence structure. But, for my beginner-intermediate brain, it was a lot to put together. There’s no shame in running back to something easier if it keeps you studying!

Now, though, I’m aware of some gaps in my vocabulary, so I’m deliberately increasing my reading level. I just started La ciudad de las bestias by Isabel Allende, a Chilean author. Like Sombra, it’s a young adult book, but it’s much richer in vocabulary than my translated Harry Potter books and other English-language popular fiction.

Include original works, if you have access to them, as you see fit. Research popular authors in your language, or just collect random novels from used bookstores! If they’re too difficult now, or if you find yourself procrastinating on reading, put the book aside and move to something easier. You can revisit the book in a few weeks or months and see how you’re doing!

Read what you like, and don’t get snobby!

With French, I’ve read what I could find through Amazon third-party sellers, used bookstores, and on increasingly rare trips to Canada. With Spanish, my diet is mostly the popular translated fiction readily available in US bookstores (especially in California!). During my trip to Iceland, I grabbed as many books as I could lay my hands on: children’s books, comics, books by Icelandic authors, etc.

So, I read (and collect) pretty broadly, and I think that any language learner should read as broadly as they can as well. Translated books and original works are both incredibly valuable.

Motivation is the most important thing when taking on any long-term project. So, read what you want! You can read the classics later, when you’re more comfortable with things.

Reading is vital for language acquisition, whether you’re talking about a monolingual child in school or some crazy polyglot hermit. Read as much as you can in your target language, and you’ll see improvements. There is no sense of duty here, just follow your instincts and read what you want!

 

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5 thoughts on “Should Language Learners Read Translated Books or Original Works?

  1. Great blog post – I absolutely agree that motivation and fun with a language is probably the most important part of being successful with it. I’d also like to add that sometimes you can get carried away with a story while reading in a foreign language and you just want to see how it ends up!

    I also really like your suggestion of reading translated texts. I must confess that I have been a bit snobbish and opted to almost always read things which are authentic. But you made a good point that they are translated to have a natural feel for the target language.

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    1. Thanks for reading! I used to prefer more authentic books, but then I realized how quick I could get a handle on a language if I read translations of books I already liked. It’s also just so convenient to be able to find a book by an author with which you’re already familiar, rather than having to track down book trends in the language you’re reading (unless you already have ideas!). But yeah, I’d say following whatever’s fun for you is best.

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  2. Awesome post! One more factor here is the culture.
    It sounds cool and impressive to learn the new culture through your new language, but this is likely to lead to confusion in the beginning. Make the culture help, not work against you. Instead of wondering whether you understood a word/sentence incorrectly or it’s something cultural, use your familiarity with cultures to guess the meaning.
    This doesn’t have to be limited to your native country – the first book I managed to finish in German was a translation from Finnish. I’m also reasonably familiar with the American and British culture (and I’m interested in many authors from there but I don’t want to read them all in English :D).
    Fictional cultures (like HP, LOTR) help only when you’re already familiar with them, or if you know enough to understand the in-book explanations.

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    1. Great point! Yeah, I definitely use fictional cultures to my advantage when I read. It helps that I like a lot of fantasy 🙂

      Classics are probably difficult for a lot of cultural references, as well, so it’s good to work up to them with important literary books of increasingly difficulty. That way you wade into the culture slowly 🙂

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