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Ashley Barron's Blog

Writing: The Importance of Word Choice in Translation

Writing: The Importance of Word Choice in Translation

For those of you who are fans of Star Trek (or, like me, grew up with a brother who loved all things science fiction), have you ever fantasized about having communication tools like the ones Captain Kirk and his crew had?

I have, and I find myself doing it all the more lately.

Why? Social media.

Daily, the Internet provides readers and writers with the opportunity to connect with new people involved in the book world, and to interact with speakers of many different languages. While I firmly believe that diversity of people, in every possible way, is one of the two greatest strengths the human race collectively possesses (the other is love), I do find diversity challenging when it comes to language.

This is not because I can’t learn to speak another language; I can and do. The reason is because I can’t learn to speak all the languages of this vast community of readers and writers.  


As a book lover, it is frustrating to add up how many writers have created stories that will never make it onto my bookshelves – or my Kindle. This isn’t a by-product of self-publishing; it is a reality of both the technical challenges and real expense of translating books into other languages.

Maybe that’s why, as the world becomes smaller and smaller through the ever-expanding Internet “pipelines,” we find ourselves turning firmly to images, and not words, as the primary method of sharing and growing sentiments, hopes, and even fears.

But pictures have specific limitations that books do not, nor ever will.

Do you remember all of the “this is going to be the end of books” hub-bub when self-publishing began its meteoric rise? I do. While I love printed books and still buy them regularly, the purpose of the written word isn’t to appear on the printed page. The purpose is to fully communicate ideas, dream, hopes, joys, thoughts, mistakes, wrongs, solutions, and so much more.

This stream of thought leads me to believe that the person (or, more likely, the company) that produces the first completely (culturally) accurate, instant, language translation chip will open the next frontier, and, through it, will have the first chance of true market domination, worldwide.

Just think of what it would do for audiobooks: no matter in what language the speaker reads the text, each listener, regardless of his or her own language definitions, hears precisely the same message, and in his or her own native tongue.

With so much interaction happening online, Twitter and other social media seem to me to underscore the unintended barrier of language. As a tweeter, I feel a sense of disappointment, mostly in myself, when I don’t follow (or follow back) a member of the global book community simply because we don’t use the same language and we’ll be unable to communicate directly with one another.

There just doesn’t seem to be a point to it. Not for me; not now.

The reason that this subject is on my mind is that I’ll begin the process of having my work translated into other languages sometime in the next few months.

My greatest concern, as I research the options, is trying to anticipate what will be lost in translation. So much of language is driven by cultural markers, and my dialogue is distinctly American. When a book is translated, will the underlying sentiment, the aspects of the story that live “between the lines” still come through?

And, frankly, how would I ever know?

Several of my favorite authors wrote their original works in French or Spanish or Russian, and I read them in English. Though I love the writings of these authors, and their emotions and plots and settings, I can’t help but wonder how much more I am unable to experience and enjoy because of the challenges a translator may face trying to convert culture references for which I, the reader, have no framework.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in France, and at one point had become so immersed in the language that even my thoughts were forming in French, and not in my native English. This education helped me to understand not only the power of word choice, but also the importance of facial expressions and body movements as part of the story. In person, they add yet another dimension to whatever ideas and topics are being discussed, and are subtle elements we writers work hard to layer into our stories.

Someday, this communication “nirvana” of instant, accessible, cross-cultural language translation will be achieved, and the vast universe of ideas communicated through books will find a marketplace of such unimaginable proportions that, just possibly, even Jeff Bezos has not yet dared to dream of it happening.

But when it comes to progress, and to the as-yet-unrealized abilities of the human mind, I’ll always stand on the side of hope. With that in mind, I think I’m going keep some space open on my bookshelves, just in case this marvel of innovation happens in my lifetime.

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