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Translation of a novel by a non-native speaker - an impossible task?
Thread poster: Rico Romano

Rico Romano
Local time: 19:41
Nov 2, 2009

Given an Italian with an average knowledge of English, is it possible an impeccable translation of a 360 pages novel? By impeccable, I mean indiscernible from a text written by someone whose mother tongue is English.
I add one page to know the verdict I would be very grateful for, so as not to start an impossible task
In the end I had reached those forty years and over, when time initiates to tighten stingy rather than offering itself eternal. In the mornings now, I did't pry much into the mirror, not to see my face more and more blotted out: puffy the eyes, gray streaked the temples, the pallor of those who don't see much of the sun. The tongue moreover, it felt like a foreign body, flavored by more cigarettes than I dared to count: utterly futile fancying to cut out smoking, as I couldn't consider doing it straight away, but tomorrow maybe or even better, further in time.
"How have I dwindled so much ..." I went on repeating for too long, before throwing myself under the shower. Then, somehow, I shaved, gussied up to the point of choosing a tie to match the socks, gathered my breath and was ready to enter the fray: in front of me another rotten day around Rome, in search of the mythical pile.

"Giuliana..." I sighted that name in the last weeks, as if invoking the Madonna of the frustrated.
"What?" Considerate as ever in his bar full of smells and noises, Italo awakened my consciousnes, brutalized by the habitual sleep backlog and twenty years of deliberate parasitism. "Did you say anything? The usual squirt in your coffee, perhaps?"
Frenetic his activism as he cleared the counter from cups and glasses, vigorously scrubbing a rag here and there, as if he had to set for twelve. A ritual all that fuss, to prepare the idle conversation in which I let him involve me every day, to re-establish some sort of a contact with the outside world.
"No, no, please!" Firm my refusal. "Not today." A stomach pumping would be needed, rather than a coffee fixing.
"Yeah!" He had taken off. "Much better a light breakfast, in the morning. In your position, besides... You see people, you manage important things, you are never at rest..." He called important, the things I did.
"At rest? No, thanks..." I gave way to some verbiage myself, trying to flake off from an abulia that wilted me to a state of autism. "If I think it over, I don't get out of bed."
"What?! And I? What should I say? At least, you have a good life. You know the big shots, the Undersecretaries, the Ministers... You even know the hot female dancers of State Television!"
"The big shots I know..." a bit of mockery in my tone, I could have done without. "Monotony is all I know. You see one of them and you have seen the all lot."

[Subject edited by staff or moderator 2009-11-02 12:44 GMT]

[Edited at 2009-11-02 17:20 GMT]


Helen Matthews  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 18:41
Member (2008)
Italian to English
+ ...
Impossible Nov 2, 2009


With all due respect - and credit for trying, I have to say that in 10 or so years of translation, I have yet to see a text written by a non mother-tongue English translator/other person that I would have confused with one written by a mother-tongue....

That aside, I would also say that it is a hard enough task for a m-tongue to make the translation of a novel sound 'natural' in their own language, let alone someone who is not m-tongue.

Hope this honest opinion helps. All the best,



Henry Hinds  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 11:41
English to Spanish
+ ...
Don't Start Nov 2, 2009

That's my verdict. Find something more fruitful to do.


Lawyer-Linguist  Identity Verified
Local time: 18:41
Dutch to English
+ ...
Sorry to disappoint you ... Nov 2, 2009

... but the sample page is definitely not up to native standard.


Susanna Garcia  Identity Verified
Local time: 18:41
Italian to English
+ ...
non-native speaker Nov 2, 2009

I agree with Helen but must say, you are very good and you do yourself a disservice saying you have an 'average' knowledge of English.


Angela Dickson  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 18:41
French to English
+ ...
in theory yes Nov 2, 2009

Given an Italian with an average knowledge of English, is it possible an impeccable translation of a 360 pages novel? By impeccable, I mean indiscernible from a text written by someone whose mother tongue is English.

In theory, yes it's absolutely possible, especially if the Italian person uses a very good native-English-speaking editor.

I'm afraid, though, that the sample you post doesn't sound like natural English. The meaning is clear enough (and it seems like an interesting story) but the unnatural phrasing means that it doesn't read fluently.


Alex Lago  Identity Verified
Local time: 19:41
Member (2009)
English to Spanish
+ ...
No Nov 2, 2009

Sorry to say it is not possible, and in your case the proof is in your sample, I am sorry to say it does not sound "natural" and you can tell it has been written by a foreigner.

Just one example you use "initiates" in a way that would never be used by a native speaker, the word would be "starts".

Also for example you say "the pallor of those who don't see much the sun", a native would say "the pallor of those who don't see much of the sun" or "the pallor of those who don't see the sun much".

Or you say "it felt in my mouth like a foreign body" which should really be "felt like a foreign body in my mouth".

These are just some examples that were quick to mention, but your text is full of things that say "non-native". You do have a good knowledge of English just not enough to do this translation, sorry.


Lori Cirefice  Identity Verified
Local time: 19:41
French to English
doesn't read like it was written by a native Nov 2, 2009

Just a few examples of parts that didn't sound natural:

- Firm my refusal
- Frenetic his activism


Patricia Rosas  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 10:41
Spanish to English
+ ...
Impossible Nov 2, 2009

I didn't pry much into the mirror???? I didn't PEER often into the mirror...

I hope this isn't a blow to you but no, you must not attempt this.


Tomás Cano Binder, BA, CT  Identity Verified
Local time: 19:41
Member (2005)
English to Spanish
+ ...
Impossible Nov 2, 2009

Every literary piece, no matter how simple or plain in appearance, has many levels which require a translation. The final mesh of words you create must be able to carry all of those levels. As a native speaker of the source language, you might be able to identify many of the levels and concepts behind the source text; some are obscure and will require the author's assistance. Producing a good translation requires someone who masters both languages and is capable of producing literary works in the target language.

I encourage you to read Umberto Eco's "Mouse or Rat?". It might help you understand that there is much more in every literary piece than immediately visible to the naïve reader.


madak  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 18:41
Swedish to English
+ ...
Google translation? Nov 2, 2009

ricromano wrote:

"as if invoking the Madonna of the frustrated"

"Frenetic his activism as he cleared the counter from cups and glasses"

Is this a translation done by A) an "Italian with an average knowledge of English" or B) just another hilarious Google translation?

My vote goes to B. Or both.

Ricromano - is this, by any chance, and I'm not saying it is, you trying to establish whether or not your English is good enough for translating an Italian novel into English? If so, my answer would have to be no.

Although my knowledge of Italian is probably more than "average", I have as yet come to the point where I offer it as a source language, let alone a target. And I mainly work with straight forward business documents rather than literature.


Local time: 19:41
Better to stick with your native language Nov 2, 2009

I think it's better to translate into your native language.

A native English speaker is going to write the language as it is naturally spoken/written. A non-native is not going to.

I don't understand why there is a constant battle about this, with people always saying they can translate perfectly into the non-native language. With extremely few exceptions, they can't. But there is plenty of work to be found translating into your own language.


ViktoriaG  Identity Verified
Local time: 13:41
English to French
+ ...
Natives vs. non-natives speaking at native level Nov 2, 2009

I think we need to define what native means.

To many people, it means that the language is the one you grew up speaking, your mother tongue. These people usually tend to believe that it is impossible to use a language at native level if it isn't your mother tongue.

Then, there are those who believe that you can use a language at native level even if it isn't your mother tongue. Of course, those who are able to pull this off are few and far between. I have met very motivated people who were learning language intensively yet failed to learn it at native level even after twenty years.

The fact that most people will never be perfectly bilingual try as they might does not mean there is nobody who can pull it off. It would be a pity to turn away a translator who would otherwise have done an excellent job just because the language they would translate into is not their mother tongue.

Let's not forget either that being native in a language does not mean one can write well and is an excellent translator. Given the choice between a mediocre native translator and an excellent non-native translator, I would choose the latter. It goes without saying, though, that I would monitor the translator's work closely. But I would also do it with native translators, so...


Local time: 19:41
Touchy Nov 2, 2009

I think I'm a little touchy about this topic lately because I recently had to experience a Big-Wheel Manager in Germany who was going to just push it on me that his English was perfect. He had never lived in an English-speaking country, but "he can English".

So I guess I have to realize that people here are more sincere about the nuances of English and not so block-headed. Still, I think it is very difficult to write a foreign language perfectly.

[Edited at 2009-11-03 15:29 GMT]


Heinrich Pesch  Identity Verified
Local time: 20:41
Member (2003)
Finnish to German
+ ...
Literacy and normal language Nov 3, 2009

If you have something interesting to say it doesn't matter how you say it. All literature is written in a way that no normal language user would have produced. I'm exaggerating quite a lot of course. Most English present day literature is rather dull, too easy to read.

Recently I read the novel Herztier by the fresh nobelist Herta Müller. If someone would write in that style in a German school composition, the teacher would give only poor grades. But because the prose reflects all the aspects of living as a German speaking woman in a brutal Romanian surrounding governed by the secret police, the text is great and touching.

I don't know about English but here in Finland many books are written by people that were raised in Russia, Estonia, Germany or Britain. All that is required are fresh ideas and a good editor.

But this does not apply to translation. For translation always use someone who can still improve on the text, not tune it down.


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