A History Of The World’s Biggest Translation Controversies

Translation can bring us together, but it can also tear us apart.
A woman working on a translation presumably hoping to avoid translation controversies

There’s no such thing as a perfect translation. You could give 1,000 translators the same text, and no two would be identical. The work of a translator may seem invisible, but the decisions they make alter the resulting text for better or worse. It’s unsurprising, then, that translation controversies pop up pretty often.

The debates that arise around translation can at times be academic and obscure. Yet translation controversies can also have quite a bit of cultural significance. Looking at some of the biggest fights in the field raises questions about the purpose and practice of translation in general. There are no easy answers, but the following stories are a good reminder that translation is an evolving art, not a science.

Translating A Religious Text

The most-translated book in the world by far is the Bible. Christian missionaries travel the world studying languages with the sole purpose of translating the Bible into them. This is a big reversal from the Medieval era when it was illegal in England to translate the Bible into “local languages,” meaning any language that wasn’t Latin (though the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, the New Testament in Greek).

This may seem ridiculous to us in the present day, when the benefits of translation are obvious. Allowing people to understand your religious text makes it accessible to more people. Yet if the belief is that the Bible is the absolute word of God, then you can see why translation would be difficult.

To wade into all of the intricacies here would take far more than an article, but suffice it to say that every new translation of the Bible brings out some amount of dissent. If you’ve been learning from one text all your life, it is disturbing to have that text change. Even the King James Version — one of the more widely accepted translations today — was severely divisive when it was first introduced to England in the early 17th century. 

Today, some people adhere to a single translated text — there’s the KJV Only movement, for example, which insists on only the King James Version —  while others say that Christians need to accept the lack of perfect translations. With literally hundreds of versions of the Bible out there, there’s bound to be some translation controversies. It’s reasonable that with the Bible or any other major religious text, the lack of perfection can be frustrating. Yet it can also be a good reminder to keep an open mind and keep questioning what you read.

Translating A Classic

With any book that’s considered part of the literary canon, there are always going to be some translation controversies. In 2020, when Old English translator Maria Dahvana Headley published a very modern Beowulf, some critics were put off by the language (including starting the epic poem with the word “Bro”). But with classics, part of the excitement is comparing translations and deciding which one best captures the original.

One such classic is Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, a 12-volume French novel that comprises one man’s recollections of his life in France. The books were a hit in their original language when they were being published in the early 20th century, so someone decided to translate them into English: Scottish translator C.K. Scott Moncrieff.

To this day, Moncrieff’s version of Proust is the only widely read English version that was translated in its entirety by a single person. But there’s an issue: Moncrieff didn’t quite capture the essence of Proust. Instead, he took the spirit of the original novels and changed it into his own work. In The New Yorker, writer Adam Gopnik compared Moncrieff’s translations to the novels of Henry James, who is notable for his beautiful yet at times labyrinthine writing style. The resulting translation takes artistic liberties with the style. Even the English title Moncrieff gave the books — Remembrance of Things Past — is taken straight from a sonnet of William Shakespeare, rather than being a direct translation, which would be something more like In Search of Lost Time.

While pretty much everyone agrees that Moncrieff’s Proust isn’t strictly Proustian, not everyone agrees on the merits of the translation. For people who want to experience Proust’s writing without having to learn French, knowing that this translation deviates from the original can be infuriating. But there are also those who say that Remembrance of Things Past is a work of brilliance. Jean Findlay, the author of Moncrieff’s biography, defends his version, saying it captures the original Proust better than a technical, word-by-word translation ever could.

After Proust’s death, his brother and publisher worked on a new edition of À la recherche du temps perdu, adding in a substantial amount of material that was excluded in the original. Later, these new pieces were also worked into the Moncrieff translation. And in the early 21st century, Penguin started publishing the first, entirely new English translation of the books (though it’s being done by seven different authors, which opens up its own questions about translation and consistency). But for some people, no version can compare to the original Moncrieff, which may not have captured Proust’s exact style, but seems to have captured his spirit.

Translating A Dictator

It’s not a surprise that Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf sparked translation controversies, but its publication history is probably even more complex and devious than you might think. It’s one of the most widely detested books in the world; a work of propaganda in which Hitler espoused his hatred for Jews, liberal institutions and other groups of people. But when it was first published in Germany in the 1920s, it was an autobiography associated with a very minor political party. It’s not surprising, then, that publishers around the world weren’t exactly clamoring to spread this particular book. But by the end of the following decade, there were multiple English editions of the book.

The first English edition was published in 1933 after a few years of searching for a publisher. The U.S. version was put out by Houghton Mifflin, and it was a significantly abridged version. This version was censored by the Nazi Party itself, who sanctioned it before it went on to be published in both the United States and the United Kingdom.

It’s easy today to see the problem with allowing an abridged version of Mein Kampf to be published in English. It had excised some of the worst passages, creating a sanitized version of Hitler for the English reading public. Yet it’s not just in hindsight that there are clear problems; even at the time of publishing people were alarmed. The Sentinel, a Jewish weekly newspaper, wrote that it was “with surprising stupidity” that Houghton Mifflin was publishing this book. When the White House received a copy of the book from publishers, it put out a statement saying the abridgment “is so expurgated as to give a wholly false view of what Hitler is.”

When there’s only one version of a book available, however, it’s hard to correct the record. Other translators did try to spread the word, creating their own translations, publishing excerpts of the censored sections and pressuring Houghton Mifflin into giving rights to a more complete edition of the book. But for the first few years after the initial publication, Houghton Mifflin was resistant, and even sued one person to stop an unabridged version from distribution. 

By the end of the 1930s, when it became clear the world was gearing up for another world war with Germany at the center, attitudes shifted and the complete Mein Kampf was published in English. This book continues to be at the heart of many translation controversies, especially today, when neo-Nazism is on the rise. While this book’s heavily controlled translation is mostly a footnote in Hitler’s rise to power, it highlights how translation can be used as a form of propaganda. 

Translating A Literary Phenomenon

There are endless examples of translations that people say make a text worse. And yes, there are some pretty uncontroversially bad translations. But there are also the rare cases when people are accused of the opposite: translating a book so that it’s better than the original.

This was the case with The Vegetarian, a 2007 Korean novel written by Han Kang. The book received enough acclaim in South Korea that it was translated into other languages — it appeared in the United Kingdom in 2015 and the United States in 2016 — and it really took off around the world. But then, something surprising happened: members of the Korean press said the English translation was rife with inaccuracies. Some argued that while the resulting work was popular, it was substantially different from Han Kang’s original work.

When translation controversies like these break out, there are a number of forces at play. There have been many cases where people have tried to downplay someone’s success — particularly in the case of women — by attributing it to something other than their own talent. Many people pointed out that the translator, Deborah Smith, had only started learning Korean six years before she worked on The Vegetarian. The line between valid criticism and baseless accusation started to blur.

In the Los Angeles Times, writer Charse Yun took a level-headed approach to comparing the English and Korean versions of The Vegetarian. Though she says she loves the English version, she found that when there are indeed translation errors. But the main problem, according to Yun, is that, “In terms of tone and voice, The Vegetarian is strikingly different from the original.” She goes on to say that she takes Han Kang’s style — which is somewhat reserved — and embellishes it with all kinds of flourishes. The result is inarguably not a direct translation of the original.

This case is difficult because again it calls into question what exactly the role of a translator is. The Vegetarian is still the same story in Korean and English, and it’s gone on to phenomenal success. But if the translation doesn’t retain the original voice, is it the same book or a retelling?

Translating Across Identity

Amanda Gorman, a Black American poet, gained international attention when she performed a poem at the 2021 inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden. Later in the year, her book The Hill We Climb was published, with plans to translate it into a number of different languages. The Dutch edition in particular sparked some argument in the Netherlands when the translation was assigned to Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, a white author. Yet it wasn’t until a few days after the initial controversy, when Rijneveld decided to step down, that the conversation about translation and identity went international.

The argument of who can translate what has divided translators and publishers across the world. It’s made more complicated because it’s not simply a question of who is able to translate from one language to another. It’s about identity, as well as the lack of Black translators working around the world. It should be noted Rijneveld was by no means the only non-Black translator asked to work on Gorman’s book. 

Since the conversation about the translations first started, many publishers responded to media attention by replacing the translators with Black authors and musicians. It’s far too early to know whether this could bring about a change in the world of translation. You do have to accept some differences between author and translator: a Black writer who grew up in Italy will not have the same life experiences as a Black American. At the least, this book is calling attention to the ways in which a translator’s invisible hand isn’t really all that invisible.

The squabble over Amanda Gorman’s book stands out from other translation controversies mainly because the argument is being had before the book is even translated. History is filled with divisive translations — some made accidentally, some maliciously — all of which highlight the vital role translators play in the world of writing.

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