about reading

On Reading in Other Languages

I’ve been thinking a good bit about reading books in other languages lately, not least because, leaving the reference section of my local library the other day, I nearly walked smack-dab into the small selection of foreign language books. Judging by the selection of both languages and titles, I’m guessing the the availability of these books is as much about the foreign language offerings of local high schools as it is about serving patrons who might feel comfortable in a language other than English.

Over the past year or so, I’ve read a number of conversations about reading in translation vs. reading the original or about the difficulties of conveying certain aspects across languages. The lack of informal vs. formal second person in English. The difficulty of maintaining rhyme scheme or meter across languages. (I can’t imagine trying to translate Shakespeare!) It seems that there could be value, when a reader understands more than one language, in reading books in those languages, rather than always in translation.

In some ways I am both amazed and envious of readers who do this with ease. Although I was fortunate to have had Spanish from fifth through twelfth grades, I have forgotten much and most certainly do not read it well. I’ve thought for a while of trying to resurrect my Spanish, at least to the place that I can read fairly comfortably. But this is something that I am afraid could take rather more time than I have to commit to it, and it has simply been easier to avoid than touch head-on, despite my best intentions (see my Siglo de Oro list). And then I ran into that Spanish shelf.

So I’m attempting La Ciudad de las Bestias by Isabel Allende. This is a book I’ve read before, in its English translation. It is a young adult book and very much an adventure story, set in the Amazon. Which is about all I remember about it!

Honestly, I’m not sure that I will read the entire thing this time around. My Spanish is very, very rusty. I can maybe read a newspaper-level story and get pretty much the gist of it, but I have forgotten so many words. I was surprised, though, when I picked it up the other night and I just started reading, too lazy to find my Spanish-English dictionary, at how much I understood–in general. I got the big picture, not the details. (I did quite unintentionally learn a new work which I think is great fun: “panqueque,” which is pronounced roughly “pahn-kay-kay.” The Spanish is just so much more fun to say than the English “pancake.”)

So I wonder: what is the best way to read in another language in which one is not fluent? In the past, usually spurred on by a school assignment (I used my high school Spanish/college Italian to great advantage in writing research papers for architectural history), I would look up every word I didn’t know, a painstaking process. But this recent read suggests this isn’t necessary for understanding. For anyone who has read much in other languages, what would you suggest (keeping in mind my aim is to improve my comprehension)? Just looking up words that seem key to meaning? Or the ones I recognize but can’t quite remember anymore? Everything?

In the meantime I’ll try to stick to one “other” language for now…a recent post at Wuthering Expectations has me itching to read Pinocchio, finally, but my copy is in Italian…


13 thoughts on “On Reading in Other Languages

  1. Amanda, thanks, a topic dear to my heart, as you might have guessed. Especially since I want to get back to working on my Catalan and French this year and my Italian next year. I’d say just look up the words that you need to to make sure you’re understanding correctly; there will always be dozens or more words you’re not familiar with but that aren’t strictly necessary to know. If you keep running into the latter, their meaning will become clear or you can decide to look them up because you keep running into them. If books in foreign languages seem like too much of a challenge to you right now, stick to shorter pieces (short stories, articles or movie reviews in newspapers online, posts by bloggers who write in foreign languages, etc.) until you build your confidence up. Just remember that some authors are difficult to read in any language, and don’t allow the more “cerebral” ones to intimidate you away from your game plan. Try an easier author out for size, and remember that the extra time it’s taking you to read in another language as compared to English will pay dividends for you in the long run. Practice might not make perfect, but it does make things easier in time (the same goes for listening to movies in Spanish as well). You can also try reading one chapter in Spanish (or Italian) and alternate it with another in English. I used to do that in school on occasion when I wasn’t sure I had time to finish the work by the due date. Anyway, hope some of these ideas help–everybody has a different approach to language study, so I’m sure a technique tghat’s right for you is out there as long as you’re willing to put in the time!

    1. Thanks for the suggestions, Richard! I’m not worried so much about the confidence aspect, more the competence. What’s most irritating are those words I know that I used to know but have since forgotten. It makes me wish I still had all my high school notes that I could just make note cards from! The biggest issue is going to be finding the time I need. But I will definitely try to keep going through the current book without referring (at least not constantly) to a dictionary. Hopefully some of the lost words will begin to come back!

  2. Hey, I think I have a copy of Pinnochio somewhere…

    One of the list items on my Day Zero Project is to read a novel in French. I’ve read a couple (Candide and The Count of Monte Christo), but I have no memory of the plots. You’re so right: the lack of formal/informal second person changes the subtle meanings.

    I was just researching Mark Twain, whose story “Jim Smily and His Jumping Frog” was translated into French (by some woman names Blanc) and then scorned as a bad story. Twain, who didn’t know French, found a way to translate the French version back to English and published it, asking his readers if they wouldn’t consider what he’d translated an awful story. The translation reads NOTHING like the actual story.

    1. I remember seeing that item on your Day Zero Project. I don’t have a specific goal to read a certain number of books, just a smallish pile of works in Spanish and Italian and the idea I could get added value by doing so.

      I’ve seen comparisons of translations back and forth like that before, where the first and third version don’t resemble each other all that much. It really can put the difficulty of quality translation into perspective!

  3. A Spanish native over here! I have never read Isabel Allende (my passion has been English literature since I can remember) but hers is probably a Southern American dialect and if you studied Castilian (the Spanish spoke in Spain) you may not understand it… in fact, I’d never heard of “panqueque” before, it would be “tortita” for me.

    I can recommend you some Spanish bestsellers: easy language and catchy stories to keep you interested. Just let me know if I can help!

    1. I’ve read several Allende, the first actually as a summer reading requirement in high school for Spanish class (English translation). I enjoy her works, but I’ve found her more recent works seem to sound the same to me. This is the first full-length novel I’ve attempted in Spanish, and since it was written for a YA audience, the language isn’t too difficult. I’m not really sure which “brand” of Spanish we studied, although I’m pretty sure not Castilian–if I had to guess, something more akin to the Spanish of Mexico. (I did have a student teacher who was Puerto Rican, so that’s the accent I’m most familiar with, other than “American attempting Spanish.”) One word I’ve come across already that is different is nevera, while the word I knew was refrigerador. And then as I’m poking around the Internet trying to determine which region each belongs to, I discover that there’s also frigorífico and heladera. I can’t say that I’m surprised–there are so many dialect variations just in the US, not to mention all the linguist differences between the US and Britain and Australia, etc.

      If you have book suggestions, I’d be happy to hear! I have a handful of books of my own already, including some that are college texts so they come with nice notes or vocab at the end, but I am always open to new ideas. Any excuse to read more books!

      1. Just recently I came across a series of detective novels set in 19th c. Barcelona by Jerónimo Tristante. The first one called “El Misterio de la Casa Aranda” and it was the inaugurating reading for my book club with my friends. I’ve also heard Love in the Times of Cholera is amazing but, I can’t say myself because I don’t like Spanish literature.

        Here you have a summary in case you like it. It has some weird words but I’m sure you’d like it.


        Keep me posted 🙂

        1. Thank you very much, Elena! El Misterio de la Casa Aranda sounds like just the sort of book I’d like. And I’m on a mystery kick right now… I actually have an English translation of Love in the Time of Cholera, which I haven’t read, but I loved García Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, so I’ll get to it eventually–the only question being Spanish, English, or both? (I even saw a Spanish copy at the bookstore a couple weeks ago.) I will be sure to post about my adventures in Spanish-language reading here on the blog. And maybe Italian, eventually too!

  4. Well done! Unfortunately I can’t recommend any Spanish title as my spanish is pretty much limited to one or two words… But I am on the same mission, trying to brush up on my German. It is a different experience, reading in a different language.

    1. Well, I know about as much German as you know Spanish! It’s fun, reading in another language, although I’m glad I’m just doing this for my own purposes, rather than for school. Much more relaxed this way!

  5. I read Madame Bovary a couple of months ago, and I always wondered if I was missing something. If the translation is so heartbreakingly beautiful, then what’s the original like? I think reading books in their original form is a great idea, and this post makes me want to go and learn French. 🙂

    1. I’ve started to wonder that about reading in translation. It seems to me as if it must be impossible to translate poetry, without missing something essential. Yet, books have been translated for centuries, and we can still enjoy them. I suppose a really good translator can overcome the difficulties, but there’s still that part of me that says, if I can read a different language, wouldn’t that make books in that language better?

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