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Thoughts Corner: My Never-Ceasing Dilemma of Reading Classic Literature

I do not come from an English-speaking country. I fell in love with classic literature some years ago, and I started off mostly by reading Indonesian translations, and with time I read more and more classics in English. I also read works that are originally written in other languages than English—French and Russian for example—but since I can’t read those other languages, reading in English translation would have to suffice.

Some of my classics collection: Indonesian translations on the top row and books in English on the bottom row

Some of my classics collection: Indonesian translations on the top row and books in English on the bottom row

So when it comes into reading classic literature, I face a major problem: to read it in English or to read it in the Indonesian translation?

I read classics in Indonesian translations because:

  • they are easier to understand, hence faster to read
  • they are mostly cheaper than the books written in English
  • to show appreciation to the translators and publishers who made it possible for a classic literary work to be translated into Indonesian. I know it’s not easy, especially when the market for classic literature in Indonesia is not really promising. So I think they really need the appreciation.
  • as a way to promote world classic literature in Indonesia, especially to those who we can consider “beginners”. Translated books are more accessible, affordable, and understandable to them.

But then, being the perfectionist that I am, after some years of reading classics in both Indonesian translation and English, I can’t help the feeling that I’m missing the “true flavour” of a classic when I’m reading Indonesian translated version. Because somehow in the process of translating and editing, the meaning of a sentence or a paragraph can change. It’s not that Indonesian translated classics are all bad; there are a lot of books that are translated wonderfully, some even came with added “Indonesian flavour”, like Landung Simpatupang’s translation of Nineteen-Eighty Four by George Orwell.

So the problem lies here: while I still want to read Indonesian translations because of the above reasons, I also don’t want to lose hold of the true meaning of a literary work, which in my opinion can be expressed better in English. But, to be honest, there are times that I prefer to read Indonesian translations just to save time! LOL. Aside from being a perfectionist, I am also a moody and a very slow reader.

Do you face the same problem as I do? If yes how would you deal with this dilemma? Please let me know in the comments!

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14 thoughts on “Thoughts Corner: My Never-Ceasing Dilemma of Reading Classic Literature

  1. Hi melmarian,
    It seems that we are in a same problem 😀
    As you know reading Classics in English more meaningful – we know the essence of what the author really want to tell. Different with translated of course.
    Now I’m reading Emma by Jane Austen translated by Istiani Prajoko, the storyline is light but I miss the meaning of some poetry and personal thought of its characters.
    So, how I deal with it? I should spend more money to buy English version, hehehe

    • Hi Wee,
      I’ve read Pride and Prejudice from (I think) the same publisher and was terribly disappointed. By the way there are a lot of online shops who sell secondhand imported books with cheap price, you should look for them. Sometimes those books are even cheaper than the translated ones.

  2. Since two years ago I have made a commitment that I will not read any translations but the English ones (You know, there is no way I will read Dostoyevski in Russian :p) Honestly, the main goal of that commitment is to improve my English, but soon I realize that the ‘feel’, the ‘sense’ and the ‘context’ that we capture in ‘language’ is somehow important. So, in terms of Classic, I choose to read the English translations. But, oh, I’m not only perfectionist about this, but also about the publisher and the cover. Before buying those classic books, I will choose publisher which publish all the books by particular author so that my collection will be from one author with one type of cover from one publisher. I know, it’s kinda freak 😀

    • “there is no way I will read Dostoyevski in Russian :p” –> yep, I think that goes for all (or most) of us. I can only recognize a few Cyrillic letters :p
      I can see why you bought a whole bunch of Vintage Classics (at a really cheap price, I’m still jealous >.<)
      sorry for the very very late reply :p

  3. I have that dilemma too, Mel. For now, I decide to read more in English, though I don’t avoid reading Indonesian translation as well. But, in order to help promote classic literature in Indonesia, I keep writing reviews in Indonesian (and English if needed), whatever edition I read.

  4. Not just classic Mel. Even modern literature too have a different feeling between the original and translation version :D. So usually, if I had read the original version, I won’t read the translated and vice versa.

    • Yes, I think in most cases the original (or English version) is somehow more sufficient than the translated version. So sometimes it’s a waste of time to read the translated version first then the original. But then, it depends on the book and the reader 😀
      Thanks for the comment Ren, sorry for the very late reply 🙂

  5. Hello mbak Mell. reading this I m gladly realised many Indonesians have this kind problem. Moreover, there are certain books that have not been translated yet so it is a natural of fact that if I want to read various books, English is a must. For now, I just enjoy the sensation everytime reading literatures in English

    • Yep, I agree with you Lin (can I call you Lin? :p) I try to balance the books I read (books in Indonesian and English) but reading in English has become my priority.
      Thanks for commenting, sorry for the late reply!

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