Nabokov was very discouraged when he translated his Lolita into Russian. And he spent half a year on it. So should I try the translation myself?

  • 3
    Your English is better than my Russian.
    – JMC
    Nov 20, 2010 at 18:26
  • I'm curious...why didn't you choose to write in your native tongue to begin with?
    – HedgeMage
    Nov 20, 2010 at 19:19
  • 1
    I am writing in my native language now, but I think to expand my audience to English-speaking folks. Just for option to go strictly to English publishers.
    – Dan Ganiev
    Nov 20, 2010 at 19:43

9 Answers 9


If you have the time to do so, and there is a want for the translation, I say it wouldn't be a bad idea. By being able to do the first translation yourself you can be sure all the little things that make it through, that way some important piece of characterization doesn't get lost.

Though in the end, it's also about time. If you don't have the time to do the work it might be better to supervise it instead of doing it yourself.


I would always seek help from a professional translator, no matter how proficient I deem myself in the target language. A professional translator has studied the intricacies of both languages (and probably a few more); he has linguistic tools at his disposal I might not even imagine existed; he can look back at years of professional experience; and he is getting paid to get it right, it's his entire job. He will deliver a better result much faster.

Most importantly, though, you can always talk to him. In fact, a professional translator will always be proactive about talking to you should he have any questions. And even if he's totally happy with his output, you can still say, "nope, that's not quite what I had in mind. You've translated the name X as Y where I would have preferred Z, and in this sentence here you are actually implying something that is not true to my original".

Now, I'm not saying that you should never even think of translating any works of yours yourself. If you feel like trying, by all means do. It's a fascinating experience. However, the thing is that if you do the translation yourself, you will still need to show it to a professional editor afterwards, or at the very least have it proofread by a few native speakers of the target language (one is never enough). So you will still have to work together with another person of five, except that it will be much more cumbersome and take forever.

Lastly, even if you invest a few years and achieve true mastery in translation, it will still be a trade-off: never forget that you could be spending all that time writing new works instead.

  • 1
    (Full disclosure: I am a native speaker of Russian. I studied translation at one point in my life, but not from/to English. Most importantly, I couldn't finish my studies for personal reasons, so I do not hold a degree and do not work in that profession.)
    – RegDwight
    Nov 30, 2010 at 0:08
  • One thing to consider, though, might be the cost of having a professional translator translate your entire book. That should cost thousands upon thousands of Euros. But I agree that it would probably result in a much higher quality.
    – Cerberus
    Apr 18, 2011 at 23:27
  • "...you will still need to show it to a professional editor afterwards, or at the very least have it proofread by a few native speakers of the target language (one is never enough)." - Well, you need those when you write in your native language as well, so it's not much of a point. I've just checked some of the translated books I have on my book shelf and they all have a translator, an editor and at least one lector, usually two, so even with a professional translator you'd still need an editor and a lector (or at least a proof reader). Personally I'd rather spend my money on a good editor.
    – Tannalein
    Dec 19, 2012 at 23:03
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    I agree. I'm reminded of the masterful translations of the works of Stanislaw Lem from Polish to English by Michael Kandel, who even went so far as to create a sonnet about a haircut where every word began with the letter "S".
    – Iucounu
    Dec 27, 2012 at 18:14

I think that translation is an art in itself, not unlike writing in that it's also a creative endeavor. If you want to do it because you think you'll get something out of the creative experience, I'd recommend you go for it--with help from a professional translator. But if you just want your work out there, I'd recommend someone who is a translator because they won't be emotionally tied to the work like you are.


I usually translate my work for these reasons:

  1. It gives me a good reason to read it again (and you always find something if you read your own work).

  2. When I translate, I often find better ways to express myself in the original language.


I think languages are very different in a lot of subtle things, so I wouldn't trust a third party to translate my thoughts, the way I write, and my subtle hints and intentions into another language I know well.

I'd really try hard to translate it myself as to not lose any of those traits upon doing it.

If it's a language you don't really know well, you'd have no choice though.


Your English writing skills could use a little smoothing out, if the question above is representative. However, that will improve in time with practice and the help of a good editor. If you have the ability, it'd be a shame not to use it.


I doubt anyone knows what you wanted to say better than yourself. Even the most skilled translator can miss some fine points you wanted to express. As someone who has seen quite a number of bad translations, I'd never let anyone translate it into a language I know well enough to translate myself. To help, maybe, to edit and give a hand with some subtler points of language, yes, but the whole translation, no.

I'm reading a book right now in English and was surprised to find it in the bookstore translated into Croatian, so I flipped through it and I literally shuddered. It wasn't that it was badly translated, per se, but since it's written in first person, the voice was completely different. It wasn't the same character anymore. I know some things get lost in translation, but this felt like a completely different character was telling the same story. Not to mention that some names were Croationized while most didn't. You just don't do that, you either do it all or none at all.

There are just as much of bad translators out there as there are good ones, it's a lottery which one you would ran into. The ones that have actually lived in a foreign country and are truly fluent in that foreign language are really rare. Translator also needs to have a flair for writing, because it's not all literal translation, sometimes you need to be creative to translate phrases and sentence structures that don't even exist in the other language, and still keep the original meaning in the original voice and style. It's not straightforward. So who better to do it than the original author?


I was instructed by multiple Princeton professors that one's native language is the only acceptable target for a self-produced literary translation. (Of course, not everyone obeys these rules--but even the Nabokovs suffered for it.)

If the "second language" is your native language, I'd say go for it.


I would say yes because the more people can read it, the more feedback you can get that could help you with writing.

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