I am studying the writing style of Leo Tolstoy by reading an English translation of Anna Karenina.

As a general rule, do translations affect the original style? In what ways?

  • Since this is about a specific translation of a specific book, I think this question would be better over on literature.stackexchange.com. The merits of Tolstoy's translators is a common discussion around the web. A google search led me to reviews on Goodreads, and this article comparing translations in context: commentarymagazine.com/articles/…
    – wetcircuit
    Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 13:04
  • Thank you for the comment and resource. I modified the question a little bit to suit it for writing. I am really doing this to study 'how to write' rather than study literature. Hope this still remains valid. Thanks. Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 13:15
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    Murakami famously writes books that have an American English style, even in their original Japanese, which presumably makes them easier to translate back to English. But that's a unique case. Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 13:39

2 Answers 2


When books get translated into another language, the writing style changes as well. Some literary devices in the source language just don't work in the target language for whatever reason. One person once asked here on the Stack Exchange about a Russian-to-English translation and said how Russian texts could have present tense and past tense, but this literary device was not translatable into English. So, the translator had to figure out another way to convey the same feeling. A good translator would adjust the story in order to appeal to a new audience. When you are translating between languages, you are not only translating the language, you are also translating the entire culture, making the people inside the culture seem human-like and real so that people in the new culture can identify with the characters. This video explains that translating Harry Potter into other languages was a nightmare, because the translator had to deal with numerous cultural references in Great Britain, British slang and colloquialisms and regional dialects, and English-based puns.

As an English-Mandarin bilingual, I can speak anecdotally that stories written in Chinese feel different from stories written in English. A sentence-level translation probably wouldn't work, because Chinese idioms and puns don't translate so well into English. Puns are notoriously difficult to translate, and Chinese idiomatic expressions may be used to describe a situation as an adjective/adverb. You can find an equivalent English idiom to match the Chinese idiom, but the problem is, your English reader would probably find that English idiom a cliché. Chinese idioms may also feel more structured or patterned. For example:

  • 三心二意

  • 一心一意

  • 胡言乱语

  • 甜言蜜语

  • 自言自语

  • 千言万语

These idioms are not directly translatable into English. I mean, you can translate the meanings across fine, but the result would be ugly and unpoetic, doing a disservice to the original prose. Also, word choice also matters in Chinese. In English, the author has to consider word choice too, but it's different.

In Chinese, you can say 绿色的 or 绿油油的 to describe something as "green". What is the difference? 绿色的 sounds like a statement of fact. Boring, dry. It is what it is. 绿油油的 sounds more poetic or cute. Great for describing the beauty of green leaves. In English, you can use "green" and "verdant" to describe the same color, but note that the color is not so obvious in the word verdant.

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    To save any readers the trouble of visiting the tool, Google translate gave me this for those idioms: "Two hearts and two minds", "One-minded", "nonsense", "sweet nothing" , "Self-talk", "Thousand words" Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 17:16
  • @Mindwin LOL. Google Translate Fails. "nonsense" is okay; the others make no sense. There are bazillion ways to express stuff in English. Likewise, there are bazillion ways to express stuff in Chinese. 胡言乱语 is one of them. 胡说,胡说八道,瞎说 can all mean the same thing. A character's education or social class would be considered to make a proper translation. Maybe a low-class speaker would say, "Shut up," while a high-class speaker would say, "I do not wish to receive your ruminations."
    – Double U
    Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 19:12

I highly recommend Douglas Hofstadter's Le Ton Beau De Marot: In Praise Of The Music Of Language which deals in depth with exactly this question.

In short: yes! There are endless decisions to be made in translating between one language and another, making the job of a translator extremely complex. They are artists and writers themselves, not mere transcribers.

If you want to capture Tolstoy's "style" without actually reading Russian, your best bet is probably to find a number of different translations of his book, to compare/contrast.

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