The Story of The Untranslated.

Almost a year ago I posted about one of the best blogs in existence, The Untranslated; I await new posts with embarrassing enthusiasm and devour them instantly. Well, Andrei is now celebrating his five-year blogiversary with an origin story, and it’s mesmerizing:

The story began 12 years before the appearance of the blog when I was studying for my Master’s in literature. During my first year, there arrived an oversees guest lecturer in literature and philosophy — the Stanford professor Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. At the time, at my university knowing English well was cool. Being able to read an English-language book or a book translated into English without a dictionary was extraordinary. We always adored professors with rich English vocabulary and the most native-sounding pronunciation. Those were the signs of great mastery achieved through perseverance and determination by people who spent most of their lives behind the Iron Curtain. So, there was this professor speaking fluent English who was going to talk about literature not originally written in English, which he must have read in translation. I still remember the moment when he distributed photocopies of Garcia Lorca’s poems with the English translation facing the Spanish original. And then something incredible happened: he told us to follow the translation while he was reading out the poems in Spanish. I was astounded. I had never experienced anything like that before. I didn’t understand most of the Spanish words, but I could feel the tremendous difference, I could hear how incomparably better the poems sounded in Spanish. I realised that some day I would like to be able to do just that: to read the works of my favourite writers and poets in the original, and in as many languages as I could learn. I was further bowled over when Gumbrecht casually said during a different lecture that when he read Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose in Italian, he had the impression that its style strongly resembled that of a medieval chronicle. As it turned out, besides English and his native German, Gumbrecht was proficient in Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, and could also read some additional languages. Knowing English well wasn’t cool anymore. I wanted badly to get at least reading proficiency of the major European languages. Of course, there were considerable differences in my background and Gumbrecht’s. He was born in West Germany in a middle-class family and had the opportunities to study in France, Spain and Italy. I was born in the Soviet Union in a family with modest income and at that time I had not even been outside the borders of the former USSR, which had collapsed a decade before. It wouldn’t be until my first year as a PhD student in Comparative Literature when I would travel to England for the first time. Notwithstanding these setbacks, I set out on my journey.

By the time of Gumbrecht’s visit I had studied French as my second language, but it was at such a low level that reading original literature was still out of the question. I developed my own system of drastically increasing my vocabulary that proved to be tedious but effective. I started with a short story by Maupassant, just several pages, which I read with a dictionary by my side, copying into a notebook all the words which I didn’t know and writing next to each of the words the Russian translation. There were lots of such words. Then, when I had that glossary at my disposal I would read the same story exactly ten times, so that during the final read I didn’t have to rely on the list anymore. After that, I moved on to another story, which was a bit longer. I proceeded in this fashion until I was able to read a complete novel in French, and, strangely enough, I cannot remember what it was. Slowly but surely, my reading abilities in French were improving, but there was still so much to achieve.

And it goes on from there. I identify with a great deal, including love for the original World Literature Today and German being a tough nut to crack, and I envy him his determination to expand his net and to expend so much time and effort on his posts. But he’s a little discouraged because he has so few readers, and he occasionally thinks of the blog as “a time-consuming and energy-sapping plaything.” So go over there, read the rest of the story (including his personal top ten great untranslated novels) and give him some love, and tell everyone you know about his superb and irreplaceable blog!

Update (Oct. 2019). Sad (but not unexpected) news — The Untranslated is ending:

Some of my readers have been genuinely puzzled about all the effort that comes into my reviews, and this realisation has finally caught up with me. I would like to find a different use for this energy, preferably more enjoyable and fulfilling for myself. I’ve realised that being a polyglot whizz kid who can read Ulysses-like books in multiple languages and write painstakingly detailed reviews of them is not a thing for me anymore. Especially considering the fact that I’m over forty now. Altogether, there is enough information here to keep busy scores of publishers and translators. I see no point in adding more titles that many of my readers are unlikely to read, and I do not fancy being a useful data collector and processor anymore.

But he’s not vanishing entirely: “It is quite possible that I will start another blog with a more general theme, and chances are I may yet write about a couple of untranslated unreadable novels there, so the fans of those should not get utterly dejected.”


  1. Stu Clayton says

    Recently I learned a bit about Gumbrecht from Sloterdijk’s second volume of diaries, Neue Zeilen und Tage (think Hesiod, Works and Days). I want to find out more of what he has to say.

    # 2013 war Gumbrecht für den Ludwig-Börne-Preis sowohl Juror als auch Laudator für den Preisträger Peter Sloterdijk. #

  2. Stu Clayton says

    # This brings me to the way I write my reviews. Perhaps, some of you might be interested in the mechanics of the process. First, I read the book to be reviewed. #

    This is revolutionary stuff. Over decades I have seen many TLS letters to the editor by authors complaining that the reviewer appears not to have read the books. I imagine this is standard for full-time reviewers – skim the book, turn on your word machine for 10 minutes, take the fee and run.

  3. By the time of Gumbrecht’s visit I had studied French as my second language

    After Russian and English presumably. So modest, but this is like the ground floor vs first floor uncertainty. Don’t Russians count their mother tongue or is this a personal quirk (or have I just misunderstood)?

  4. I assumed he meant second foreign/new language.

  5. Yes, like, I presume, most people, Russians do not believe that they learn their native language. “as a second language” attained a semi-fixed status in AmEng, which was not taken to account by Andrei N.

  6. Huh… “The Name of the Rose” played a big part in my personal drive to learn new languages in my 20s. Actually, “Foucault’s Pendulum”. I really wanted to read “Foucault’s Pendulum” in Italian. At the time it seemed like a crime to me that Eco could know so many interesting things about so many different subjects and so many different languages, while I was so dull that I couldn’t even read more than a word or two of what he wrote on my own.

  7. Until recently many researchers insisted, after Stephen Krashen, that one’s native language was acquired while any further languages were learnt (or learned, if you prefer); this distinction, however, is no longer pedantically observed, since it has become clear that there’s a wide overlap between the mental processes involved. Consequently, language acquisition and language learning have become more or less synonymous. Where I work, young Polish people study English as their second language (Polish being the first), but they may also be required to learn a third one.

  8. Trond Engen says

    I’ve read several of his posts on your recommendation, and with great joy, even if I don’t have much to add to the topic. Other times the sheer length of a post may force me to put it off forev.. eh, for later. A world class blog, but I’m not sure how to give my love there. I get the (apparently erroneous) impression that the writer doesn’t seek immediate response from his readership — or for that matter, try to attract a readership beyond a small and discerning community of professional literati.

  9. He’s probably of double mind, like so many of us toilers in small vineyards: to do what we do at all, we have to convince ourselves that we need only a small and discerning community, but being only human, we also want the masses to throw themselves at our feet… as long as they don’t expect us to cater to their mass tastes…

  10. (I signed up.)

  11. Trond Engen says

    Me too, now.

  12. David Marjanović says

    this is like the ground floor vs first floor uncertainty

    Narrowly averted in German: erste Fremdsprache “second language”, lit. “first foreign language”.

  13. Makes sense, but if a German learns Sorbian, is that a foreign language? I’ve occasionally made the point that while Mandarin is the most taught second language, English is the most taught foreign language, because most people who are taught Mandarin live in China.

  14. David Marjanović says

    That’s a good point that doesn’t work in German, where fremd means “strange, alien”, and “foreign from the perspective of a country” only in certain contexts.

  15. I am pretty sure most people who are taught English live in India and it’s not actually a foreign language there either…

  16. It might work for learning Mandarin/English distinction, but will quickly become weird if we try to make that distinction for the languages of Switzerland. Speaking of Russia though, people with native non-Russian wouldn’t consider learning Russian as foreign. Probably, “standard language” occupies a special place, dissimilar with both other languages of one’s own country and foreign languages in both linguistic and political senses.

  17. squiffy-marie von bladet says

    Is there something like this but for pomes? It all started, after all, with Mr Lorca’s pomes and then before you know it it was proses all the way down. If I’m going to not read the great untranslated works of world literature then I, for one, am going to focus on not reading the pomes first.

  18. I am pretty sure most people who are taught English live in India

    There are more L2 English-speakers in India than any other country (125 million, or 12.5 crore if you prefer), but followed up by Nigeria (79M), the Philippines (64M), and the U.S. (49M). These three added together outweigh India. To be sure, this does not distinguish between those who are taught and those who pick it up for themselves.

  19. January First-of-May says

    These three added together outweigh India.

    Things are of course quite different in the USA (where the L2 speakers of English are mostly immigrants and children of immigrants, and as such probably mostly picked it up themselves), but of course 79+64 (Nigeria and Philippines) is already more than 125.

    Wonder what country has the most L2 speakers of English without having English as its official language… wait, no, that’s technically the USA, which doesn’t make sense as the answer for the question I had in mind.
    …OK, what country has the most L2 speakers of English without having English as its official language (or as one of its many official languages), and without having more L1 speakers of English than L2 speakers? That should do it.

  20. David Marjanović says

    How good do the L2 speakers need to be…? That might decide between the Netherlands, Germany, Japan, South Korea and China.

  21. English is also not a foreign language in Nigeria or the Philippines.

  22. Nor in Pakistan too.

    I suppose by David M criteria, Germany would qualify

  23. @squiffy-marie – I do analyse Joseph Brodsky’s untranslated poem “Dedicated to Piranesi”

    but you are right – I don’t devote a lot of attention to poetry. Perhaps I will able to remedy this in the future.

  24. Germany is indeed the solid winner, with 45M L2 speakers, 272K L1 speakers (surprisingly high, especially since it excludes foreign military bases, and indeed slightly more than India has), and only one official/national language. The runners-up are pretty far behind in the dust: Bangladesh (29M), Egypt (28M), France (23M), Ghana (18M), Thailand (17M), Italy (17M), and Mexico (16M).

    In relative rather than absolute numbers, it’s a different story: here the winners are the Netherlands (90%), Sweden (86%), Denmark (86%), Austria (73%), Cyprus (73%), Finland (70%), and again Ghana (67%). At the other end we have China, whose 10M English-speakers are a drop in the bucket, less than 1% of the population.

    All my figures come from this WP page, with its multi-sortable table and its convenient links to country pages, which list official/national languages in the infobox. The table bears a prominent disclaimer:

    Some numbers have been calculated by Wikipedia editors by mixing data from different sources; figures not attributed to sources and given with a date should be treated with caution. Also note that in most sources, the results shown are of people who say that they can speak English, while that was not verified; which means the actual number of English speakers could be higher or lower (because of certain people that over- or underestimate their English skills).

    I’m surprised that the table has been allowed to persist, given all that, but it’s uncommonly handy anyhow.

  25. David Marjanović says

    Germany […] 272K L1 speakers (surprisingly high, especially since it excludes foreign military bases, and indeed slightly more than India has)

    That is higher than I’d have guessed, but not that surprising; British and American expats aren’t hard to find in Berlin.

    Like the US, but unlike Austria, Germany does not have an official/national language.

    Austria (73%), Cyprus (73%), Finland (70%)

    The Finns are too modest. And the Cypriots probably too.

  26. but you are right – I don’t devote a lot of attention to poetry. Perhaps I will able to remedy this in the future.

    Much as I love poetry, I think it’s more important to review prose, because more people read it, it’s more likely to get translated, and it’s more likely to survive translation.

  27. France (23M)

    The French are wildly exaggerating their mastery of English, I think.

  28. @languagehat – Rest assured, prose will always be the focus of my blog, but I really would like to examine some gems of untranslated poetry. I just have to figure out how to do it best when I’m not dealing with narrative poems.

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