Does Dickens Google Translate? by Maureen England


If you have been to the new special exhibit at the Charles Dickens Museum, Global Dickens you might have noticed some different bookcases have been put in Dickens’s study. To celebrate Dickens’s international readership, the bookcases are full of translations of Dickens’s novels in languages other than English. From early French and Dutch translations to later Arabic, Romanian, and Esperanto publications, Dickens has been translated into many languages.

As a part of the exhibition, the museum has been cataloguing these translated editions in the collection. By using a translating app, we have been able to decipher most of the information needed from the books to record publication dates, and translator names. However, while paging through volume after volume, I grew curious about the process of translating Dickens, and how the content of these editions might be different than the original English texts.

While I was grateful to have the assistance of a translation app (I needed three to cover all the languages in the collection), scanning and translating phrases and titles is an entirely different job to producing a complete Dickens novel translation, a job for which no app is qualified.

Four-volume edition of Bleak House in Japanese, translated by Toru Sasaki and published in 2017 by Iwanami. © Charles Dickens Museum


Amongst these colourful editions, is a small four volume set of Bleak House in Japanese. This edition was recently presented to the Museum by the translator, Toru Sasaki, professor of English Literature at Kyoto University in Japan. Professor Sasaki is also a member and previous President of the Japan Branch of the Dickens Fellowship. In order to explore the hard work that has gone into translating a Dickens novel, Professor Sasaki graciously answered a few of my questions about his edition of Bleak House.


Maureen England: One of the hardest things, I assume, about translating Bleak House as opposed to other Dickens novels is the fact that the story is told by two narrators, a third-person narrator and Esther, the first-person female voice of a character in the book. Previous reviews of Bleak House translations note to extra work created by having two narrators, ‘a translation which reflects the subtle distinctions between individuals is no easy task’. [1] I asked Professor Sasaki about his approach to distinguishing two different narrative voices:

Toru Sasaki: In Japanese, men and women speak differently in many ways, so it is easy to distinguish one from the other. Plus, in our written language, there are a Chinese-derived form (using Chinese characters) and a Japanese original form (using Japanese characters). They are always mixed, but in my translation I use predominantly the former for the narrator, and the latter for Esther. Therefore, the two are typographically different, too, which is a special advantage of my translation! However, me being a man, it is not easy to use women’s language naturally. So, Esther’s part gave me a harder time.

ME: In the new exhibition, Global Dickens, you will see how Dickens liked to travel and how his works have travelled. Yet, Dickens is often considered a quintessentially British author. How do you think Dickens translates in other languages and cultures?

TS: Well, I suppose Dickens sounds more like Dickens in French than in Japanese, as our language is so different from English. That being the case, it is not easy to differentiate Dickens’s style from, say, that of Wilkie Collins in Japanese. I can only say Dickens is more difficult, and needs more annotations. Though Dickens is studied by a fair number of academics, I can’t say his work is well known to Japanese lay readers—except for A Christmas Carol. In the popularity list he will be placed below the Brontës, let alone J. K. Rowling, even after my translations!


One look at the bookshelves in Dickens’s study and the number of volumes makes you think- how many hours did these translators spend reading Dickens? How many hours of work did it take to translate the novels? Definitely more than an App can handle!

With thanks to Professor Sasaki. Professor Sasaki has previously translated Great Expectations as well as The Law and the Lady by Wilkie Collins and Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm.


Global Dickens: For Every Nation Upon Earth is on display at the Charles Dickens Museum until the 3rd of November 2019.


Maureen England, Phd was a cataloguing assistant at the Dickens Museum for the Global Dickens exhibit. She is currently a freelance cataloguer and independant scholar.


[1] Richard Bales, ‘Book review: La Maison d’Âpres-Vent, transl. Sylvère Monod’ Dickensian 76: 391. 1980. Pp.107-109.

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