The Help Desk: How do you say "lost in translation" in literally any other language?

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to

Dear Cienna,

Do you speak any other languages? If so, do you read books in other languages?

Either way, do you think that good translations exist? I’m monolingual, but the idea of translating fiction or poetry from one language into another always seemed like doing eye surgery with an old hatchet. I don’t spend much time reading translated stuff because of that, but I always have the nagging sense that I might be missing out on something good.

Pauline, Crown Hill

Dear Pauline,

I've been told my forked tongue is perfect for a particularly dead Latin dialect and I speak French like a child who has no concept of the passage of time. But yes, I do attempt to read books in other languages, mostly crone hexes from the motherland (in my case, Idaho) and the occasional Spanish children's book (I'm trying to use my bad French to teach myself bad Spanish). It took me six months to get through Lucha Libre: The Man in the Silver Mask but I would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys mask-themed fiction.

I do believe good translations exist – there are multilingual authors who translate their own texts, for example. And as a monolingual reader (or a stumpy trilingual reader, in my case), worrying about what you're missing out on is a bit silly, like refusing to fly Southwest because you'll never grow feathers. Sure the experience is different but it's still a journey. Isn't that the point of a good book and/or economy travel?

If you want to try reading a good translation, the National Book Awards announced just this year a category for translated literature. In fact, Seattle's own Karen Maeda Allman is a judge for that category. Small fuckin' world, right? I'd start there.