The City of Bones and How to Improve the Original in Translation



City of Bones, Cassandra Clare

Cassandra Clare: City of Bones, part 1, the Mortal Instruments series. The Finnish translation by Terhi Leskinen, 2010.

I’m a fan of Cassandra Clare’s world of Shadowhunters. I’ve read the Mortal Instruments and Infernal Devices series and enjoyed them – more or less – thoroughly. I usually read in English, Finnish or Swedish depending on what is accessible.  Some of Clare’s books I’ve read in English, the others in Finnish. Most bookworms seem to prefer original language, if possible. Me too. Normally. It’s just that sometimes a translation might actually be better than the original.

Better than the Original?!

I hadn’t really thought about this until I came across Chris Winkle’s dissection of Clare’s City of Bones. It’s a detailed analysis of the beginning of the book, only I couldn’t relate to it at all. Had I really been reading the same book?

I checked again the Finnish translation of the City of Bones, and indeed, the translator had improved several points where Clare had gone a bit wobbly with her writing…

Let’s take a look how a translator can improve a text with word choices. I’ll re-translate the Finnish version into English. Here are the changes in some of the points Chris Winkle commented on:

  • English version: “The fifty or so teenagers in line outside the Pandemonium Club leaned forward to eavesdrop.”
  • Finnish version: “The fifty or so teenagers in line outside the Pandemonium Club stretched their necks trying to eavesdrop.”

Stretching one’s neck trying to eavesdrop seems a bit more feasible for even fifty persons in line, than leaning forward. In fact I can vividly imagine this scene in my mind.

  • English version: “The kid hoisted the thing up over his head.”
  • Finnish version: “The boy lifted the thing up over his head.”

As hoist implies a heavy object being raised, lifting has nothing to do with the weight of the object – it can be either light or heavy.

  • English version: “The bouncer shrugged, abruptly bored.”
  • Finnish version: “Suddenly the bouncer shrugged in a bored fashion.”

In the Finnish version the boredom is clearly a description of the visible action of shrugging and doesn’t require any knowledge of the thoughts of the bouncer, hence no change of point of view.

  • English version: “She was beautiful, for a human—long hair nearly the precise color of black ink,”
  • Finnish version: “She was beautiful, for a human – long hair almost pitch black,”

Here the translator has gone for the basics and it works wonderfully.

Translator = Editor?

A translator can have a major impact on a book. A well done translation can enhance a story and  – of course – a poorly done can make a grave disservice to it. Even so, a translator is not an editor. Things that cannot be fixed with word choice or sentence structure are beyond translator’s powers. Anyway, a book should be as good as it gets before it ends up in translator’s hands?




“When fifteen-year-old Clary Fray heads out to the Pandemonium Club in New York City, she hardly expects to witness a murder — much less a murder committed by three teenagers covered with strange tattoos and brandishing bizarre weapons. Clary knows she should call the police, but it’s hard to explain a murder when the body disappears into thin air and the murderers are invisible to everyone but Clary.

Equally startled by her ability to see them, the murderers explain themselves as Shadowhunters: a secret tribe of warriors dedicated to ridding the earth of demons. Within twenty-four hours, Clary’s mother disappears and Clary herself is almost killed by a grotesque demon.

But why would demons be interested in ordinary mundanes like Clary and her mother? And how did Clary suddenly get the Sight? The Shadowhunters would like to know….”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *