Having finished reading Yu Hua's novel, Brothers, yesterday it was luck to find a review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review: why? Because while I liked parts of Brothers, something was off about the reading experience. It wasn't bad by any stretch, but it didn't read like me the big hit it was in China.
Jess Row, who reviewed Hua's novel in the Times, described what I believe is the key problem:
... reading “Brothers” in English can be a daunting, sometimes vexing and deeply confusing experience. Partly this has to do with the difficulty of finding an English equivalent for Yu Hua’s extremely direct and graphic Chinese. In the first chapters of the novel, when one of the principal characters, Baldy Li, is caught peeking at women in a public latrine, Chow and Rojas do a heroic job of trying to capture the parallel English words for a woman’s behind — “butt,” “bottom,” “buttocks,” “backside” — but it’s hard not to suspect that we’re missing some of the pathos and humor of the situation in the gap between those expressions and the original.On a similar note, Andre Alexis, in the Globe and Mail, provided a post-script for his review of Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones that discussed that novel's translation. He determined that "As might be expected, it's a different novel in French: colder, more precise, coming from another time and place."
This all leads to the question: is there a point of reading a translation? It'd be ridiculous to create a rule to never read them just as it would be naive to believe that the original text can ever be reproduced perfectly into another language.