Working with translations

by Hannah Fattor, writing advisor

I can’t speak any other language besides English very well.  I’ve tried with Spanish, Gaelic, Greek, and Latin (to name a few) but I just don’t have the mind for memorization, unfortunately.  I’ll never hold a conversation in French, but I do like to learn about different cultures, and one way I do this is by reading novels, poems, traditional stories, or plays that have been translated.  I’ve written quite a few papers on translated plays, and I find that there are some very important ways to think about translated texts that help me gain a deeper understanding of a foreign society and its culture.

  • Find an edition with footnotes, endnotes, any kind of notes.  Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita makes ten times more sense when you can check in the back and find out why someone’s name is funny, or what in the author’s life prompted him to write about foreign currency so much.  Aristophanes’ plays are ten times more hilarious when you know why jokes were so dirty in the original Greek.  Foreign works may allude to events that are unfamiliar to an outside audience, and learning about those events through literature often reveals why they were important to a culture.  Finding a good translation that includes the translator’s notes is incredibly helpful in understanding comedy in particular and linguistic nuance in general.
  • Learn about the culture!  Take the time to explore how a culture understands the themes that a novel or poem or play discusses.  Learn a bit about writing styles and conventions.  There are linguistic guides out there that discuss sentence structures and influences.  If you’re reading a landmark work in a society’s literary history, find out what influences it had and watch out for those!  The Persian epic, the Shahnameh, was incredibly influential to the literature of the Middle East, and it still defines a great deal of Iranian cultural identity.  It is celebrated today in Iran, parts of Afghanistan and Tajikistan, and other Persian-influenced regions.  It could be helpful to find a list of major themes that still appear in modern writings from that society, or how modern audiences relate to the ancient text.
  • Look at the critical response.  Clearly, the work was popular enough to translate, but what did critics within its home culture think of it?  Why do you think it was translated?  An interesting option, if the work is fairly old, is to look up what scholars think of various translations, and why one is considered particularly good over another one.  Translations can be tailored to serve a particular purpose, too; either they stick closely to the actual language they were written in, or they may incorporate more familiar sentence structures and language more idiomatic and connotative to the language they were translated into.  If you don’t understand an idiom or think that word choice is strange, try looking up translation notes or go looking for a glossary.
  • (For poems, epics, and plays) Research how it was originally presented.  Format is often incredibly important in poetry.  Learning about the style in which a poem was written can lead to a deeper understanding of how the poem was intended to convey its message.  Why would someone pick the haiku form over the tanka form in Japanese poetry?  In some poetry, syllabic conventions were very important to the cadence.  Ancient Greek epic poetry (like Homer’s The Odyssey) and Old English works (like Beowulf) relied on particular rhythms.  These same rhythms were important to Ancient Greek plays, and French dramas had strict rhyming patterns.  On a completely different level, look up the style in which a play would have been performed.  Japanese Noh theatre has a specific performance style that would be unusual for a Western audience to see, but it would be completely recognizable to a native audience.  Look into what in particular would be expected.  This can also show you where modern plays deviate from established norms.  There have been various movements in British theatre—a movement away from stylization to more natural acting styles, for example—but the same holds true around the world.  Indian dramas have changed through the centuries, still relying on some traditional elements but also utilizing new techniques.  Think about spectacle when it comes to plays, and remember that there may be new conventions to discover about another culture.

Working with translations is hard work, particularly if, like me, you don’t speak other languages.  Even so, it’s a great way to learn about a new culture, see a new perspective on the world, and understand how our own art could appear to an outside audience.