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Paying Attention to the Translators of Great Literature

Think back to your undergraduate literature classes. When you read Dante or Tolstoy, did the professor lead any discussions about the translator and his or her translations? Probably not. The common practice is to analyze the book without reserving time to discuss the translator or talk about the various translations in circulation and how they differ from one another. But when reading a book in translation, it is important to remember that you are not reading an original text.

Citrus College Professor Dale Salwak recently wrote an article for in which he stresses the importance of reading translated texts in the context of their translator in order to fully understand the work.

Translated literature in higher education

Mathematicians often call math a language. You and I may not be able to understand it, but math is a universal language amongst those in the field. Mathematicians from the U.S. to India to Italy can communicate clearly.

Undergraduate institutes tend to treat translated literature like math, as if there is no possibility that work could get lost in translation. Salwak sees classes being taught “almost as if the books we were reading had been first written in English.”

But translations are not so straightforward. The best translations are “insightful and eloquent recreations and interpretations.” Translations in themselves are a piece of literature that reflect the translator as much as the original author.

The nuances of written languages

In any language, one word can have several meanings and interpretations. Professor Salwak looks at the Russian word, “toska,”  which Russian translator Constance Garnett translates as “melancholy” in The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy. But look that word up in the dictionary and you will see that the same word can also mean “yearning, boredom, spiritual anguish, sweet sadness.” Why did Garnett go with “melancholy?” She interpreted that as the best choice.

Language is also a representation of culture. In Russian, the subject does not come first in a sentence. Rather than saying, “I like Pizza,” as we would in the United States, A Russian would say: “the pizza is pleasing to me.” In the Sates, we value individualism and the subject comes first. In the language of the former Soviet Union, the noun goes in front of the subject. Understanding the construction of a foreign language and how it differs from our own is part of understanding the culture in which a book was first written.

The way we should treat translated literature

It is crucial to take the translator into consideration when analyzing a text because “any translation reflects the time in which it was produced – and interpreted,” just as the original work itself is a product of a certain time and place.

The students in an American undergraduate college will interpret Tolstoy or Dante based on their own culture and upbringing. To fully appreciate a work of literature, it is necessary to understand the context in which it was written. The same must be done with the translator. Why did he or she choose a particular word? What is it meant to evoke? When this work was translated, did a particular word have the same meaning it does today?

Mr. Salwak also suggests taking a look at several translations of the same chapter and paying attention to how each version affects the reader the differently.

Thank Goodness for translators of literature. If not for them, the great works from Dante to Tolstoy would be limited to those fortunate enough to know the language in which the authors wrote. That being said, no translation is exactly what the original author intended. Get to know both the author and the translator, and you’ll find deeper meaning in your favorite foreign literature.

Here at Teck Language Solutions Inc., we value the nuances of translations. Contact us to learn more about our services.

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