Stealth Methods: Teaching Translation

By B.J. Epstein

I admit it: I’m sneaky when it comes to international literature. I try to sneak translated texts and even just the awareness of language and translation into all of my classes. And why not? Literature comes from all over the world, and if we’re trying to produce well-educated students, it behooves us to make sure they are aware of that.

I’m lucky in one sense, in that I’m based in a department that is firmly titled literature, rather than being called English, and this reveals my colleagues’ willingness to look beyond the Anglophile world in order to find appropriate texts for our classes. But on the other hand, I’m unlucky, because despite the name and despite the fact that the British Centre for Literary Translation is housed in our department, our students often don’t seem to have gotten the message.

Our students regularly talk about the fact that they’re working toward a degree in “English” or, even more specifically, “English literature,” by which they generally mean “British literature.” The examples students offer in class are almost always only from English-language texts. The books they call their favorites are most often from the UK (and they’re usually contemporary, too, as if the history of literature just started a few years ago). So the problem then is: how can we make these bright young people realize that literature is much broader than English? How can we bring intercultural and interlinguistic consciousness to the classroom?

This is not such an easy task. Hence I use stealth methods. I have three main techniques that I deploy over the course of the semester in order to raise awareness and to get students to broaden their definition of literature beyond their Anglophile borders.

First, I might put a book on the syllabus that references issues of communication and language. A great example is Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which we study a month into the comics and graphic novels class that a colleague and I co-developed. In class, we discuss why Art’s father, Vladek, speaks with an accent in the modern-day scenes and not in the ones that take place before and during the war. Rather surprisingly, some students don’t seem to have picked up on this, or they don’t have an explanation. Those that have noticed might say that the earlier scenes take place in the Czech Republic (they don’t, but at least the students are getting closer). Others might suggest that Vladek’s native tongue is Hebrew (also not true). This confusion allows my colleague and me to give the students information about World War II, and this includes the linguistic and cultural history of Europe generally and Jews specifically. Who spoke which language and where? How fluid were the borders at that time? How do you define a people if they don’t all even speak the same tongue? Armed with a better understanding of the time period and the languages used by different groups of people, the students then are able to analyze the book in more detail. They can understand why Vladek speaks the way he does, what language represents in the text, and how Art is “translating” Vladek’s experiences, in terms of both words and images. I also give the students an essay to read at home about how Maus has been translated into different languages. How do you translate the language differences Spiegelman portrays? And what about cultural issues? For example, Poles, understandably, object to Spiegelman’s depiction of them as pigs. Why should they translate this text to Polish? In other words, by interrogating the linguistic and cultural context of a book, and then discussing what this might mean when it comes to transferring the work to another language, the students begin to understand issues far beyond, albeit influenced by, the plot.

In the next stage of my stealth approach, I talk about my own experiences as a translator and a researcher and what I have thereby learned about literature. I also relate this to the texts we’re reading in class. For example, my children’s literature course spends a week exploring Lewis Carroll’s two Alice books. We discuss some of Carroll’s interesting linguistic features (Pat’s Irish dialect, for instance, or the complicated wordplay) and why they appear in the books. Then I can tell the students about how part of my PhD dissertation looked at Carroll’s work and how it was translated into Swedish (I later analyzed the Norwegian and Danish translations too), and the students are often intrigued to learn about the Swedish translator who “Swedified” the books by renaming characters Ulla and Maj-Britt, and by replacing the mad tea party with a boring afternoon coffee get-together. Other translators removed the puns, or translated them but added footnotes explaining why the jokes were funny (I’d argue that if you have to explain a joke, it isn’t a successful joke). We then discuss what these puns or other linguistic or figurative elements add to a work and why translators might make the choices they do. I refer to my own experience and explain how difficult translation is (wordplay has to be one of the hardest aspects of a text to translate), and the students generally seem fascinated to learn about the various tools and strategies translators have at their disposal. Similarly, in my queer literature and theory class, I can talk about strategies translators might employ to highlight or, on the contrary, downplay the queerness of a text. A case study I offer is the Swedish translation of Julie Burchill’s Sugar Rush, where the lesbian and polyamorous elements have been  toned down a lot; finding out about this often shocks and angers the students. This leads us neatly into an exploration of the way our culture and ideology influences us in every sphere of our lives, and we discuss whether translators of queer texts ought to be queer themselves, or at least should have some knowledge of queer issues.

I also show my students translation in action. In my children’s literature course, we read several books aloud every week. Some weeks, I bring in a Swedish picture book to share with the students, and I translate as I read. This not only introduces students to foreign texts they wouldn’t otherwise get access to but it also gives them a glimpse into the translation process, especially when I forget what a word might be in English or struggle to explain a cultural element.  We then discuss the publishing industry and who decides which books to translate for which markets and how they make those decisions.

Finally, I bring out the big guns: a translated text. Sometimes I start small. In my children’s literature course, for example, I bring in a number of different translations of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Princess and the Pea (translated from Danish to English, Swedish, Spanish, and German), and we analyze the differences and the similarities in the translations. Six translations of this one short story to English have six different beginnings. Some have the princess lying on one pea, some on three. Some emphasize the word “proper” (“she was a proper princess”) while others use “real” or a variety of different terms. Why? What’s going on here? Even though it’s rare that students can read the original Danish, they can look for familiar words in the original text and discuss what those words mean, and they can consider why translators might make the choices they do and how that affects the reader. In my queer literature class, we look at Linda De Haan and Stern Nijland’s King and King, and I remind the students that this book is a translation from Dutch (even though, shamefully, the publisher fails to mention that in the book). Not only do we talk about the story itself, but we also discuss how the book was accused of being “gay propaganda” in the United States and was the subject of a lawsuit, while it had neither of those effects in its native Netherlands. Again, the role that culture plays in how a text gets translated, or even whether it is translated, and how the book is received is a large topic that students begin to get very engaged in. Once they have learned to think about such issues in regard to literature, we also discuss translation in terms of the theoretical texts we look at; many students are surprised to learn that Derrida, Foucault, Freud, Walter Benjamin, Luce Irigaray, and a number of other scholars whose works they read as undergraduates did not in fact write in English. Why was Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex translated so differently at different points in history and by different translators? What does that tell us about the work? Can we trust the version we are using in class? By discussing translation, students can better interrogate what is at stake in the production of a text.

By the end of the semester, I find that my students have become curious about translation, by which I mean both the process of translation itself and also translated books. They start looking for the translator’s name (and including it in their bibliographies), and they question what might have influenced the translation. They also begin actively seeking out translated literature to read, and sometimes they even go so far as to write their essays on matters of translation.

While the first day of a new semester can be dispiriting, as one student after another tells me they don’t know any other languages and certainly don’t read translations, things rapidly improve. They expand their understanding of literature from English to global, and they show interest and enthusiasm for an area they previously knew little about. And all it takes is one sneaky step at a time.


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