The Advanced Language Class as Translation Workshop

By Jason Grunebaum

A wonderful, and perhaps underappreciated, way to bring international literature into the classroom is through transforming advanced language classes into translation workshops. While language classes might seem an obvious home for news from afar, some people associate translation in language classes with a very old-fashioned approach—images conjured of Latin and Greek learned by musty old rote. But the workshop approach has many advantages, including facilitating a deep study of a foreign language, and introducing additional language and culture territory for students to navigate.

I’ll start with language pedagogy: it’s often said that translation is the closest reading you can do of a text. Students might think they know what a sentence says in the original language, and can confidently disassemble the grammar. But when forced to recontextualize the sentence into another language, sometimes all, if not at least a few, bets are off. Literary translation helps students more deeply interrogate what they know, and what they think they know, about a language—and this can disorient them in positive, productive ways.

This process not only helps students pick up advanced, subtle grammar, idiomatic language, and nonstandard usages in the original, but also forces them to think just as deeply about parallel issues in English. They begin to learn the process of making choices when confronted with specific translation challenges, which is the actual process of translation, and move beyond an unhelpful dichotomy of a translation as either literal or loose, loyal or disloyal.

Students have then to move beyond the classroom and think about the question of audience. Who is going to read their translations? Who should read them, and why does the question of audience matter? Will readers be specialists in the field, possibly academics, who could be expected to know enough of the cultural context of the original? Or are they aiming for a general literary readership that wouldn’t be expected to have that level of familiarity with the culture? And, in the case of Hindi—the language I teach—or other modern South Asian languages being translated into English, there’s another level of discussion about audience that translators from, say, European languages don’t generally have to worry about. The English spoken by some 250 million South Asians can be different in meaningful ways from the North American, UK, and other Englishes. Not only that, but South Asian English readers can be expected to understand many cultural references and nuances that other readers might not pick up on. This raises new questions: Why would one choose to translate into one English idiom rather than another? Are there pitfalls in choosing one over another? Is there something in the original that creates an imperative to translate in English rather than another? What should one consider when choosing an English? And is anyone allowed to write in any English?

I begin to introduce literary translation in intermediate Hindi, when students graduate to actual literature, by assigning short translation assignments. I also use comparative translations as a way to break the ice: we examine eight different translations of the Saadat Hasan Manto story “Toba Tek Singh,” to show that there’s not necessarily one right or wrong approach to matters both large and small. And that sometimes, even seasoned, published translators get things wrong, or make silly mistakes, or make “changes” to the original, for better or worse, that most language students still with training wheels wouldn’t dare do. This exercise helps give students license to find their own way as translators, to take risks, and to show they themselves might even be able do a better job. Comparative translations open up wonderful discussions about the work of literature in the original language and in English; I think that any literature or language instructor who has used them in the classroom has had a very positive experience. In my class, after they start talking and translating, the hope is they’ll get hooked.

I continue in advanced Hindi, and like to use one text—a novel or novella—and structure it like a writing workshop: students hand in their parts a week ahead of time, and then we critique them during class. Hopefully, by the end of the term, we’ll have a complete translated text rendered in a variety of carefully considered voices. In “traditional” translation workshops, where students are translating from a variety of languages, every student doesn’t have access to the original. In this class, though, everyone can read the original, and so we can roll up our sleeves and delve deeply into questions of grammar and meaning. But then the real discussion begins about what can be brought over, and how to do it.

Translation is about enlarging the conversation of literature. Raising these questions, from translation problems and choices to audience, brings students into this conversation as real interlocutors with big responsibilities. Hopefully, they will also engage as participants and regard with wonder the possibilities of this intersection of writing, scholarship, and language study.


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