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“Seeing” Translation

Open palm with a wooden image of an eye and the word “Yes.” Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash.

With International Translation Day coming up on September 30th, we’re revisiting this roundup of resources on teaching translated literature. Read on for a list of articles, interviews, and activities to get your students thinking about translation! —Eds.

There is one thing almost all the literature on this site has in common: it has been translated into English from another language.

How is translated literature different from literature that has not been translated, and how should we approach reading and teaching literature in translation? Translators and educators are developing exciting new ways of answering these questions.

In the spirit of making translation visible in the classroom, we are highlighting resources from WWB Campus to help students learn to better read and think about literature in translation, understand the process of translation, and undertake their own translations.


On reading translated literature: Translation theorist Lawrence Venuti’s “How to Read a Translation,” published in Words Without Borders (WWB), lays out five principles:

  1. Pay attention to meaning and language when you read.
  2. Be prepared for translations to be written in unfamiliar and non-standard dialects.
  3. Pay close attention to connotations and cultural references.
  4. Always read introductory essays and notes from translators, which will help you understand how they interpreted and approached the literature.
  5. Remember that a single translation doesn’t represent an entire body of literature; read other works translated from the same language and compare them.

On translating: Translators Samah Selim, (Miral Al-Tahawy’s “The Guest“), Chip Rossetti (translator and writer of the Egypt unit introduction), and Humphrey Davies (“Two Million People in The Square”) have all written posts describing their rules for translation on the site ArabLit: Selim’s rules, Rossetti’s rules, Davies’s rules.

The magazine WWB also published translators’ essays in a series called “From the Translator.”

Activities for Teaching Translation

  • Any piece of literature could be translated in a variety of ways, and reading different translations of the same work can help students understand the nuances of translation. In the essay excerpt, “Translating a Peony,” translator Ilya Kaminsky shows five different translations of one line of poetry. Along similar lines, the second teaching idea for “Poems for Parting” outlines how to use multiple translations to help students understand the nuances of Tang poetry. (Find it under the “Teaching Ideas” tab to the right of the poem.)
  • A valuable question to ask about translation is whether it is ever possible to truly and fully understand another culture. In the short story “The Last Picture Show,” a Japanese teenager and a yakuza (or gangster) wander into a screening of the American film The Last Picture Show and are forever changed. The fourth teaching idea for that story, “Connecting Through Culture,” asks students to think about how much we can understand and connect with those different from ourselves, and the limitations of translation.
  • Some words have culturally specific meanings that present particular challenges to translators. In “My Madre, Pure as Cumulous Clouds,” a linguist explores the cultural significance of the word madre in Mexico. The second teaching idea for the essay, “Investigating a Word,” walks students through the process of better understanding the cultural connotation of words.

The Translation Process

Translation is a collaborative and communicative process, with many drafts and correspondences traveling between authors, translators and editors. WWB and WWB Campus have several examples from “behind the scenes” of the translation process, and we hope to share more in the future.

If you teach students who speak languages other than English, you might also invite them to share their experiences of the translating between languages; for example, while assisting family members. (Speak to students privately beforehand to check whether they would be comfortable with this.) What is challenging to translate, and what is relatively easy? How does it feel to move between languages?

Translator’s Notes and Thoughts

As Lawrence Venuti recommends, reading translators’ notes contributes to a deeper understanding of the work. Below, you will find notes relating to several pieces on WWB Campus.

Interviews with Translators

Translators’ own stories and experiences can inform their ideas about literature. Here are some interviews with translators about their lives and their experiences in their careers. Links to these interviews can all also be found in the Context and Playlist tabs of their respective stories.

  • In this WWB Campus video interview with translator Allison Markin Powell (“Sentimental Education“), she describes how she became interested in Japanese culture and some of the challenges of putting Japanese texts into English.
  • In another WWB Campus video, translator Wenguang Huang (“Prison Memoirs“) describes taking part in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, some of which were led by the memoir’s author, Wang Dan. (Huang is also the author of his own memoir.)
  • Motoyuki Shibata’s essay “Walking the Keihin Factory Belt with Stuart Dybek” is an interesting creative depiction of the connection between a writer and translator. Shibata is a well-known translator of English-language literature into Japanese, and discusses his work in an interview with the magazine Asymptote.
  • Khaled Mattawa, the translator of Iman Mersal’s poems (“Things Elude Me,” “Amina,” “Sometimes Wisdom Possesses Me”) talks about his experience as a translator and the ways in which translation informs his personal and political identity.

    Khaled Mattawa also describes the importance of translation in opening up access to different cultures.

  • Ginny Tapley Takemori translated much of the Japanese literature on WWB Campus (“Kiso Wayfarer,” “When My Wife Was a Shiitake,” “Compos Mentis,” “The Farside”). She discussed her background as a translator in an interview with the Japan Chapter of Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

We at WWB Campus hope to continue providing ideas and resources for teaching literature in translation. To do that, we would love to hear from you. How do you teach translation in your classes? Which resources and tools do you use? Let us know!