Learning with Literary Translations

If “literary translation is almost as ancient as literature itself” it is probably true that the issue of  “the impossibility of exact fidelity” (Drabble) was born within the same period and artfully expressed by the Italian phrase “traduttore traditore”.
For many teachers the idea that “there is no literature in translation” means that the indirect approach to literature, which is the translated work, should never be regarded as a genuine perception of the original. They may be right but, what is also true is that but for translations, there would be no literature either. In this article, however, I will focus on the role of literary translations for both the study of literature and the learning of language.

At one time or another, any learner of a foreign language tries this personal interaction with a text, establishing a transaction between two languages which finally affirms the interpreter’s own identity. But, apart from the self-expression process and its product, there are many other implications of exploring literature through the work and art of translation.

In “The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory”, the art of literary interpretation is devided into three “basic kinds” which are then  revealed to the readers.The first kind of translations is “a more or less literally exact rendering of the original meaning at the expense of the syntax, grammar, colloquialism and idiom of the language into which it is put”, the second is “an attempt to convey the spirit, sense and style of the original by finding equivalents in syntax, gammar and idiom” and, the third type involves “a fairly free adaptation which retains the original spirit but may considerably alter style, structure, grammar and idiom.”

Indeed, much of the difficulty of translating a text from or into another language resides in the differences in syntax and morphology (which make translation at the level of word impossible) and the use of idioms, specific phrases, expressions and proverbs (which require knowledge of their equivalents in the target language).

There are many steps to be planned and taken before attempting to demand from the students such a difficult task as a (literary) translation:
“the pupils have to be trained to isolate the unknown lexical units or words, to trace them back to their root-forms, then re-place them again in the context in order to grasp the meaning of whole sentences. One of the problems with this kind of work is to select out of the various meanings given by dictionaries the most suitable for the given context.”

Sometimes, literary translations introduce the students to language which is archaic, dialectal or regional and if the teachers have tried hard and managed “ to convince students of English as a foreign language that texts in English can be understood even though there are vocabulary items and structures the student has never seen before”,  when faced with the task of translating new words or language which is above the students’ level of understanding they may become demotivated and confused.

What is more, in order to perform a literary translation, one needs a certain level of competence in the target language as well as background information about the historical, cultural and social contexts of that literary work or fragment. Usually, students find literary translation a challenging method of learning as it enriches their vocabulary and requires attention, reflection, interpretation skills and student-student collaboration. The final product, being so elaborated and polished, is very rewarding, contributing to their self-esteem and learning motivation.

In a book entitled simply “Translation”, Alan Duff asserts that “translation develops three qualities essential to all language learning: flexibility , accuracy and clarity. It trains the learner to search (flexibility) for the most appropriate words (accuracy) to convey what is meant (clarity).”

With so much to accomplish for the students during this activity, one may wonder about the other responsibilities of the language teacher. The teacher can perform many roles during this type of activity from facilitator and resource to tutor, assessor and even prompter. But, as long as they will provide the students with all the vocabulary they need for a certain translation, the young learners will never become autonomous and confident interpreters. Instead, the teacher should integrate dictionary skills into the English literature classroom, teach the students to handle the specific tools for translation as “training the technique of using dictionaries is very important and signals the transition to the pupils’ independent work.”

However, when it comes to selecting the best resource, it is important to remember the monolingual dictionaries as “they do not suffer from the same limitations as bilingual dictionaries do.”
Students learn grammar and vocabulary from the novels they read and they need grammar and vocabulary to read novels in the original.

And, “if language structures make up the skeleton of language, then it is vocabulary that provides the vital organs and the flesh.”  Assuming the same metaphorical expression, we could say that the atmosphere, the moral values and the attitudes of a text are its “soul” the translation of which is probably the most difficult.

Finally, what students should understand is that a literary translation is not about expressing a certain amount of written information in another language. It is about accomodating the original style of a cultural product, about  processing its aesthetic, ideological and linguistic individuality in a personal and (why not) creative way without altering its essence and its messages. As far as the students’ benefits are concerned, if these basic principles are taken seriously, their transactions of meaning will improve their critical thinking skills, their vocabulary and also their creativity.

Let’s consider the following fragment from “Jane Eyre” where the main character is preparing for the wedding: “ While arranging my hair, I looked at my face in the glass, and felt it was no longer plain: there was hope in its aspect and life in its colour; and my eyes seemed as if they had beheld the fount of fruition, and borrowed beams from the lustrous ripple. I had often been unwilling to look at my master, because I feared he could not be pleased at my look; but I was sure I might lift my face to his now,  and not cool his affection by its expression. I took a plain but clean and light summer dress from my drawer and put it on: it seemed no attire had ever so well become me, because none had I ever worn in so blissful a mood.”

This is how the fragment may be translated into Romanian:

“În timp ce mă pieptănam, mi-am privit chipul în oglindă şi am avut sentimentul că nu mai era şters: exista multă speranţă  în trăsăturile chipului meu şi poftă de viaţă în culoarea obrajilor; ochii mei păreau să privească într o fântână a bucuriei de unde împrumutau bucuria undelor ei strălucitoare. De multe ori evitasem să-mi privesc stăpânul, deoarece mi-era teamă să nu-l deranjeze prezenţa mea; astăzi puteam să-mi ridic privirea spre el fără să mă tem că chipul meu i-ar putea răci afecţiunea. Din sertar, am scos o rochie de vară simplă, dar curată, de culoare deschisă pe care am îmbrăcat-o: niciodată o rochie nu-mi venise mai bine, pentru că niciodată nu fusesem atât de fericită.”

BRONTË, CHARLOTTE, “Jane Eyre”, Penguin Popular Classics,1994;
Cuddon, J. A., „The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory” ,1998;
Drabble, M., „The Oxford  Companion to English Literature”, Oxford University Press, 2000;
Duff, A.,”Translation”, Oxford  University Press, Oxford,1989;
Harmer, J., „The Practice of English Language Teaching”, Longman Group Limited, 1991;
Semlyén, E. and Filimon, D., „An English Teaching Methodology Handbook”, Editura Didactică și Pedagogică, București,1973;


prof. Claudia-Emilia Frînculeasă

Liceul Teoretic Radu Vlădescu, Patârlagele (Buzău) , România
Profil iTeach: iteach.ro/profesor/claudia.frinculeasa

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