Translation is a powerful teaching tool

When reading literature in translation, many of my students are surprised to learn that the humanities are at a disadvantage compared with the sciences. A mathematical formula from Pythagoras or Euclid is fundamentally the same in any language because those symbols are universal, but the words of a literary artist can never be a straightforward conversion.

The best translations of literature are insightful and eloquent recreations and interpretations. But even the most gifted and redoubtable translators only give us what literary critic Cyril Connolly in The Condemned Playground called “illusions of likeness”. In spite of the beauty that might be achieved, it is obvious that all literature unavoidably loses something of the original in translation.

I do not mean to deny the importance of translated books, nor to disparage the translators themselves. Without the results of their dedication and talent, we would lose a rich literary and cultural heritage. “Without translation,” said George Steiner in Errata: An Examined Life, “we would inhabit parishes bordering on silence.”

I initially became aware of the distinction between originals and translations on a trip to Milan as an undergraduate in 1967. My English-speaking driver asked if I had read Dante. “Yes,” I said. “I love The Divine Comedy.” But when I admitted with some embarrassment that, like most contemporary readers, I had read it only in translation, my driver said, “Well, then, you don’t know Dante.”

Until that moment, I had never had any great sense that I was missing something important by being unable to read so much of the world’s literature in the original. Nor could I recall any of my teachers ever discussing this problem in class. It was almost as if the books we were reading had been first written in English.

“What would be the point of worrying about this?” a sceptic might say. “Isn’t it enough that students have access to challenging works that they might otherwise never read? Why lament what is missing?”

But to ignore the complexities and significance of the translation process, or to deny its effects on the English text we read, is falling short of the goals of higher education: to broaden perspectives and invite deeper enquiry.

So each semester I guide my students as we immerse ourselves in the English versions of some of the greatest international literature, from Homer’s Iliad, Sophocles’ Antigone and, of course, The Divine Comedy to Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal and Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich – also taking in the most translated books of all, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

Along with relishing each work for its content, style and characters, we delve into what’s known about the author’s formative experiences and history, and study the culture in which the work is set. We don’t stop there, however. We also look at the life of the translator, who for too long has been ignored, if not forgotten, in the classroom.

We start with an evaluation of each translator’s credibility. While reading Constance Garnett’s rendering of The Death of Ivan Ilyich, for example, my students dip into her grandson Richard Garnett’s biography, Constance Garnett: A Heroic Life, as well as other studies of her life and work, and learn about some of the frustrations she faced as she tried to capture the diction, syntax, idioms, repetitions and implied and covert meanings of the characters’ vocabulary in the many-layered original.

Imagine the students’ surprise when they discover that the Russian word toska, translated by Garnett as “melancholy”, also means “yearning, boredom, spiritual anguish, sweet sadness”. Or that the word rodnoi, translated as “mine”, means “all that is dear to me, familiar, my own”. Or that a single Russian syllable means: “What did he have to do that for?” Students come to understand that studying translations is an extreme form of close reading.

They also discover that Garnett was not a neophyte: she had read Classics at Newnham College, Cambridge, studied the Russian language, met Tolstoy himself in 1894 during a three-month trip to his homeland and, in spite of ill health and poor eyesight, translated 70 volumes of 19th-century prose, including works by Dostoevsky and Chekhov.

I also ask students to read and think about the critics of Garnett, who complained that her knowledge of Russian was flawed, that she had distorted the original text of The Death of Ivan Ilyich by improvising or leaving out words and phrases she did not understand, and that she had sacrificed the idiosyncrasies of Tolstoy’s style for a graceful late-Victorian and Edwardian prose.

Students then write a “what if?” essay, in which they try to imagine what our literary world would be like if Garnett had never existed. Would Tolstoy’s works be perceived differently by an anglophone audience if they had been reliant on the efforts of other Russian translators such as Louise and Aylmer Maude? This critical question opens their minds to the immense variety and power of other languages.

A second approach is to compare a portion of the translation at hand with parallel passages from other renderings, plus the original, and then discuss to what degree scholars have remained faithful to the latter. Armed with an interlinear version of the Hebrew Bible, for example, one of my favourite exercises focuses on Genesis ii,18, which talks about the creation of Eve.

In the original text, we learn that God says He will make for man an ‘ezer (meaning “helper”, or “to rescue and save”, or “strength”) kenegdo (meaning “suitable”) – which, taken together, literally means, “an aid alongside him”, “a suitable helper”, “the complement of one’s exact counterpart” or, most interestingly, “a helper opposed to him”.

But when my students consider various English translations of this passage, they find small surprises in nuance and word order such as “a help like unto himself” (the Douay Bible), “a help meet for him” (King James Bible), “a helper fit for him” (Revised Standard Version) and “a helper suitable for him” (New International Version) – all of which have been wrongly understood by some commentators to denote Eve’s subordination or inferiority. Missing here is the connotative power of ‘ezer – the idea of saving or protecting – that is implicit in the word “aid” and that beautifully portrays woman as protector of the man’s heart (perhaps ironically, since Eve’s temptation led to the Fall of Man, the pair’s expulsion from Eden and the doctrine of original sin).

Missing, too, is the Hebrew understanding elucidated in the oral Torah, or Talmud, that a wife is supposed to be a support when her husband is on the right path – and to be in opposition to him when he is in the wrong. ‘Ezer is never used in the Hebrew Bible to mean a subordinate, but only a superior or an equal.

Some of my students’ most illuminating essays result from such a comparative study, calling upon their familiarity with Hebrew and asking of the English translations: “What is going on here? Might this imply the bias of the translator, unfamiliarity with the ancient language, a mistake, or something else?”

The principle is clear: the more translations we read of any work, the more likely we are to find numerous rewarding (or misleading) passages that are open to interpretation. To be sure, any translation reflects the time in which it was produced – and interpreted.

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