Tracing prismatic rays of translation

This post is an extract from a longer post on the Creative Multilingualism blog. Matthew Reynolds, Professor of English and Comparative Literature, is leading a research project on ‘Prismatic Translation’. Here he reflects on translation as a creative and diverse activity.

In a poetry workshop, a 9-year old child thinks of a word. She writes it: ‘oguek’. When she begins to explain what it means to her, the sentences form the beginning of a poem :

‘My dad always calls me that,
and it tastes like sweet, sweet
yoghurt.
The colour that it brings
is green, and when my dad says it
it makes me laugh …’

You won’t find the word ‘oguek’ in a dictionary. The writer of these lines, who signs herself only ‘Maja’, observes that ‘in Polish / You say it Ogurk’; the standard spelling Polish spelling and standard English translation are ‘ogórek’ and ‘cucumber’. Nonetheless, what’s happening here cannot be defined as ‘a mistake’. Maja is not trying to write anything that might count as ‘correct standard Polish’; instead, she is putting across the particular form, sound and meanings of this word, ‘oguek’, from the idiom which she uses with her parents. In doing so, she reveals a general truth about language: everyone speaks differently, and writes differently again; and all the many words in their shifting forms take on different meanings in different situations.

Photo by Ananth Pai on Unsplash

The Prismatic Translation project responds to this diversity, and thinks it through. For us, translation is not a matter of trying to achieve correct alignments between standardised languages, but rather a creative re-making of one particular instance of language into another particular instance, using different linguistic resources.

[…]

The same principles of the variety of language use and the creativity of translation extend to classic literature. Take Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, which is the main research focus of our project. It has been massively translated worldwide: so far, we have identified 508 editions of translations, including three into Armenian and 30 into Farsi. In all these moments and locations it has been responded to and re-written in different ways. In Russia, Dostoyevsky read the book in prison. In Latin American Spanish it channelled feminist cultural awareness. In Japan, in the mid- to late-twentieth century, the moment when Jane encounters Rochester and he falls off his horse spawned a myriad imitations in manga and anime narratives.

This proliferation cannot be understood as a matter of translators trying and failing to achieve ‘the same meaning’ through translation. Rather, they remake the text in ways that put the categories of sameness and difference in question. This happens even at the level of individual words. Take ‘passion’: it is a key term in Jane Eyre’s mental drama (where it conflicts with ‘conscience’ or ‘judgement’); it is a matter of love and desire, of course, but also of sensitivity, suffering and rage; together with ‘passionate’ it recurs 49 times throughout the book. To adopt a phrase coined by the literary critic William Empson, it is a ‘complex word’.

Photo by Malcolm Lightbody on Unsplash

In other languages, comparable words don’t cover the same range, so different ways of making meaning have to be found. Near the start of the book, Mrs Reed’s maid Bessie chides the young Jane not to be ‘passionate and rude’. In Greek, one translator puts αφηνιάζεις for ‘passionate’: it can be back-translated as something like ‘go crazy’. Another gives ‘θυμώνεις’ which is more like ‘get angry’. In Portuguese, we find ‘se tens mau génio’ (something like ‘bad-tempered’), or ‘exaltada’, (‘enraged’), or ‘impulsiva’ (‘impulsive’). (I am indebted to Dr Eleni Philippou, our postdoctoral researcher, and Dr Ana Teresa Dos Santos, one of our research consultants, for these examples). Ever more variations occur in other languages.

Just as with ‘oguek’, there is no point in calling these translations ‘failures’ or ‘mistakes’. Rather, they remake what Bessie says using different linguistic materials for another time and place. We could decide that none of them is quite the same as ‘passionate’; but what does ‘passionate’ mean? It is only by using other words that we can explain; and all the hundreds of other words used in the translations do exactly that, opening up the signifying potential of what is or might be going on in the scene. The text grows through multiple translation; Jane Eyre comes to exist in all the languages together, their words collaborating to co-create the world of the book and what happens within it. Our research traces these prismatic rays, and finds new ways of representing them, both in writing and via interactive visualisations online.

[…]

To find out more about Prismatic Translation see here.

Writing about Rimbaud

This week’s post explores one of the most famous French poets of the nineteenth century, Arthur Rimbaud, whose collections include Une Saison en enfer and Illuminations. Rimbaud captured the imagination of his readers, both on account of his experimental writing style and his turbulent personal life. Prof. Seth Whidden, Fellow and Tutor in French at The Queen’s College, has recently published a biography on Rimbaud. Here, he reflects on the writing process and the tricky relationship between life and literature.

Writing about one of France’s most famous authors was a daunting task, but what made it less so was what makes his story so compelling to all lovers of literature: year after year, generation after generation. If Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) is French teenagers’ perennial favourite, it’s because during the course of his short life and even shorter literary career — he stopped writing poetry by the age of 21 and died at the age of 37 — he embodied some of the fundamental urges that we all have known, at one time or another: bursts of creativity; seeing how far rules can be bent before they break; and the desire to pick up and move away, expanding horizons and learning about self and the world.

Étienne Carjat [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It was those urges that I tried to capture in my recent biography. Some of it is well-known, and almost didn’t need to be recounted: his childhood in sleepy Charleville (now Charleville-Mézières), in eastern France; his brash arrival in Paris and torrid relationship with fellow poet Paul Verlaine (1844-1896), which ended with Verlaine shooting Rimbaud in a Brussels hotel room; Rimbaud’s departure from poetry and Europe, criss-crossing half of the globe and ending up spending the last fifteen years of his life as a trader in the Arabian peninsula and present-day Ethiopia. Looking back at all that he did, it’s almost possible to forget that he wrote some of the most enduring poems in the French language, blowing his way through centuries of rules to create new ways of thinking about and writing poetry. His innovations include a collection of prose poems — poems set in paragraphs rather than verses — entitled Illuminations. In addition, some time before he left Europe in 1875 he wrote the first two free-verse poems (poems in verse but lacking end-line rhyme) in French.

Mixing life and literature can be dangerous business: reducing a poem to a biographical detail flattens the poem and removes so much of what makes literature sing (how it sounds, how it’s rhythmed, how it feels, how it moves the reader…). Instead, I set out to weave two parallel stories. Yes, of course, it is helpful to know that ‘Le Dormeur du val’ is dated October 1870, and so Rimbaud set out to his presentation of war’s bloody interruption ruining the bucolic Ardennais countryside just weeks after France capitulated in Sedan, a dozen miles from his hometown. But that knowledge doesn’t tell the full story of the poem, far from it: it leaves out how the final line is prefigured (spoiler alert!) in the repeated vowel sound of ‘bouche ouverte’ of line 5; of how the standard twelve-syllable line is destabilized several times, with punctuation an accessory to the crime:

C’est un trou de verdure où chante une rivière
Accrochant follement aux herbes des haillons
D’argent; où le soleil, de la montagne fière,
Luit: c’est un petit val qui mousse de rayons.

Un soldat jeune, bouche ouverte, tête nue,
Et la nuque baignant dans le frais cresson bleu,
Dort; il est étendu dans l’herbe, sous la nue,
Pâle dans son lit vert où la lumière pleut.

Les pieds dans les glaïeuls, il dort. Souriant comme
Sourirait un enfant malade, il fait un somme:
Nature, berce-le chaudement: il a froid.

Les parfums ne font pas frissonner sa narine;
Il dort dans le soleil, la main sur sa poitrine
Tranquille. Il a deux trous rouges au côté droit.

It is a green hollow where a river sings / Madly catching on the grasses / Silver rags; where the sun atop the proud mountain / Shines: it is a small valley which bubbles over with rays. // A young soldier, his mouth open, his head bare, / And the nape of his neck bathing in the cool blue watercress, / Sleeps; he is stretched out on the grass, under clouds, / Pale on his green bed where the light rains down. // His feet in the gladiolas, he sleeps. Smiling as / A sick child would smile, he is taking a nap: / Nature, cradle him warmly: he is cold. // Odours to not make his nostrils quiver; / He sleeps in the sun, his hand on his breast, / Silent. He has two red holes in his right side. (translation from Rimbaud, Complete Works, trans. Wallace Fowlie, revised Seth Whidden, Univ of Chicago Press)

Life-writing can help connect some dots, though, and such connections are what makes this biography slightly different from others. In order to appreciate what made Rimbaud’s poetry so revolutionary, it’s important to understand the norm from which he made such a clear departure. Readers of this book will learn some of the basic rules of French prosody: just enough to be able to feel some of his creativity and rule-breaking. They will also see that his creativity doesn’t stop when he leaves Europe; instead, I propose a new way of looking at his African period. Rather than repeating the formula that has served the Rimbaud myth well for over a hundred years — Europe means poetry; Africa means commerce — I propose a new narrative in which inquisitiveness and creativity are constants in his life, informing his activities in both periods of his adult life. It can be easy to keep poetry elevated on its pedestal and assume that a life after poetry is an uninteresting one — easy for literary critics who love poetry, anyway! — but if poetry is just one manifestation of a broader creative force, then there can be other possible moments of creativity. They might not measure up to the brilliance of his poems, but their presence in the story of his life might be worthy of a little more attention.

Ultimately, it’s up to the reader to decide: the reader of Rimbaud’s poetry, first; then the reader of this biography. My final chapter poses a series of questions, and I hope that anyone interested in creativity, rule-bending, and seeing the world will recognize therein some of the questions that we all ask from time to time: about literature, about life, about ourselves and about the world around us.

Careers Profile: Working in Advertising

This week on Adventures on the Bookshelf we are showcasing another career path you can take if you have a background in Modern Languages. Sarah Greaney, from Wrexham in North Wales, studied French at St Anne’s College and graduated in 2011. She now works as a media manager in marketing and advertising. Here, Sarah tells us how the skills she acquired during her degree are put to use in her job.

Communication skills are a must in advertising (Photo by Kate Trysh on Unsplash)

I decided to study French at university because of the versatility of the degree. The language course I chose offered much more than just grammar and language tuition, covering French literature, philosophy and art from medieval to modern times.

It’s easy to see why employers value a language degree: studying grammar develops close attention to detail and structured thinking, while learning about another culture through the development of its art, history and thinking down the ages nurtures a wider and deeper appreciation of the values that shape societies other than your own. Not to mention the year abroad, which throws you into the very uncomfortable situation of having to set up an existence from scratch in an unfamiliar place!

Although I don’t directly use French in my career, the transferable skills developed in my degree have stood me in good stead in the advertising and communications industry where developing strong, lasting relationships and communicating ideas in a succinct and compelling way are both fundamental parts of my job.

Languages help you to build lasting relationships (Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash)

Admissions Checklist

It’s that time of year when we are looking forward to receiving lots of applications from prospective students so we thought it would be useful to include an Oxford admissions checklist on this week’s blog. Year 13 students: if you are thinking of applying make sure you have prepared for all the points below. Year 12 students: it’s never too soon to start thinking about your applications for next year.

Step 1: UCAS application – remember that the deadline for Oxford is earlier than the usual UCAS deadline. Submit your application by 6pm on 15 October 2018.
You’ve probably been hard at work on your UCAS application for a little while now and will know that it consists of: your actual grades (e.g. GCSE), your predicted grades (A Level or equivalent), your personal statement, and a reference from your teacher. Here are some key things to remember about the personal statement…

  • You’ll submit the same personal statement for all the universities you apply to. Therefore, focus on the course/ subject, not the universities.
  • Show us your academic ability and potential, and your commitment to the subject. It’s not enough just to say that you have a passion for something: you need to show how you have engaged with your subject, above and beyond schoolwork.
  • Only mention your extracurricular activities if they are relevant to the subject for which you are applying. We want to see how your interests beyond school have helped to stretch you academically or motivate you to pursue your subject.
  • Be honest and be yourself – we’re interested in you as an individual. Also remember that this is not the time for false modesty – feel free to sell yourself!
  • Don’t list qualifications like your GCSE grades or anything else that’s covered elsewhere on the application.
  • Be sure to re-read your personal statement before an interview – the tutors may ask you to talk about things you’ve mentioned.

Step 2: Admissions Tests. The deadline to register for a test is also 6pm on 15 October. Your schools or test centre must register you. Ask your school or test centre for your candidate number now so that you know you have been registered.

  • You will sit the test in your school or test centre on Wednesday 31 October.
  • For Modern Languages, you must take a test in each language you apply for which you are studying at A Level or equivalent. For example, if you are applying for French and German and are sitting an A Level in both of these languages, you will take the tests in French and German. If, on the other hand, you are applying for French and Italian ‘ab initio’ (from scratch), and you will only have the A Level in French, you do not need to take the Italian test.
  • For languages for which you are applying post-A Level, the test is a grammar test, so it’s useful to start revising things like tenses, prepositions, subjunctives, adjectival agreement etc. The test is not designed to be a vocabulary test and there are likely to be words you don’t know: do not worry about this. We are not expecting a perfect score – we just want to get a sense of how solid a grammatical foundation you have in your language at the point of application.
  • If you are applying for a language from scratch you will need to take the Language Aptitude Test (LAT). This takes a made-up language and asks you to spot patterns and rules within that language, based on some sample sentences. We are interested in your instinct for language learning and your ability to spot potential grammatical structures based on the internal logic of a language. There are examples of this and other admissions tests online – have a practice in timed conditions so you get used to the exercises.
  • If you are applying for a ‘joint schools’ degree (a language in combination with another subject: English, History, Classics, Middle Eastern Languages, Linguistics, Philosophy) you may need to take additional tests in those subjects. Check here for details.

Step 3: Written Work. The college considering your application will contact you about submitting written work. The deadline for submission is 10 November. You will need to complete a written work cover sheet for each piece of work that you submit.

  • For Modern Languages, you will need to submit one piece in each language you intend to study, and in which you will have A Level standard (or equivalent) before university.
  • AND one piece in English (e.g. an essay on literature, history…)
  • If you are applying for a joint schools degree you will need to check what schoolwork is required for those subjects.
  • The work you send in should be your original school or college work, marked by a teacher, and not re-written or corrected in any way. It may be typed or handwritten – as long as it is legible – and photocopies are acceptable.
  • We would expect the piece in English to be no more than 2,000 words.
  • The piece in the Modern language can be much shorter: we would recommend around 300-500 words.

Step 4: Interviews. These take place in early December and, for many applicants, are the scariest part of the process. We’ll do another blog post in the coming weeks about interviews so stay tuned…

Step 5: Decisions! You will be told if you have an offer on 9 January 2019.

Best of luck to everyone who is applying. Remember, you can always ask us any questions you might have about admissions by emailing schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk

Launching the 2019 Oxford German Olympiad!

Calling all Germanists and aspiring Germanists: the Oxford German Network (OGN) is pleased to announce the launch of this year’s German Olympiad – a prize for German learners aged 9 and up. The theme this year is Tiere und Monster [Animals and Monsters]. There are a range of activities to take part in, depending on your age, and you can submit an entry as an individual or as a group. This year there are also some activities for those of you who might be new to German. Read on for more details, and please consult the full guidelines on the OGN website.

Years 5 and 6 (age 9-11):

  • Draw a monster and label its parts.
  • Draw a picture of your home from the perspective of an animal or insect living there. Label the things in it and include a title indicating the type of creature it is.
  • Find a German fairytale about animals and draw a comic strip retelling it.

Years 7 to 9 (age 11-14):

  • ‘Gibt es wirklich Monster?’ Write a dialogue between two people who disagree about whether monsters really exist.
  • Create an advertising brochure for a zoo or wildlife sanctuary.
  • Research the history of the Krampus figure and Krampusnacht, and create a poster explaining them.

Years 10 and 11 (age 14-16):

  • Research the roles played by animals in the First World War and present your findings in an article.
  • Paint or draw an animal or animals in the style of the artist Franz Marc and write about the work of art that inspired it.
  • Retell a story (originally in any language) featuring animals and/or monsters.

Years 12 and 13 (age 16-18):

  • ‘Was tun Zoos für den Artenschutz?’ Write an article using the information on the website of the Berlin Zoo and at least one other German, Austrian or Swiss zoo.
  • Create a comedy sketch retelling Kafka’s Die Verwandlung. Submit it as a script or a filmed performance.
  • Write a short story about a female monster.

Open Competition for Groups or Classes (4+ participants)

  • Create a film or PowerPoint presentation about Tierversuche.
  • Write and illustrate a short book for children about an animal or a monster.
  • ‘Unser Leben mit einem Monster.’ Create a film or song on this theme.

Discover German – Taster Competition (1-3 participants with no prior experience of studying German)

  • Years 7 to 9: find words used for animal noises in German, and film yourself saying them together with the equivalent English word.
  • Years 10 and 11: rewrite (in English) the story of Hänsel and Gretel, setting it in a real modern German city and including 15 German words.
  • Years 12 and 13: choose three of the following animal nouns: Hund, Katze, Schwein, Pferd, Kuh, Schaf, Hase, Vogel. Find compound words (e.g. Osterhase – Easter Bunny) and idioms (e.g. Schwein haben – to be lucky) that contain them. Write a blog post about how you found them and what differences from English you discovered.

Please spread the word to your Greman-speaking friends. The deadline for submissions is noon on 15th March 2019. If you have any questions please contact the Co-ordinator of the Oxford German Network at ogn@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk  . We look forward to receiving your entries.

Krampus figure in Salzburg, Austria (photo by Matthias Kabel). https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Krampus_Salzburg_2.jpg