Category Archives: Comparative Literature

Fabulous Translation

This week on Adventures on the Bookshelf we’re continuing our exploration of the exhibition ‘Babel: Adventures in Translation‘. A couple of weeks ago, we looked at the Cinderella story and how it has been transferred and adapted across cultures. This week, we’re thinking about how to translate fables.

You probably know that a fable is a short story that aims to convey a moral, usually involving animals. Famous examples include ‘The Boy who Cried Wolf’, ‘The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse’, and ‘The Hare and the Tortoise’, to name but a few.  Such stories have been popular since ancient times, and can be identified in many different traditions, including Aesop’s ancient Greek fables, and the Sanskrit Panchatantra, which are among the world’s most translated texts. These stories have enjoyed an enduring popularity and are still widely told today.

Although we might think of these stories as being primarily for children, they were originally written for adults in order to promote a moral message. But, of course, when it comes to translation, that raises all sorts of questions: how far is it possible to transfer a moral framework between different cultures and communities?; why are animals afforded such a key role in fables, and do animals have the same associations across the world?

Below, we’ve included a worksheet that was designed for visitors to the exhibition. However, you do not need to have seen the exhibition to undertand it. Take a look at some of the discussion points raised, including, intriguingly, the surprising study that found that children who were told the story of ‘The Boy who Cried Wolf’ were actually more likely to lie after hearing it! You can right click and open the images separately to see a bigger version, or access a pdf here.

Remember, the exhibition runs until 2nd June – do pay a visit if you can!

Cinderella – Translation and Transformation

In February, we brought you news of an exciting exhibition that is currently running at the Weston Library in Oxford, ‘Babel: Adventures in Translation’. The Babel exhibition is running until 2nd June. If you’re passionate about all things multilingual and interested in how translation has shaped cultures, we would recommend a visit – perhaps after coming to the Modern Languages open day this Saturday. You can also get involved in the creative translation competitions, which run until 15th May, organised by the Creative Multilingualism Programme.

For now, we thought we’d delve a little deeper into one of the exhibition cases: traversing realms of fantasy. This case includes a number of fascinating items, including translations of Through the Looking Glass, translations of the Harry Potter series, and various translations of Cinderella. As one of the curators tells us: “Fantasy allows us to travel without restriction to new places, and inhabit or invent new scenarios. Fairy tales, magical plots and even insignificant items such as a slipper can prompt inventive retellings and manifold adaptations. It’s not surprising therefore that fantasy and magic are uniquely well suited to being passed on from one cultural group to another. Translators play a vital role in that process –and it’s often futile to distinguish rigidly between translation, retelling and creation.” (Katin Kohl, Faculty Lecturer in German, Fellow of Jesus College, in the Babel Teacher’s Guide).

The story of Cinderella is an example of how a fairytale can overlap many diverse cultures. Versions of the story have been around for millenia and exist all over the world. While the premise of the story often remains the same – a young girl is mistreated by her family before escaping, with the aid of a magical creature, to a better life – details can vary from one tradition to another. The Cinderella story raises questions like: to what extent can translation be considered a process of transformation? Does the translator have an obligation to remain ‘faithful’ to the original text? What does ‘fidelity’ even mean in the context of linguistic transfer?

Here is a worksheet produced for visitors to the exhibition. It touches on versions of Cinderella from France, Germany, Ancient Greece, the Caribbean, Korea, Nigeria, and Cambodia.  If you’re interested to find out more, have a read of it (if you’re struggling to read it within the blog, try right-clicking and opening the images separately, or access a pdf here). You don’t need to see the exhibition itself to understand the material included here but we would certainly encourage you to do so!

Collaboration and ownership in cross-cultural creativity

This post originally featured on the Creative Multilingualism blog. It was written by Julie Curtis, Professor of Russian Literature at Oxford and Fellow of Wolfson College. Prof. Curtis is also the Director of Outreach for Medieval and Modern Languages. Here, she reflects on the transformation of a Russian ‘New Drama’ play, Oxygen, by Ivan Vyrypaev, into a UK hip hop version, provoking questions about translation, transformation, and creative ownership.

2002-2018: Ivan Vyrypaev’s play Oxygen, and its 16-year journey between a basement theatre studio in Moscow and a basement rehearsal room at the Birmingham Rep Theatre.

When Ivan Vyrypaev’s play Oxygen was first performed in 2002 at Moscow’s edgiest theatre, Teatr.doc, it caused a sensation. On the one hand it depicted an act of extreme violence – a young man battering his wife to death with a shovel in order to start a new relationship with a woman he believes will offer him more ‘oxygen’ – and it also used aggressively obscene language, transgressing against one of the strongest taboos of Soviet-era theatre. On the other hand, the play had a haunting beauty, deriving from the poetic inventiveness of its use of Biblical motifs, specifically the Ten Commandments, and the musical structuring of the language around refrains, patterning and other compositional devices deriving from both classical and contemporary musical traditions, such as rap.

The play became known as the flagship play of the ‘New Drama’ movement which has arisen in the era of President Putin, and which remains one of the few spheres in which challenges are still offered to official state narratives about society, politics, gender and sexuality, national identity and international relations. It was seen at the theatre by a narrow range of Moscow intellectuals, but gained wider impact within Russia when it was turned by Vyrypaev into a film in 2009; and it also attracted attention internationally – it has been staged in many countries of the world, including a brilliant production (featuring world-champion break-dancers from Russia) staged by the RSC at Stratford in 2009.

Dr Noah Birksted-Breen is a theatre director and Russian scholar who has for many years been exploring contemporary Russian drama and staging it at his London-base Sputnik Theatre. When he joined the Creative Multilingualism team, he attended an event organised by Professor Rajinder Dudrah which brought the grime artists RTKAL, Ky’orion and Royalty from Birmingham to perform on the stage of the Taylor Institution. Their verbal ingenuity, the Rastafarian frame of reference they deployed in their performance, and above all the powerful and infectious rhythms of their art provided a lightbulb moment for me and Noah – we looked at each other, and wondered aloud what would happen if we introduced them to Vyrypaev’s work….

A couple of years later, and that thought has translated into reality, with a performance based on extracts from Vyrypaev’s work being rehearsed in the Birmingham Rep by the brilliant UK rap, hiphop and grime artists Lady Sanity and Stanza Divan, directed by Noah. On Thursday I went along to watch the final research and development session, before the performance later that day curated by Rajinder at Birmingham City University. It prompted all sorts of thoughts in my mind about how issues of ownership and collaboration came together to produce this spectacular meeting of minds across two very different cultures:

  • Vyrypaev owns his text, and is very protective about performances of it across the world;
  • But Noah is one of the most admired directors of contemporary Russian drama in Britain, so Vyrypaev willingly licensed the text for Noah’s project in Sasha Dugdale’s translation, trusting to both Noah’s knowledge of Russian culture and his artistic gifts to create something which would be both new and true to the original;
  • Rajinder knows the rap and hiphop scene in Birmingham via our project partners Punch Records also from the city, and together they recruited artists who would bring their talents to bear on very unfamiliar material, originating from an entirely alien society;
  • Once Lady Sanity and Stanza Divan got to know the text, they worked with Noah on how to make it their own, retaining the skeleton of the piece and certain elements of the refrains, playing with the ideas of the male and female characters with the same name – the two Sashas became the two Jordans…
  • Lady Sanity and Stanza Divan have focused less on the violence and the obscenity, but have translated the relationship between the two to fit into the witty ‘clashing’ routines typical of rap/hiphop/grime performances; this allows them to develop a gendered rivalry which is absent from the original, with Stanza Divan using sarcasm (‘Calm down!..’ – to use a phrase typical of some male politicians…) to scorn and disparage the sharp-tongued teasing of Lady Sanity;
  • But they retain the relative social positions of the two Russian protagonists; she more educated, and from a more comfortable, secure background, he instead from a disadvantaged, broken family and dropping out of secondary education;
  • And above all they retain the message of the final section of Vyrypaev’s original, concerning the difficulties faced by the young in today’s world, where so many threats loom;
  • Did their UK hiphop theatre work absorb Vyrypaev into their British world? Or did Vyrypaev lead Birmingham’s hiphop performers into new areas? Above all, they said, they recognised that elements in the text of the original were primarily about the freedom of self-expression, and that chimed in with the same preoccupation in British hip-hop and grime art.
  • The generosity of very many different people’s collaborations brought this work of art into being: but who ‘owns’ the creative result? Is cultural transposition different from translation?

Watch the below film to find out more about the hip hop theatre version of the Russian play Oxygen.

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.

What do Shakira and the works of Cervantes have in common?

This post was written by Sarah Wadsworth, a first-year Spanish & Arabic student at St Anne’s College.

“What’s the hardest thing about studying Golden Age Spanish?” my friend says, repeating the question I asked her, pretending to think. She laughs. “The fact that all the words sound the same. They all begin with ‘al’!”

Gross overestimation it undoubtedly is, but in considering the lexicon of just one Spanish text – in this case, Cervantes’ novela Rinconete y Cortadillo – I can see where she’s coming from. Words like ‘almojarifazgo’, ‘alcabala’ and ‘almofía’ abound even in this short story that we study in first year. It’s something we have both noticed, the prevalence of a little syllable which in turn speaks to a wider history of language transference.

IND119216 Portrait of Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra (1547-1615) 1600 (oil on panel) by Jauregui y Aguilar, Juan de (c.1566-1641); Real Academia de la Historia, Madrid, Spain.

For almost 800 years, there was Arabic social and cultural hegemony from Andalusia to Toledo and even into southern France at the Moorish empire’s peak in the 8th century. Though the Reconquista (‘Reconquest’) would eventually return power to the Catholic monarchs with the surrender of Granada in 1492, the effects of centuries of linguistic transference were already evident, a consequence of history that still echoes in so many Spanish words. The influence of Arabic is visible both in the esoteric terms mentioned above and in more vernacular language, as is demonstrated by the Spanish word “hasta” (meaning “until”) and its Arabic cognate “حَتَّى” or “ḥatta”. The place names Andalucía and Almería are also of Arabic origin; they are just two of the hundreds of Arabic names for various regions, cities, towns and villages across the Iberian Peninsula.

Bras’lia – DF, 17/03/2011. Presidenta Dilma Rousseff recebe a cantora Shakira Mebarak. Foto: Roberto Stuckert Filho/PR.

From the Moorish characters of numerous Spanish ballads to the magnificent architecture of the Alhambra, it is a past that continues to resonate in both Spanish literature and the language itself. But the modern twist on the tale? Given the emigration of Arabic speakers to Latin America from the 19th century onwards, there are now significant Middle Eastern communities in the New World too, like that in the Colombian city of Barranquilla. There are those with roots in both cultures who have risen to fame – the singer Shakira is just one notable example. The linguistic connections between Arabic and Spanish seem as potent today as they were more than 600 years ago.

 

Look out – it’s our Virtual Book Club!

Last month, the Modern Languages Faculty at Oxford launched our virtual book club. For all you bookworms out there, this is a chance to engage more with literature beyond your school curriculum, and in languages other than English.

Each month we will focus on a different language but will always provide the text in translation, as well as in the original language. At the start of the month, we will circulate the texts chosen, which will be poems or short prose extracts, by email. At the end of the month we will upload a video discussion of the text with some of our academics and undergraduates.

The first episode focussed on a passage from the Russian novel The Naked Year, by Boris Pilnyak. It is available below. To receive a copy of the text or to sign up for future episodes, email us at schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk with your name and school.

Joint Schools Part 2: Applying

Last week, Georgina Ramsay, who studies French and English at The Queen’s College, gave us an introduction to studying a modern language alongside another subject. This week she tells us more about applying…

Applying

Once I was certain I was going to apply for English and French the first challenge was writing a personal statement that conveyed my passion for both the subjects. Something I would advise when it comes to writing personal statements for joint-honours degree courses is to find connections between the two subjects because, after all, the reason you are applying for two subjects rather than one is because you think they are complementary.

Admissions Test

Something to consider when applying for a joint-honours course at Oxford is that you might have to take two admissions tests. For me that meant taking both the ELAT and the MLAT on the same day. Before the day of the tests try to do as much practice in timed conditions as you can, using the past papers available online. If possible – especially with the MLAT – it can be useful to ask your languages teacher to have a look through it or go over anything you are unsure of. On the day of the tests remember to pace yourself!

Interviews

As you are applying for two subjects you need to be interviewed, and then accepted, by both tutours for both subjects. One of my concerns as my interview approached was speaking in the foreign language in my French interview. This is a common worry but remember that tutors do take into account that you are an A-Level student and also that you are probably nervous, so they are not expecting anything at all close to fluency. In fact, I remember in the last few minutes of my interview being asked a question in French and stumbling through and probably making mistakes. Do your best but do not worry about perfectionism! When it comes to analysing literature in the foreign language tutors are also aware that you may not have done this before but as the course places a large emphasis on literature it is definitely something to be aware of when applying.

Joint Schools: What are they?

At the University of Oxford you can study Modern Languages in combination with a number of other subjects: Classics, English, History, Linguistics, Middle Eastern Languages, and Philosophy. In this post, Georgina Ramsay, who studies French and English at The Queen’s College, tells us about what motivated her to do a Joint Schools degree. More information about Joint Schools Degrees can be found through the course listings on the University admissions pages. Over to Georgina…

It wasn’t until I was applying to university that I came across the term ‘joint-honours’ but I was definitely glad when I did. I had always assumed that I would apply to study English at university but following GCSEs, the first year of A-Levels and then attending the UNIQ Summer School I started to really consider the possibility of studying French. As excited as I was by the prospect of continuing to improve my French skills I was still conflicted between my two favourite subjects.

Taylor Institution (Modern Languages Library), Oxford

It was whilst researching degree courses that I realised that it was possible for me to continue with both English and French as there were some universities, including Oxford, that offered joint-honours degrees. I narrowed down my options, taking into account the split between the two subjects (some institutions place more emphasis on one subject) and what I liked about the Oxford course was that there was a 50:50 split.

English Faculty Library, Oxford

As an avid reader and bibliophile I had wanted to study English Literature because I liked the window it gave me into the world, history and different cultures. However, these reasons also applied to why I wanted to study French. A-Level French had been my first introduction into reading literature in another language and I had really enjoyed it. I realised that in studying French I would have access to a whole new world of Francophone literature.

After now having completed a full academic year I am certain that deciding to apply for both English and French was the right decision. I am now in my second year and I am still realising more and more the connections that can be made between the two sides of my course. For example, last year on the English side of my course I was really interested in postcolonial literature and looked at works by Frantz Fanon, a Martinican writer. I also studied Aimé Césaire in my French classes where I also learnt more about France’s colonial history. As a result I was able to see Fanon’s influence on Césaire and ultimately each side of the course was enriched by the other – which was what I had hoped for when I decided to apply.

Next week Georgina will tell us some things to consider when applying for a Joint Schools degree.

PS. We maintain that Modern Languages has a prettier library. 😉

Writing the Great War

There have been many events commemorating the centenary of the First World War and its key moments. A new book edited jointly by an Oxford academic, Toby Garfitt, and a young researcher from France, Nicolas Bianchi, takes a fresh look at some of the literary responses to the conflict on both sides of the Channel. The volume is deliberately bilingual, and is entitled Writing the Great War/Comment écrire la Grande Guerre? This was very much a collaborative, interdisciplinary project, bringing together specialists from departments of English and French Studies in Britain, France and Belgium, and the preface is by the distinguished war historian Sir Hew Strachan.

The subtitle, ‘Francophone and Anglophone Poetics’, makes it clear that the word ‘Writing’ in the main title is essential. Just how do you write such an overwhelming and unprecedented experience? French authors favoured prose, with some major exceptions, but how far could and should prose negotiate the line between realism and invention? English authors favoured verse, but that verse needs to be appreciated in a wider context of writing. There is a proliferation of voices, registers and styles, with traditional genre-distinctions often breaking down. How can one reconcile the complexity of experience and perception with literary form or political ideology? What is the place of irony and humour? What types of character are developed? What do we know about non-European, non-white perspectives on the war as revealed in poetry and songs from across the world?

You may know, or think you know, about Owen and Sassoon, Apollinaire and Barbusse and Céline, but what explains their different perspectives? What about their personal letters, what about the process of writing and correcting? This book offers a stimulating challenge to readers on both sides of the Channel to broaden their understanding of texts, contexts, and critical studies (the bibliography is particularly full and helpful).