Category Archives: Multilingualism

Why do we need people to translate when we have machine translation?

In recent months we’ve been enjoying one of our favourite podcasts, LinguaMania, produced by the Creative Multilingualism programme. We were particularly intrigued by this episode on translation, as it’s a question we get asked lots by students who are thinking about what role languages can play in their future. On the surface of it, translation may seem like just the kind of skill a robot could pick up, but it’s actually a very nuanced process which requires a great deal of empathy and creativity. Let’s let the experts tell us more…

Some people ask why they should bother learning a language when there are online apps and websites which can translate quickly and accurately.

In this episode of LinguaMania, Matthew Reynolds and Eleni Philippou argue that translation is so much more than just changing words from one language into another. Translation is creative, it’s personal, and it can help build communities. We also hear from Adriana X. Jacobs, Professor of Jewish and Hebrew Studies, and Yousif M Qasmiyeh, doctoral student researching the translation of Jane Eyre into Arabic.

Listen below or read the transcript here.

Translating Nonsense

This week on Adventures on the Bookshelf, we revisit the Babel: Adventures in Translation Exhibition, which was curated by the Creative Multilingualism programme and ran at the Weston Library last year. You may remember that we featured two resources from the exhibition on the blog: one on translating fables, and one on translating Cinderella. Now we bring you the final resource in that collection, this time on the exciting theme of translating nonense…

One of the items displayed in the exhibition was a collection of translations of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, his 1871 sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alice is a popular topic in Oxford, as Carroll himself was a scholar in Maths at Christ Church College. The daughter of the Dean of Christ Church at the time, Alice Liddell, is said to be the original Alice who inspired Carroll’s stories.

Illustration by John Tenniel

In this sequel, Alice goes through the looking-glass, or mirror, in her sitting room to find an alternative world on the other side, a world a bit like our own but also a bit different. While exploring this world she comes across a looking-glass book, a book where the words are written backwards and need to be read in a mirror. The text that she reads is the poem ‘Jabberwocky’.

You might have come across this poem before as it has taken on a life of its own outside of Carroll’s novel. The poem recounts the adventure of a warrior who slays the fearsome beast, the Jabberwock. But the intriguing thing about the text is that it is written in nonsense: half the words were invented by Carroll.

Of course, this poses something of a problem if we’re thinking about translating the text, because how can we go about translating words that are made up? Because Carroll invented these words, no dictionary definition of them exists, and meaning can therefore be elusive. Take the second word of the poem, for example, ‘brillig’ – does this mean brilliant, bright, murky, rainy, cold, a particular time of day, or something else entirely?

Nonetheless, lots of translators have risen to this challenge, creating versions of ‘Jabberwocky’ in other languages which are just as playful as the original English. We might even approach the translation of a text like this as an opportunity to have some fun with the translation process: if meaning is not fixed, perhaps as translators this is a chance to focus on other elements of the text, such as rhyme, rhythm, or onomatopoeia. Take a look at the resource we’ve linked to below for more ideas about translating ‘Jabberwocky’. Perhaps even have a go yourself at translating the poem yourself – it could be frabjously good fun!

Click here for the worksheet.

How do metaphors shape our world?

We’ve touched on metaphor in this blog before, when we featured Marianna Bolognesi’s post ‘Do you have butterflies in your stomach or little deer jumping in your heart?‘, and Sally Zacharias’s post ‘Multilingual Moon Metaphors‘. So we couldn’t be more delighted that our friends at the Creative Multilingualism Research programme have dedicated a whole episode of their podcast series to the subject.

We tend to think of metaphors as poetic language, but we actually use them all the time in our everyday speech. But how do metaphors in different languages work? And can the metaphors we use affect our thinking? In this episode of LinguaMania, we explore how we use metaphors across the world, looking at the different ways of representing abstract concepts, such as emotion and time, through idioms and metaphors.

The episode features researchers Jeanette Littlemore, Lera Boroditsky, Zoltán Kövecses, Sally Zacharias, and one of our brilliant tutors in German, Katrin Kohl. Thanks for the insight!

Listen to the episode below or on the Oxford University podcasts website.

Why should we read translated texts?

This week, we’re back to the Linguamania podcast, produced by the Creative Multilingualism research programme. The third episode in the podcast series explores the question ‘Why should we read translated texts?’ and features two of our brilliant Modern Languages tutors: Prof. Jane Hiddleston, Tutor in French at Exeter College, and Dr Laura Lonsdale, Tutor in Spanish at Queen’s College.

In this episode of LinguaMania, we’re exploring what we lose or gain when we read a translated book. Are we missing something by reading the English translation and not the original language version? Or can the translation process enhance the text in some way? Jane Hiddleston and Laura Lonsdale from the University of Oxford discuss these questions and also look at what fiction and translation can tell us about how languages blend with one another and interact.

Listen to the podcast below or peruse the full transcript here.

Understanding our Natural World

Before our usual blog kicks off today, please note this special announcement: as a result of the developing Covid-19 situation, we regret that we have had to cancel the Modern Languages Open Day which had been scheduled for Saturday 2 May. Please keep an eye on our ‘meet us‘ pages for details of open days later in the year.

Now, where were we?… We’re on a roll with the podcasting as this week we check back in with the Linguamania podcast, produced by Creative Multilingualism. In the second episode of this fascinating series, the speakers focus on the topic ‘Understanding our Natural World: why languages matter’. Here’s the podcast…

This podcast draws on the research of Felice Wyndham, Karen Park, and Andrew Gosler, who are academics in Strand 2 (‘Naming’) of the programme. This strand is themed around ‘Creating a Meaningful World: Nature in Name, Metaphor and Myth ‘. They examine the creativity at work as people across diverse language backgrounds respond to the natural world through naming, metaphor, and myth. This includes questions like:

  • Are words influenced by local environments?
  • How do we explain similarities and differences between linguistic diversity and biodiversity?
  • What do different approaches to naming reveal about the role and mechanisms of creativity in language?

Birds provide the natural lens through which this research is pursued: the migrations of barn swallows link a multitude of different languages; owls bear an otherworldly salience acknowledged across cultures; and each community boasts those birds unique to place that hold special significance.

Linguamania Podcast

There’s an exciting new podcast out there for all you language lovers. Creative Multilingualism, an AHRC-funded research programme examining creativity in language learning, has launched a podcast which explores different aspects of language learning and how these interesect with the programme’s different strands.

Produced by researchers from Creative Multilingualism, the LinguaMania podcast explores some fascinating perspectives on languages and language learning, asking: Do we really need human translators? Why do we use metaphors and what do they teach us about other languages and cultures? How much of an unfamiliar language can we understand? Would creative language teaching make the subject more popular? Can languages help protect the natural environment? And so much more… So stop what you’re doing and start exploring the wonderful world of multilingualism!

The first episode examines the question “How ‘foreign’ are ‘foreign languages’?” Many people think foreign languages are alien to us, unless of course we’ve spent years studying them. But is this really the case? Or can we actually understand some words in a different language – even if we’ve never studied that language before?

In episode 1 of the LinguaMania podcast, Professor Martin Maiden suggests that languages aren’t always as foreign as we think, especially if we have some tricks up our sleeve to help us decipher them. You can see the full transcription of the podcast on the Creative Multilingualism website.

And here’s the episode itself…

Artificial Intelligence in the World of Languages

This post originally appeared on the Creative Multilingualism blog, an AHRC-funded research project that explores the role of creativity in language learning.

What role will Artificial Intelligence play in the world of languages – will it be an opportunity or a threat for language learners? What impact might AI have on endangered languages? Will machine translation ever replace the need for language learning?

In September 2019, Creative Multilingualism worked in partnership with the University of Pittsburgh and JNCL (Joint National Committee for Languages) to hold a workshop on the topic of Artificial Intelligence in the World of Languages.

The event brought together academics, teachers and leaders in tech and AI to discuss the impact of improvements in machine translation and language learning technology on future language learners, teachers and speakers of endangered languages.

Watch the below film to hear from the workshop’s participants on three key questions:

  1. Is AI a threat or an opportunity for language learning?
  2. Could Google Translate replace the need for language learning?
  3. Why should we learn languages?

What do you think? Are the machines going to replace us?

Multilingual Moon Metaphors

This post was written by Sally Zacahrias, a lecturer in Education at the University of Glasgow, and originally appeared on the Creative Multilingualism blog. Creative Multilingualism is an AHRC-funded project investigating the creative dimension of languages – extending from cognition and production through to performance, texts and translation to language learning.

The year 2019 will be remembered by some as the 50th anniversary of the Moon landings. It has been for Moon enthusiasts the chance not only to reflect on Armstrong’s first steps but also what the Moon means to them on a more personal level. The Moon has been compared to a mirror that reflects our passions and beliefs.

As Philip Morton in ‘The Moon. A history for the future’ wrote:

…what people see when they look at the Moon is indeed, for the most part a reflection of themselves – of their preoccupations and theories, their dreams and fears. It has been used for such reflection, or projection in science and fiction alike (Morton 2019:20).

These Moon celebrations also provided me with an opportunity to explore what the Moon meant to people of different cultural and language backgrounds. The Moon is a powerful lens for understanding and comparing different cultures as, firstly, it features so strongly in all cultures and, secondly, it has come to symbolise many everyday concepts (love, friendship, beauty, time) that are shared between members of different cultural groups.

Culture can be thought of as a set of shared ways to frame concepts that characterise groups of people and often these understandings are reflected in the metaphors used by people belonging to those cultural groups. When linguists talk about metaphors they mean that they describe one thing in terms of another, so ‘The Moon is made of cheese’ is an example of a metaphor. The surface of the Moon (which is strange and a bit abstract) is being compared to a cheese with holes in it. One way to find out what the Moon means to people from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds is to look at the various Moon idioms they use, a specific type of metaphorical expression. Here are some examples that I have collected as part of this project:

associated with the

être dans
la lune
Frenchto be in
the Moon
head in the
spadł z
Polishto fall from
the Moon
er lebt
hinter dem Mond
Germanhe lives
behind the Moon
he has no
idea what’s
going on in
the world
I love you to the Moon
and back
English to love
very much
oli mumanzi nka kwezi Rutooro you’re as
brave as the Moon
very bravebravery/
Englisha long time
月有陰晴圓缺 Mandarinthe moon is dark bright
round and
missing a
to say life is uncertain,
not all plain
14 قمر Arabicfull Moon/
Moon of 14

During the summer, I and a team of science and language students from the School of Education at University of Glasgow ran a couple of workshops, ‘Stories and Science of the Moon’, for families as part of the Glasgow Science Festival. One activity involved asking family members what they thought each of these Moon idioms meant. I showed them the idiom in the original language and its literal translation. Interestingly, although the participants said they didn’t know the language about 70% of the answers were correct!

One plausible explanation for this is that many of these idioms are based on what we call ‘embodied’ metaphors. These are when mental images that we have developed through our interaction with the physical world are used to understand more abstract concepts. So, ‘I love you to the Moon and back’ is based on the image of a long distance representing the intensity of a feeling. These embodied metaphors are thought to be understood across almost all languages and cultures. So, when trying to understand an unfamiliar expression, such as an unknown idiom, we use these embodied metaphors as sense-making resources.

During the workshop, we also explored how narratives and images of the Moon from around the world have changed our perspective of how we understand the universe and our place in it. For example, we looked at how Johannes Kepler, a German astronomer-mathematician, wrote about travelling to the Moon in ‘Somnium – the Dream’ in 1609, considered by many to be the first ever piece of science fiction. The story was written in Latin, at a time when people thought that the Earth was at the centre of the universe. However, Kepler believed differently. By telling a story in which a boy and his mother are taken to the Moon by the moon spirit, and by using the Moon as an analogy of the Earth, Kepler was able to change people’s perspectives of what they normally take for granted. Seeing the everyday through a different image, narrative or language can really transform our sense of reality!

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

We also explored how almost every civilisation has used the Moon to govern daily life. Its regular phases and movements have been used for calendrical purposes to mark time in many cultures. Ancient time was both measured by the phases of the Moon but it was also the measure of our activities: certain behaviours were assigned to particular phases of the Moon. This can be still seen today in certain religious and cultural festivals that are orchestrated by the Moon, for example, Easter, Ramadan and the Chinese Moon festival.

To explore how the Moon features in people’s lives today at a more individual level, and to discover what the Moon means to people from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, I have interviewed a number of families, all living in Glasgow, over a period of six months. The families spoke either Arabic, Polish, Mandarin or English: some of the languages that make up Glasgow’s vibrant linguistic landscape. I have been looking at how the family members use metaphor to talk about time, and other abstract concepts, in relation to the Moon. We tend to think that time is a universal concept, experienced the same way by everyone. However, my data shows that people’s conceptions of time, when talking about the Moon, vary in interesting and subtle ways depending on their cultural background, the stories and books they’ve read, the languages they speak and their age.

This study shows that although we all share and know the Moon, different cultures and languages have responded to the Moon in contrasting ways. Understanding this diversity allows for a more complete picture of what makes us human, and how we through our different languages relate to our natural world.

A special thank you to all my language enthusiasts who have been part of this project’s creation: Dangeni, Rui He, Nourah Alshalhoub, Heba Elmaraghi, Idris Al Adawi, Agnieszka Uflewska, Aneta Marren, Annette Islei, Colin Reilly, and to the families I interviewed!

Paper Frenchmen: Francophone Indian literature

In late November, Oxford welcomed the writer Ari Gautier and his translator into English, Prof. Blake Smith, for a discussion about Francophone Indian Literature and about Gautier’s writing in particular. Part of the ‘World Literatures’ strand of the Creative Multilingualism programme, this event was convened by Prof. Jane Hiddleston and Sheela Mahadevan. Here we reflect on a few highlights…

Currently based in Oslo, Ari Gautier spent his childhood in former French colony Pondichéry, India. He is the author of Carnet Secret de Lakshmi and Le Thinnai, two novels which creatively intersperse Tamil, Hindi, Créole and English with French, reflecting the multilingual identities of those living in Pondichéry. His works give an insight into the impact of the French rule on the lives of Pondichéry citizens, their constantly vacillating identities, the multicultural aspect of the city, the Indian caste system, and the history of Pondichéry.

The ‘World Literatures’ strand of Creative Multilingualism is interested in texts where multiple languages brush up against one another, prompting questions about the boundaries of what a language is. This research wants to explore how worldliness and cultural transfer is present within a text from the moment of its inception, and how multilingualism speaks to multiculturalism. The research aims to expose interactions between different languages within a text, not just by examining the different languages in which a text is written, but also seeking out the traces of other languages through allusions to them or even by the notable absence of certain languages in a text. Gautier’s novels, with their interspersing of at least five languages, therefore seem like a perfect fit.

Prof. Smith gave a useful overview of the status of Francophone Indian Literature. To begin with, he acknowledged that it’s not necessarily something the general English reader will be aware of. When we think of Francophonie, we perhaps automatically think of certain countries in West Africa, Canada, or French-speaking East Asia or Oceania. However, France had a colonial presence in India from the seventeenth century. That said, Francophone Indian Literature was only really published from the late nineteenth century onwards and, during the twentieth century, French acted as a secondary language for many writers who were primarily writing in other languages. Academic interest in the French colonial legacy within Indian writing is fairly recent, and Prof. Smith recommended an anthology of Francophone Indian short stories for anyone who wishes to explore further: Écriture indienne d’expression française, edited by Vijaya Rao (Yoda Press & La Reunion par Le GERM, 2008).

Photo by Muhammed Jiyadh on Unsplash

The panel then turned to a discussion of how multilingualism operates within Gautier’s writing. Here is an extract from Gautier’s novel, Le Thinnai:

— Gilbert, va m’acheter un Suruttu à la boutique. Il te reste encore de la monnaie, n’est-ce pas ?
Voyant Gilbert fouiller désespérément ses poches, mon père lui dit d’aller chez Karika Bhai et d’acheter un paquet de Suruttus sur son compte.
— Oh, je suis à la retraite depuis une bonne dizaine d’années. J’ai fait le strict nécessaire sous les drapeaux pour pouvoir bénéficier de la retraite et je suis retourné au pays, répondit mon père après s’être allumé une cigarette.
— Pourquoi vous n’y êtes pas resté ? Vous ne vous plaisiez pas en métropole ?
— Ce n’est pas une question de s’y plaire ou pas. J’avais juste envie de revenir parmi les miens. Même si je m’étais fondé une famille là-bas, il me paraissait tout à fait naturel de rentrer chez moi.
— Mais la France, c’est aussi chez vous ! Vous êtes citoyen français.
Papa laissa échapper une bouffée de fumée ; il tapotait la cigarette sur le bord du cendrier et parut réfléchir.
— Oui, je suis français. Mais je suis indien en même temps. C’est ici que je suis né, mes ancêtres sont d’ici. Mes racines sont là. Même si j’ai vécu en métropole pendant quelque temps, il m’a paru normal de rentrer chez moi. Il n’y a aucune différence entre moi et un Breton ou un Normand qui aurait envie de retourner chez lui après avoir passé du temps en dehors de sa région natale. Sauf que moi, c’est un peu plus loin… Il marqua un temps d’arrêt pour tirer une bouffée. Mais vous connaissez aussi bien que moi l’histoire de notre pays ; surtout, l’histoire de Pondichéry. Ma famille est française depuis deux générations et je fus le premier à partir en métropole. Jusqu’ici nous n’avions que le statut de Français sur les documents ; mais nous étions profondément indiens. Enfin, nous le sommes toujours. Comment pouvez-vous vous sentir français, sans avoir jamais mis les pieds dans ce pays. Mes parents viennent d’un milieu modeste et n’ont pas eu accès ni à la langue ni à la culture française. L’univers français nous était totalement étranger. La seule chose qui nous rapprochait des Européens était le culte de la religion catholique. À part ça, nous vivions dans deux mondes différents. Notre allégeance à la France se trouvait enfermée dans une vieille malle en ferraille dans l’espoir qu’un jour, un des descendants l’ouvrirait et utiliserait ce morceau de papier. Pendant longtemps, nous ne fûmes pas considérés comme citoyens français ; nous n’étions que des sujets de la nation.
—Mais, toute ces années passées dans l’armée française n’ont pas su éveiller en vous un sentiment d’appartenance à ce pays ?
Mon père écrasa la cigarette au fond du cendrier et se versa une nouvelle rasade. Il se leva pour aller servir le vieil homme et vint s’asseoir sur le petit thinnai. Il tenait le verre de whisky dans sa main droite et regardait les bulles de soda qui remontaient à la surface du verre. Il reprit la parole en se passant la main gauche sur les cheveux d’avant en arrière ; geste qu’il avait l’habitude de faire quand il réfléchissait longuement.
— Je ne connais pas votre histoire, l’ancien, mais vous avez l’air de quelqu’un qui connaît la vie. Vivre en exil est une énorme malédiction. Certes, mon éloignement fut volontaire ; mais à mon époque, nous n’avions pas beaucoup de choix. Partir était le seul moyen d’échapper à une vie indigente. Nos parents et grands-parents qui avaient opté pour la nationalité française avaient fait de nous une génération d’immigrés dans notre pays qui était la France. Indigènes de la nation, nos vies n’ont connu que les tranchées, les coups de feu et les rations militaires. Inconscients et aveugles ignorants, nous sommes partis combattre nos frères malgaches, indochinois et algériens. À aucun moment, la notion que nous étions coupables de complicité involontaire aux massacres d’un pouvoir colonial ne nous a effleurés. Nous nous battions contre des ennemis de notre Mère patrie. Nous en étions fiers. Mais malgré notre fidélité envers elle, l’idée du retour fut plus instinctive. Après tout, nous n’étions que des indigènes des Troupes Coloniales ; la France n’a jamais été notre patrie. Cet attachement ambivalent que nous avons envers elle est une anomalie de l’histoire.  

And here it is in Prof. Smith’s English translation:

 “Gilbert, go buy me a suruttu at the shop. You still have money, don’t you?”
Watching Little Gilbert fumble despairingly in his pockets, my father told him to buy a suruttu from Karika Bhai, and add it to the soldier’s account.
“Oh, I’ve been retired for twelve years now. I did the absolute minimum to earn my pension, and now I’m back.” My father answered, lighting a cigarette.
“Why didn’t you stay? You didn’t like it in France?”
“It wasn’t a question of liking it or not. I just wanted to come back to my own people. Even if I started a family there, it seemed natural to come back home.”
“But France, that’s home too! You’re a French citizen.”
My father exhaled a puff of smoke. He tapped the cigarette on the edge of the ashtray and seemed to think it over.
“Oh, I’m French. But Indian, too. I was born here. So were my ancestors. My roots are here. And after spending some time outside their own province, even a Breton or a Norman wants to go home. It’s the same with me. But my home is a little farther… you must know the history of Pondicherry as well as I do. My family has been French for generations, but I was the first one to go to France. Until then we were just paper Frenchmen; really we were Indians. Really we still are. How can you feel French, if you’ve never set foot there? My parents came from nothing; they didn’t know French or French culture. The only thing that connected us to the Europeans was the church. Besides that, it was two different worlds.”
“But all those years in the French army, didn’t they make you feel like you were part of the nation?”
My father crushed his cigarette in the ashtray and poured another drink. He got up to fill the old man’s glass and sat back down. He held his whisky in his right hand, watching the soda bubbles rise to the surface. He ran his left hand through his hair, which he always did when he had to think hard about something.
“I don’t know your story, old one, but you seem like you know a thing or two about life. Living in exile is a curse. Sure, I chose it, but back then there wasn’t much to choose from. Leaving was the only way out of poverty. Trenches, gunshots, and rations, that was all we knew. We fought our brothers in Madagascar, Indochina and Algeria. We never thought we might be guilty of anything. We felt nothing, saw nothing, understood nothing. We fought the enemies of the motherland. We were proud. But in spite of our faithful service, we wanted to come home. We were just colonial soldiers. France was never our country. What we had with it was just a quirk of history.”

The question of French culture and how far it can coexist alongside an Indian identity is central to this passage, a fact that is emphasised and complicated by the fact that the novel is written largely in French. But, of course, this passage is not entirely in French. What about that reference to a suruttu? A suruttu is a cigar, what we would call in English a ‘cheroot’, from the French cheroute, which itself comes from the Tamil curuttu/churuttu/shuruttu/suruttu. In this way, a single word, referring to an everyday item, can illuminate a complicated multilingual interaction.

Similarly the reference to the Tamil word thinnai is an example of what we might think of as an untranslatable word. A thinnai is a raised platform built adjacent to the main entrance of a house. It is common in Tamil Nadu, a state in the south of India. Traditionally, it was a place where elders could rest to talk to neighbours and friends, and where strangers could stop for respite when passing through the town. Thus, in a text written mostly in French we see how a reference to another language can evoke a whole set of cultural values – hospitality, community, conversation. The porous borders between languages can facilitate and reveal the coexistence of multiple cultures.

Gautier talked about his own multilingual background, explaining that he spoke French with his father but Tamil with his uncle. Growing up in Pondicherry, he said that every street seemed to have its own language and he moved around a lot: his universe evolved with languages. When asked about the fact that his first novel included footnotes to explain Tamil words to non-Tamil speakers, but his second novel did not, Gautier confirmed that this was a deliberate decision. Footnotes could be seen as a form of linguistic colonisation – an attempt to make the Tamil words fit more comfortably within a French-language text. By deciding not to explain the Tamil in his second novel, Gautier refused to compromise Tamil. He said that using footnotes made him feel alien to his own language.

The wide-ranging discussion moved on to cover many aspects of Gautier’s writing, including its cinematic quality, the role of received memory in constructing his narratives and the question of mythology. While we don’t have room to touch on all those topics here, we will end by mentioning one further question that was raised, and which again highlights the porous potentiality of multilingualism: the use of Creole in Gautier’s novels.

Le Thinnai includes a character called Lourdes, a servant who speaks in Creole. One of the important roles Creole plays in a novel written largely in French is to recognise a community that has been overlooked. Gautier explained that in Pondicherry there is a problematic hierarchy between what is known as ‘haut-créole’ and ‘bas-créole’. Someone who is ‘haut-créole’ is of mixed French and Indian descent, whereas someone who is ‘bas-créole’ is not of French descent but nonetheless speaks a creolised form of French. The character Lourdes is ‘bas-créole’. She insists that she speaks French but other characters think she is speaking in Creole. The inclusion of Creole in this novel therefore performs the difficulties of thinking about translingualism: how far is it a language in its own right? How far is it a corrupted form of French? Might we think of it as an enhanced form of French?

These are just a few of the questions raised by the notion of multilingualism and translingualism in World Literatures. You can dig a little deeper into Francophone Indian literature by reading Prof. Smith’s piece ‘Indian Literature speaks French‘ or follow Ari Gautier on Twitter.

Mapping Jane Eyres across the world

This post was originally published on the Creative Multilingualism blog. Creative Multilingualism is a four-year AHRC-funded programme investigating the interconnection between linguistic diversity and creativity.  Regular readers of Adventures on the Bookshelf will remember Prof. Matthew Reynolds’s earlier post about translations of Jane Eyre. In this post, Prof. Reynolds talks about the process of mapping different translations of the novel.

In April, Prismatic Translation’s  Associated Researcher in Digital Humanities, Giovanni Pietro Vitali, stayed in Oxford to work with me on mapping the global diffusion of translations of Jane Eyre. Giovanni Pietro’s trajectory has taken him from Pisa to Perugia, Nancy and Leipzig (where he trained in Digital Humanities); he is now a Marie Curie Fellow attached to Cork, Reading, and NYU.

Mapping Jane Eyre’s translations is a challenge, on several fronts. First, where do you locate a translation on a map? It will have been done by a translator in a certain place, or places; but then it may have been published somewhere else; and it can be read wherever there is a reader who understands its language – which is, in many cases, pretty much anywhere.

Usually, we can find no information about where a translation has been written (often translations are anonymous). We don’t want to attach the translations to particular nation states, because languages don’t correspond to nation states: think of the many languages spoken in India (or indeed the UK), or the many states that have Spanish, French or Portuguese as official languages. So we have opted for the place of publication – not endeavouring to put boundaries around the territory inhabited by a translation, but showing the point from which it came out into the world.

Yet where exactly is a place of publication? For one set of maps, which allow readers to trace the development of the cover images in connection with the place and time of publication, we have used the publishers’ street addresses (this necessitated much careful work on the part of the project’s researchers – and caused some anguish!). Here we find a by-product of looking at the world of books through the lens of Jane Eyre: tracking the translations, we discover the bits of cities where publishers cluster, and find harmonies between the books’ designs and their locales. But for the general maps, which allow us to see and understand the spread of Janes across the world, street addresses seemed too specific. For these visualisations, the city seemed the right unit of location.

When I made this theoretical decision, I hadn’t quite understood the relationship between the computer-magic of Digital Humanities and the mind-numbing, slow, human labour that lies behind it. Once you know a translation’s place of publication, the computer can do quite a good job of assigning latitudes and longitudes to the given names. But not a perfect one: it can’t know if you mean Paris (France) or Paris (Texas), the Tripoli in Libya or one of the lesser-known Tripolis in Lebanon or Greece. And you can’t know when it is going to make a mistake – which means that every point needs checking by human eye and hand. In the case of Jane Eyre the number of points that have needed checking (so far) is 543.

But latitude and longitude still do not amount to a city. For that, you need to find the outline of each city and paste it onto your map. In our case, that meant 171 cities from Addis Ababa to Zutphen. You find the outline of a city in a long list called a ‘Shape File’; and there are separate Shape Files maintained by every State. So you go to the Shape File for India and find Ahmedabad; then you go to the Shape File for Syria and find Aleppo, and so on. And on. The process is not so very painful when you are dealing with Berlin or Rome; but when it is Dushanbe in Tajikistan, or Kaifeng in China (written in non-alphabetic characters) you feel your life draining away as you struggle to be sure you have pinpointed the right place.

Then, after days of labour, the moment of magic, when you are suddenly able to witness the spread of Jane Eyres across the world, like this:

Or zoom in for a more detailed view, like this:

Map of Jane Eyre translations zoomed in

And this is only the beginning. The maps that we are currently working on organise the translations according to region and language, allowing a more analytical understanding of the processes at work; and they also show the translations unfolding year by year. So now (or, soon) you will be able to see before your eyes the startling spread of Jane Eyre translations that had already happened by 1850: Berlin, Brussels, Paris, St Petersburg, Stuttgart, Grimma, Stockholm, Groningen and – Havana!