Category Archives: Translation

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.

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.

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:

IdiomLanguageLiteral
Translation
MeaningAbstract
concept
associated with the

Moon
être dans
la lune
Frenchto be in
the Moon
head in the
clouds
thinking/day-dreaming
spadł z
księżyca
Polishto fall from
the Moon
behaving
strangely
thinking/
irrationality
er lebt
hinter dem Mond
Germanhe lives
behind the Moon
he has no
idea what’s
going on in
the world
irrationality/
strange
behaviour
I love you to the Moon
and back
English to love
someone
very much
love
oli mumanzi nka kwezi Rutooro you’re as
brave as the Moon
very bravebravery/
emotional
strength
many
Moons
ago
Englisha long time
ago
time
月有陰晴圓缺 Mandarinthe moon is dark bright
round and
missing a
piece
to say life is uncertain,
not all plain
sailing
life
14 قمر Arabicfull Moon/
Moon of 14
beauty
(woman’s)
beauty

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!

68 ways to say ‘plain’: translating Jane Eyre

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.  The programme is split into seven research strands, one of which is ‘Prismatic Translation’. In this post, Prof. Matthew Reynolds, Co-Investigator on the strand, explains how they have been looking at translations of Jane Eyre through a multilingual prism…

I spent March mainly in Pisa, working on fifteen Italian translations [of Jane Eyre] with a group of graduate students and early career researchers co-ordinated by our collaborator in the project there, Professor Alessandro Grilli.

It was an exhilarating experience, eight or ten of us grouped around a table in an airy room high up in an eighteenth-century palazzo overlooking the oldest botanical garden in Europe (even older than Oxford’s!) sharing our findings with the help of a projector pointed at the uneven wall.

Various discoveries emerged which will make their way into the webpages that are being created and book that is being written. The earliest Italian translation, done anonymously and published in Milan in 1904, mainly follows the 1854 French translation by Noémi Lesbazeilles (née Souvestre): for instance, Bertha Mason’s ‘red eyes’ become ‘yeux injectés’ and, in turn, ‘occhi iniettati’ (injected/blood-shot eyes’). Here we can see translation, not jumping from one language to another as though they were separate boxes, but moving through the continuum of language difference, following pathways in which Italian and French are joined.

Just occasionally, however, when the French was puzzling, the anonymous Italian translator turned to the English for help. When Jane hears Rochester’s voice telepathically calling across the moors, Charlotte Bronte wrote: ‘’O God! what is it?’ I gasped.’ Lesbazeilles-Souvestres takes this in a surprising direction: ‘J’aspirai l’air avec force’ (‘I breathed in forcefully / took a deep breath’). This must have struck the Italian translator as peculiar; the English must have been checked; and a simpler equivalent was found: ‘mormorai’ (‘I murmured’ – ‘gasped’, in its sense here, is a tricky word to match). Usually in translation – or at least in people’s ideas of translation – the translator works from the original and occasionally looks at other versions for help. But here we have the opposite: the French becomes the source text and the English serves as a guide to its interpretation.

One of the researchers, Caterina Cappelli, is someone I first met when she translated my novel The World Was All Before Them for her Masters thesis some years ago. Now, she has done an extraordinary piece of research, tracking the word ‘plain’ (also ‘plainly’ and ‘plainness’) through all its 49 appearances in the novel, in 13 different translations. That is, 637 occurrences of the word. As its frequency suggests, ‘plain’ is a crucial term for Brontë. Jane is plain (not beautiful), she speaks plainly (frankly), and she likes plain (simple) things; in the story, things are heard plainly (clearly) and become plain (are understood); and the novel itself is described as ‘a plain tale’ (a realist novel, that shows the world as it is).

One of Brontë’s ambitions in her writing was to re-assess this word, creating a woman character who can be admired for her mind and principles rather than her looks, and writing a story that can be valued for its truth-telling as much or more than for its excitements. For Brontë, ‘plain’ is what the literary critic William Empson called a ‘complex word’: a bundle of culturally-charged different meanings that need a whole play or novel to open up their synergies and contradictions.

In the Italian translations, the explosion of meanings hidden in the word becomes, well, plain. This one English word is translated in – wait for it – sixty-eight quite different ways, in terms that correspond to: simple, ugly, clear, insignificant, sincere, well, open, modest, frank, easy, distinct, dull, common, smooth, white, and so on, and on. Here is a table constructed by Caterina:

And here is a visualisation:

For more on Prismatic Translation, see their pages here.

Babel Translation Competition – the winners

Back in February we brought you news of an exciting translation competition being run by the Creative Multilingualism Programme, in connection with the exhibition at the Bodleian Library on ‘Babel: Adventures in Translation’. We are now pleased to share the winners of this competition.

Magical Translation
The task was to create a modern version of Cinderella in any language  with an English prose translation. We received some fantastic entries in this category which played cleverly with the Cinderella story, adding twenty-first-century twists like Cinderella losing her luggage tag instead of a slipper, or being tracked down by the prince using social media. The best of these stories engaged with the question of Cinderella’s identity, manipulating the traditional tale to reflect on issues like Cinderella’s sexuality, her race, the prince’s gender identity, or the role of feminism in fairytales.

The overall winner of this task was fifteen-year-old Alice, whose version of the story, written in Spanish, sees Cinderella transported to the streets of Buenos Aires and dreaming of a football career…

En las calles sucias de La Boca, Buenos Aires, Cinderella Muños trabajó incansablemente por su madrastra y sus dos hermanastras. “Trabaja duro y agradece” le dijeron a ella. A Cinderella siempre le encantó el fútbol y soñaba jugar para su equipo local: Boca Juniors, a pesar de siendo una niña. Sus padres tenían boletos de temporada, sin embargo, tristemente cuando murieron, los boletos fueron entregados a su madrastra. Cinderella tenía prohibida ver algún partidos. A pesar de eso, su amor por fútbol nunca se detuvo y en las calles de La Boca practicaría todas las noches. Cinderella fue devastada perderse la victoria de Boca Juniors en las finales de la Primera División contra Plate River. Mientras se sentaba tristemente en las escaleras, vio un sobre de oro que contenía tres entradas para una fiesta para celebrar la victoria. Su madrastra se las arrebató como quería que sus hijas conocer el famoso futbolista: Jorman Campuzano. se vistieron de azul y amarillo (los colores del equipo) y salieron, dejando a Cinderella completamente sola. Estaba muy triste mientras ella pateó su fútbol por las calles oscuras. En la fiesta, Jorman miró fuera la ventana y él estaba asombrado por la curiosa figura quien dominó la hábil patada del arco iris. Se impresionó aún más y pronto se unió. Cuando el reloj golpeó a las doce, ella escapó, dejando atrás su fútbol, ​​con el nombre: Cinderella Muños. Poco después, Jorman la encontró y la invitó ella probar para el equipo, y desde ese día, ella nunca más tuvó que ver a su madrastra o hermanastras.

In the dirty streets of La Boca, Buenos Aires, Cinderella Muños worked tirelessely for her stepmother and two spoilt stepsisters. “Work hard and be grateful” she was told. Cinderella always loved football and dreamed of playing for the local team, Boca Juniors, despite being a girl. Her parents owned season tickets however, sadly when they died, these tickets passed to her step mother Cinderella was forbidden to watch any matches. Despite this, her love for football never ceased and in the streets of La Boca she would practice nightly. Cinderella was devastated to miss Boca Juniors’s victory in the Primera division finals against Plate River. While she sat sadly on the steps she noticed a golden envelope which contained three tickets to a party to celebrate the victory. Her step mother snatched them away as she wanted her daughters to meet the handsome footballer Jorman Campuzano. They dressed in blue and yellow (the team colours) and set off, leaving Cinderella all alone. She felt very lonely as she kicked her football along the dark streets. Up at the party, Jorman looked out the window and was amazed by the curious figure who mastered the skilful rainbow kick. He became ever more impressed and soon joined in. As the clock struck twelve she ran off leaving behind her football with the name: Cinderella Muños. Shortly after, he found her and invited her to trial for the team, and from then on never had to see her step mother or sisters again.

To see other winners and highly commended entries in this task, check out the page on the Creative Multilingualism website here.

Fabulous Translation

The task was to create a fable – an animal story with a moral – in any language with an English prose translation. The fables we received were wide-ranging and hugely imaginative. Stories were written in French, German,  Italian, Irish (Gaelic), Korean, Spanish, and Yoruba. We read tales about foolhardy frogs leaping on the heads of crocodiles, a jealous rat envying a peacock’s beauty, dogs looking for love, a dolphin betraying its mother’s trust, and a crow going head-to-head with an eagle. The strongest stories in this task were filled with vivid imagery, linguistic courage, and showed a willingness to engage thoughtfully with the structure and purpose of the fable genre, often illustrating complex morals with subtle simplicity.

The overall winner of this task was thirteen-year-old Clémence, who wrote a poignant and visually striking fable in French about the consequences of not preparing for winter.

‘Un hiver long et froid’

Un jeune Cacatoès a huppe rouge se positionna sur la branche la plus haute du grand chêne. Son plumage était d’un des plus majestueux et sa huppe d’un couleur cramoisi. Son regard lumineux faisait scintiller la foret pleine de végétation. Ou, c’est ce qu’il croyait. Ses parents cacatoès pépiait sans cesse de leurs fils précieux.
En bas, dans l’un des trous les plus sombre vivait une petite famille d’écureuil roux. Leur fourrure était toute douce, comme les nuages et portait un point d’interrogation tout doux pour une queue. Ils étaient silencieux et rapides, travaillait dur et s’organiser. Leurs petites moustaches repairaient le vent tourner au nord, symbolisant l’arrivée de l’hiver, un hiver sombre et froid.
Le plus jeune écureuil regarda le haut du grand chêne avec intérêt. Il n’avait jamais récupéré les noix là-haut, celles qui était les plus juteuse. L’idée lui monta à la tête. Quel mal ferait t’il d’essayer. En plus l’hiver s’approcha de plus en plus, il fallait faire des récoltes.
‘Mais que fais-tu là-haut petit écureuil.’ Lui chanta le cacatoès.
‘Et toi, tu n’as pas fait tes provisions’ réponds l’écureuil.
‘Moi, je suis trop beau et intelligent pour telles taches ! L’hiver viendra quand ça me chantera !’
‘Toi tu te crois sorti de la cuisse de Jupiter mon pauvre. La neige et le vent te changera les idées.’
L’hiver arriva sans même dire un autre mot. La famille écureuil se tenait au chaud autour de la grande réserve lorsque la famille cacatoès, on ne les distinguer presque pas avec la neige nacrée.

Photo by John Torcasio on Unsplash

A young red crested cockatoo positioned himself on the highest branch of the large oak. His plumage was one of the most majestic and a crimson colour. His glowing eyes made the forest full of vegetation glitter. Or, that’s what he believed. His cockatoo parents constantly chirped about their precious sons.
At the bottom, in a dark hole, lived a small family of red squirrels. Their chestnut fur was soft, like clouds, and had a question mark for a tail. They were silent and fast, hard working and organised. Their little moustaches sensed the north wind coming, symbolising the arrival of winter, a dark and cold winter.
The youngest squirrel looked up the large oak with interest. He never collected the nuts up there, the ones that were the juiciest. The idea rose to his head. What harm would it do to try. In addition the winter was coming and provisions where needed.
But what are you doing up there little squirrel?” Sang the cockatoo to him.
And you, you have not yet made your provisions” answered the squirrel.
‘I am too handsome and intelligent for such jobs! Winter will come when I want it too! ‘
‘You believe yourself to have come out of the thigh of Jupiter my poor. Snow and wind change your ideas. ‘
Winter arrived without even saying another word. The squirrel family kept warm around the great reserve unlike the cockatoo’s family, we hardly distinguish them against the pearly snow.

You can read more of the highly commended fables here. Well done to all the winners and many thanks to everyone who took part! Some of the winning stories will be on display this Saturday, 15 June, at the Oxford Translation Day. This is a day full of translation events, which are free to attend. You can find the full programme here.

If you are near Oxford and your thirst for translation has not yet been quenched, do consider going along – and be sure to check out the winning Babel stories while you’re there.

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!