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!
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!
Those of you interested in translation might be interested to hear that there is an exhibition at the Weston Library in Oxford on ‘Babel: Adventures in Translation’, which is running from now until 2nd June. Part of the Creative Multilingualism Programme, this exhibition explores the history of translation from ancient to modern times, examining how translation has shaped our understanding of history and cultural transfer, and also asking what role translation might play in the future.
In connection with the exhibition (which is free to enter, no booking required), we will be running a ‘Library Late’, with lots of translation-based activities, and a new competition which is based on some of the items exhibited. Read on to find out more…
Babel: Adventures in Translation takes visitors beyond the ancient myth of the Tower of Babel and society’s quest for a universal language to explore the ubiquity and power of translation in the movement of ideas, stories and cultural practices around the world. Through a stunning selection of objects ranging from a 2nd century papyrus book and illuminated manuscripts to animal stories, religious books and a bilingual road sign, Babel explodes the notion that translation is merely about word-for-word rendering into another language, or that it is obsolete in the era of global English and Google Translate.
Treasures from the Bodleian Libraries’ collections, both ancient and modern, illustrate how stories have travelled across time, territory, language and medium. Highlights on show include a 4000-year-old bowl inscribed with a language that still resists deciphering, an unpublished Tolkien notebook revealing how he experimented with Esperanto before creating his fictional Elvish languages, and an experimental 1950s computer programme designed to generate love letters.
Exploring themes of multiculturalism and identity, the exhibition considers issues that are more relevant than ever as Britain approaches Brexit. It also tackles the tricky question of how to translate for the distant future.
The Library Late
To complement the exhibition, we’re holding an evening of multilingual merriment on 8 March with language tasters (from Esperanto to Sign Language), mini-talks, interactive translation activities, live music, and more! Sign up for your free ticket via Eventbrite.
To celebrate the launch of the exhibition, we’re holding a competition for school pupils from year 5 to year 13. There will be prizes of £50 — £100 for the winners of each age category and overall task winners. There are three tasks to choose from; you are welcome to enter more than one task but you are only permitted to send in a maximum of one entry per task. The tasks are as follows:
A) Magical Translation
Create a modern version of Cinderella in a language and medium (text, audio or video) of your choice with a typed English prose translation.
B) Fabulous Translation
Create a fable – an animal story with a moral – in a language and medium (text, audio or video) of your choice with a typed English prose translation.
C) Futuristic Translation
Create a warning about a nuclear waste site – in a language and/or medium that will communicate effectively with people in the year 10,000.
There are prizes of £100 and £50 to be won. The entries to each task will be judged in four age groups: Years 5-6 (age 9-11), Years 7-9 (age 11-14), Years 10-11 (age 14-16) and Years 12-13 (age 16-18). There will be prizes of £50 for the winners of each age group for each task, and an overall winner for each task will receive an extra £50, bringing their total prize to £100. Certificates will be awarded for Commended and Highly Commended entries.
How to enter
To take part in the competition, upload your entry using the registration forms on the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages website (there is a separate registration form for each task):
The deadline for entries is noon on 15 May 2019. Winners will be notified (via email) by 30 May 2019. For inspiration about the tasks, please see this page. If you have any questions, please email us at email@example.com. Good luck!
We’ll be posting more about the Babel: Adventures in Translation Exhibition later in the spring. We hope you can visit it and immerse yourself in the history of translation, and that you can take part in one of the competitions. Nonetheless, if you’re not able to visit the exhibition in person, we’ll be exploring some of the content digitally in the coming weeks. Watch this space!
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
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.
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’.
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.
This post was originally published on the Creative Multilingualism blog. Here, professional translator Noah Birksted-Breen talks about translating the same play three times, taking into consideration different audiences and cultural reference points. You can also read an interview with Noah about Russian theatre here.
I have just finished translating Mikhail Durnenkov’s The War Hasn’t Yet Started for the third time in as many years. I’m in an unusual situation – one translator creating three different versions of the same play. As far as I know, that doesn’t normally happen. I have tried to take advantage of each opportunity to re-translate the play, adapting it significantly to the specific target audience.
In 2015, I translated The War for the first time, for my Ph.D. at Queen Mary University of London. Subsequently, this translation was presented as a rehearsed reading at the Frontline Club in London. I knew that the Frontline Club attracts a specialist audience, already familiar with Russian culture. I left the play in quite a ‘raw’ state. For example, I could indulge my audience with references to ‘dachas’ rather than ‘country houses’. I left the language sounding rather ‘strange’ or ‘foreign’. To English ears, it was somewhat stilted – although it worked for people who already know about Russian culture.
In 2016, Theatre Royal Plymouth produced The War in the Drum Theatre in Plymouth (their studio space with approx. 200 seats). I developed my translation further with the director Michael Fentiman, who directed the production in Plymouth. Fentiman had a good eye for clarifying cultural references which would not be clear to audiences in the UK. So, ‘dacha’ would become ‘country house’. But there were more difficult decisions to be taken as well about ‘hidden’ references.
For example, one scene in The War refers to ‘another country’, without specifying which one. Russian audiences would know from the scene that it refers to Ukraine. Russia has been waging a covert – and later more overt – war against Ukraine since 2014. It felt wrong to name Ukraine in the scene, since the drama works on a metaphorical level, as well as commenting obliquely on real-world geopolitics. Fentiman encouraged me to develop the references in a certain way. For example, the Russian TV journalist who willingly broadcasts a ‘fake news’ story about Ukraine refers to ‘them’ and ‘they’.
In my second translation, working with Fentiman, I ended up going for ‘those other people’ – which is tacitly xenophobic or at least judgemental. This less literal approach to the original text helped to create the sense of two hostile, warring neighbouring countries without needing to specify Russia and the Ukraine. It even added to the drama of the scene, I think, by highlighting the mentality of ‘us versus them’, which motivated the scene and the play as a whole. (The playwright is looking critically at the ‘us versus them’ mentality, rather than endorsing it!).
In January 2018, a new production of The War opened at London’s Southwark Playhouse. It is produced by the same company, Theatre Royal Plymouth, but there is a new director and therefore the translation will also be different. This has been my favourite experience of translation to date. Working with the director Gordon Anderson, I altered my translation even more than in 2016.
I moved yet further away from translation as a technical process which is ‘faithful’ to the original. Anderson’s TV experience gave him a keen eye for opportunities to edit and shape the dialogue – a step closer to adaptation. In the past, I might have objected. Scholars often feel that retaining the ‘foreignness’ of the play’s language is the highest priority of translation. Yet, my approach to translation has changed over many years – and Anderson pushed me to develop my approach still further. At times, I added to the dialogue and at times, I cut dialogue from the scenes, where I felt that the spirit of the original was getting ‘lost in translation’.
This way of working sees the translator as essentially creating a ‘new play’. Obviously, this ‘new play’ has to embody the spirit of the original, but it needn’t be overly faithful to the original. Translating The War for the third time, I wanted the London audience to experience the drama (the story and structure) of this play, without getting bogged down in the ‘strangeness’ of the language itself. This method captures a more nuanced view of Russian culture. It aims to create a natural-sounding text in English which retains difference, or even ‘strangeness’, in the plotting or characters.
That makes sense when you think about it. After all, Russian culture is not ‘isolated’ in its own bubble. I regularly speak to Russian playwrights who tell me that they are equally inspired by Russian culture as by British playwriting. Any translation must find a nuanced balance between being ‘strange’ (or ‘foreign) and ‘natural’. The language should not be an obstacle for the audience. Otherwise, Russian plays are being translated solely to be watched by audiences who are already familiar with Russian culture.
I have come to believe that translation is more about capturing ‘unfamiliar ways of thinking’. In The War, there are a series of competing realities. Different characters see the world in contradictory ways. The play suggests that ‘your truth’ and ‘my truth’ cannot both be true. In other words, The War offers an experience of living in a post-truth era – just as relevant to British audiences as Russian ones. I have come to feel that translation is like telling somebody about a dream you had the previous night. You have to explain what you saw as clearly as possible, in a language which they will understand. The meaning of the dream is elusive…. What matters is how it felt when you were asleep, and finding a natural-sounding way to explain the odd experiences in the dream to your listener. I hope that my least ‘faithful’ translation of The War captures the dream-like but arresting quality of the original play in a clear and lucid language.
This post was written by Dr Alex Lloyd, a lecturer in German at Magdalen College & St Edmund Hall. Dr Lloyd is a key member of the team behind the Oxford German Network, and a convenor of the Oxford Song Network. Today she tells us about when German and song come together…
How do you translate the words of a song into another language so that it still fits the music when it’s sung in the new version? This was the challenge my students set us when we offered to translate Friedrich Schiller’s poem ‘An die Freude’ [Ode to Joy] for the collaborative translation collection, The Idea of Europe: Enlightenment Perspectives.
Schiller’s poem is well known in the setting by Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony. My second-year students suggested we attempt a translation which rhymed and scanned like the original and which could be sung to Beethoven’s tune. I had done translation workshops with students in the past which involved working with song texts (you can listen to some examples of German World War One texts here), and had also started to explore the theory behind producing singable or ‘vocal’ translations. So, we decided to try and fit our text to Beethoven’s music. Each student took responsibility for one or more verses of the text, and we discussed their ideas and solutions in our weekly translation class. The students enjoyed the collaborative aspect of the experience (it’s one thing translating by yourself, but quite another to have to reach compromises and negotiate!), as well as the challenge of thinking about text and music. One student reported: ‘It was great fun collaborating for this translation, as we realised we all emphasised different aspects of the original poem and had different interpretations of some of the images, so we had to pitch our ideas against each other to come up with a final version.’ When we were translating, we had to take a number of factors into account: the style and structure of the text, the register (formal or informal?), the literal meaning of words as well as the associations they have within society and culture. The first few lines of the first verse will show you what I mean:
Freude, schöner Götterfunken
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!
[Joy, the gods’ own spark of beauty
daughter of Elysium,
Fire-drunk pilgrims’ solemn duty
to your kingdom we shall come!]
This is not the sort of thing that comes up in everyday conversation.
Often, it’s actually quite difficult to translate a text without losing something of the original – references, sounds made by the position of words in a sentence – and to say just exactly what the original text did. To translate a text so that it also fits the rhythms of a song is a very tall order. Indeed, this kind of translation has been called impossible. We had to think about the style and structure of the music as well as the text: phrasing, rhythm, stress, range, word painting. We also needed to think about the needs of the singers (not putting awkward vowel sounds on a very high note, for example), as well as the function of the song (the tune is used as the European Union’s anthem though performed without words), and the needs of the audience members who are listening to it. To use a technical term from translation studies, we had to ‘compensate’, by trying to introduce things elsewhere to achieve the same effects overall. Vocal translation encourages us to ask questions about the dynamic relationships between text and music. Perhaps have a go at translating your favourite song from English into German. Can you make it fit the music without sounding really strange?
Singable translation might be difficult, but it’s something we can encounter without thinking about it. Many people at Christmas sing the carol ‘Silent Night’ which is actually a translation of a German song, ‘Stille Nacht’. Or, take David Bowie’s famous song ‘Heroes’ which he also performed in German and in French. One of the students who worked on the translation is now doing an extended project on the way hymns change between languages, and another will be taking a course on advanced German translation next year. A group of students and I performed the singable English translation of the ‘Ode to Joy’ at the launch of the book, The Idea of Europe: Enlightenment Perspectives, in November. ‘It was a lovely surprise to be a sent a video months later of our translation being sung at the relay reading event in the Taylorian!’.
And you can see a clip of Dr Lloyd and her students singing ‘An die Freude’ here…
From the fourth Harry Potter book onwards, once the saga’s French translator, Jean-François Ménard, was most definitely not translating the work of a little-known British children’s author any more, his working routine was the same. The publisher’s paranoia about plot leaks meant that translators were refused advance access to the English original. Ménard’s copy arrived on the day of publication of the English-language version. Two months later he would be expected to present the publishers with the French text to be rushed into print for millions of impatient francophone readers. Every day of those two months would be spent translating J. K. Rowling’s prose, starting at 6 a.m. and finishing at midnight, barring a long lunch-break to refresh his brain and a weekly trip to the physiotherapist to ward off writer’s cramp.
Translating Harry Potter presents unusual challenges. What to do with the latiny riddle-language of Rowling’s spells, which allows English-speaking readers to work out that wingardium leviosa implies ‘wings’ and ‘levitation’, or that the cruciatus curse will bring excruciating pain? What to do with the names of people and places, with their hidden jokes and clues? Let’s take a look at a few, so that we can appreciate what Ménard was up against. In the original, Hogwarts school is divided into the four houses, Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Slytherin. In Ménard’s translation, L’École de Poudlard (‘Poux-de-lard’, or ‘bacon lice’) is divided into Gryffondor (‘Gryffon d’or’, or ‘golden griffin’), Serdaigle (‘serre d’aigle’, or ‘eagle talon’), Poufsouffle (which suggests ‘à bout de souffle’, or ‘out of puff’) and Serpentard (which contains the word serpent, meaning snake). Some are quite different, presumably because literal translations of Hogwarts (‘verrues de porc’) and Ravenclaw (‘serre de corbeau’) are not as mellifluous, or as funny-sounding, in French as in English. A little of the subtlety is lost from Slytherin, who are now bluntly linked to snakes, and even the name which stays the same, Gryffindor/Gryffondor, is different, since the French allusion in the original becomes a straightforward label in the translation.
The characters become an exotic mix of French and English names, with Dumbledore, Harry, Hermione and Ron remaining unchanged, but now finding themselves sharing classrooms with Neville Londubat (‘long-du-bas’, or ‘long-in-the-bottom’), Severus Rogue (‘haughty’), and Olivier Dubois, who has to be repatriated from his original identity as Oliver Wood to accommodate a gag about Professor McGonagall needing to ‘borrow Wood’, which Harry misunderstands as an implement for punishment. This oddly franco-British establishment becomes odder still with the introduction of an actual French school of witchcraft, Beauxbatons, in the fourth book, leaving us wondering why the French-named students enrolled in Scotland. And talking of French names, Rowling’s own liberal use of them gives the translator an extra headache. Fleur Delacour may sound sophisticated to English ears, but to a French reader it means the rather more ordinary-sounding Yard Flower. Similarly, Voldemort transforms from a figure of fear and mystery to a comic-book villain when his name simply means ‘Deathflight’ (or ‘Death-theft’) to the reader of the translation.
And it would not escape the notice of the French audience that a surprising number of Rowling’s bad guys have French names, such as Malfoy or Lestrange. Rowling perhaps meant them to sound like ancient, aristocratic Anglo-norman families. French readers who missed the implication might have felt a little hurt. In a project fraught with difficulty, and scattered with no-win situations pitting sound against sense, or humour against consistency, Ménard pulls off a sterling job seven times in succession. I wonder how many French readers realize just how much Harry Potter à l’école des sorciers and its sequels owe, not just to J. K. Rowling, but to J.-F. Ménard as well?
A blog for students and teachers of Years 11 to 13, and anyone else with an interest in Modern Foreign Languages and Cultures, written by the staff and students of Oxford University. Updated every Wednesday!
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