Why Teach Translation?

What is the point of teaching students the process of translation?

My sophomores are currently reading Turgenev’s Fathers and Children (for more than a century mis-translated as “Fathers and Sons”), the most easily accessible “great Russian novel.”  Most of the books we read in school were originally written in English, so issues of translation rarely arise.  When we do teach a translation (The Odyssey or The Bible, for example), teachers and students usually assume that the text in front of them is the authoritative one.  In other words, in education, we usually read translations the same way we read texts in their original language.

In English class, however, it is especially important to address the difference between reading a work in translation and reading a work in the original.  Each word in a story or poem or novel in its original language exists as the authoritative text.  We can–and this is the main exercise of an English class–look carefully at the author’s language in order to analyze it.  We can discern authorial intent or explore an allegory or address the ways in which the author’s language may echo some earlier text.

When reading a work in translation, however, we do not have access to the authoritative text unless we know the original language.  The reader (and teacher!) can’t put as much “pressure” on the words of a translation for the simple reason that those are not the author’s words.  They are an approximation.

Teaching about translation to students gives them a more nuanced approach to the text, and it also increases their understanding of their own language’s shades of meaning.

Take, for example, the famous first line of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground:

Я человек больной… Я злой человек. Непривлекательный я человек.

That is what Dostoevsky actually wrote.  For a Russian, that is the only version of the novella’s opening.  Unfortunately, if you don’t know Russian, it is gibberish.

There are a few tough translations here (the title includes the untranslatable “ПОДПОЛЬЕ”, which means the space between the ceiling of one story and the floor of the next story up, but also means “counterculture” or “opposition”).  The hardest word the translate is “злой,” which means the following things (according to my Russian-English Dictionary): evil, wicked, malicious, spiteful, ill-natured, angry, severe, fierce, malignant, rabid, irate, and venomous.

Now, I know Russian well enough that I don’t need a translation of “злой” to understand that it means all those things.  There is no one word in English that conveys the sense of badness and anger that “злой” expresses.  It is the word used to describe a grievous disease or the Wicked Witch of the West.

Translators of Dostoevsky’s novella have settled on “wicked,” “mean,” and “evil.”  Most often, though, “злой” has become “spiteful.”  Each of these words conveys a different meaning.  These are the first words of the text, and they help us form our perception of the narrator.  Most importantly, there is a huge difference in meaning between “spiteful” and “evil,” respectively the weakest and strongest translations of “злой.”  For the narrator to open with a description of himself as “evil” sends a different message than if he were to introduce himself as “spiteful.”

Without an understanding of the principle that I have just explained (that the translator controls the words you read and therefore controls some part of your interpretation), one cannot read a translated text in an educated way.  The Russian word means both “evil” and “spiteful” at the same time.  At the same time, it doesn’t exactly mean either of those things.

So, why teach translation?

Apart from expository writing, the most valuable and transferable skill taught in English classes is critical reading.  Students in a good English class learn how to read a complex text, contextualize it, analyze it, and develop observations and questions about it.  Translations require a slightly different set of tools: we can’t put as much pressure on individual words, since those are creations of the translator, not the author.

By learning about translation and its effect on reading, students develop greater sensitivity to the demands of a particular text.  It makes us more versatile readers.  Furthermore, by having students think about the difference in meaning between potential English translations of a non-English word or phrase (“evil” vs. “spiteful”), we encourage them to develop greater sensitivity to the subtleties of their own language.

The next question, of course, is how to teach translation, especially if you don’t know a foreign language.  My next post will cover what I do.


3 thoughts on “Why Teach Translation?

  1. Interesting discussion of the shades of meaning of злой. The non-standard word order of the last sentence in that first line breaks the pattern of the others and literally makes the sentence “unattractive.” Perhaps this gesture is easier to translate to English, but is it? I haven’t read the work in Russian or in English translation.

    • Yes, the word order itself carries shades of meaning that we, in the strictures of English grammar, can’t quite capture. Pevear and Volokhonsky remove the “I” of that third sentence to make it nonstandard (“An unattractive man”), but I don’t think it reads quite the right way. there’s no good way to capture the nervous yet insouciant tone of those lines.
      Lev Shestov is supposed to have written, “How much the mere tone of Notes from Underground is worth!” True.

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