Teaching Translation: The Exercise

The front of my handout for translation

The front of my handout for translation

How can you teach translation without knowing a second language?

The answer is a bit of a trick: the teacher needs to know another language–or at least know someone who does–but, importantly, students do not.

To the left you’ll see the front of my first translation handout.  This is the “original language side.”  The text is the same opening lines from Notes from Underground that I referred to in my last post.

I ask students to peruse it and see if they can guess what’s going on.  They usually get it: the first part is in Russian.  The second part is still in Russian but it uses a familiar alphabet (they can sound it out but not understand it).  The third part takes them a few minutes, but they usually figure out that each set of brackets represents a word.  Three words in the title; three sets of brackets.  In each pair of brackets, I have written a painfully literal, complete definition of the Russian word.

This, I tell them, is as close as they can get to the original.  They can’t access the first two texts.  The best they can do is read my translations in brackets.

Why, then, would I include the Russian?

Three literary translations

To Russians, there is only one text.  What Dostoevsky wrote is singular, and they can’t understand it.  I included it, I tell them, to remind them that what they read in English on the next page is not the text.  The Russian is the text.

The flip side of the handout includes three literary translations of the text: Constance Garnett, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, and Hugh Aplin.

First, I have students simply list differences between the texts.  We catalog those differences before discussing them.

Next, we move through those differences (unattractive vs. unpleasing, for instance, or I’m vs. I am) and describe how the differences strike them as readers.

Finally, we go back through the list and compare each word or phrase to the “original” in brackets on the front.  Questions arise: Why would a translator choose one word over another?  Why choose “I’m” as opposed to “I am”?  What’s the difference between saying you’re wicked and saying you’re spiteful?  How about malicious?

Finally (this all takes about 45 minutes to complete), I allow the students time to write their own translation of the title and opening line.  They understand, I tell them, the opening lines of Notes from Underground as well as any person in the world who does not know Russian.

This is my favorite part of the exercise.  Students invent incredibly interesting versions of those lines.  Favorites include:

Title: Notes from In-Between, Letters from Underfoot, Notes from Nowhere, The Scribblings from Your Crawlspace.

Openings: “I am a sickly man… A depraved man.  An ugly man.”; “I’m a sick person… I’m an evil person.  I’m not pleasing to look at.”; “I’m sick, man… Man, I’m bad.  I’m ugly as hell, man.”

Each student approaches the meaning of the text and conveys that meaning  in his or her own way.  Their translations, completed in ten minutes, may not stand up to textual interpretation or linguistic scrutiny.  But, paradoxically, they allow students to explore the nuances of their own language by chaining them to another… even if they don’t know that other language.


One thought on “Teaching Translation: The Exercise

  1. I have done something very similar to this with both Daoist texts and Chinese poetry. It is really interesting. With some of it, I make them work in just characters for a while to see what they can get without knowing what any of it means… they are about to pick up the parallel structures that fit in Chinese that many translators lose because of the challenges of linguistic differences. Cool stuff.

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