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Celebrating Translationness: Reading a Translation

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In my last article, I challenged you to read translated literature. Whether you choose a crime novel, a collection of poetry, a play, a classic, or something else altogether doesn't matter; just read a translation.

But some people feel confused about what reading a translation entails. Should we read a translation as we would any other piece of literature? Well, this leads into another question: how do we read? Do we read different texts in different ways? Does this change over the course of someone's life? Does reading have different functions depending on style, subject, authorship, time, and other factors?

If we consider how we read - just compare how you read the newspaper to how you would read a textbook, or how you read a novel when you were a teenager to how you do so 15 years later - it becomes clear that we do read different texts in different ways, with different aims guiding our reading, at different points in our lives and in different contexts. This suggests, then, that reading a translation will be a different project from reading a non-translated piece of writing, and also that there are multiple ways of reading a translation, just as there are multiple ways of reading any text.

If we should read a translation in a different way than we would another sort of text, how should we read? What should we be looking for?

In an essay entitled "How to Read a Translation", academic and translator Lawrence Venuti writes: "A translation ought to be read differently from an original composition precisely because it is not an original, because not only a foreign work, but a foreign culture is involved."

This suggests that we ought to be aware of a text's "foreignness" as we read. What would that involve? Well, among other things, we can look into the cultural/historical background/context of the author/text, the source culture's literature and literary history, the genre/style of this text and how it fits into the source culture, and the language of that culture.

Venuti's comments may also make us think that we should consider a text's "translationness", to coin a term. This involves remembering that we are reading a translation and thinking and talking about the text not as if it had been written in English but instead showing awareness that it was translated. Often, people might say, "As the author writes..." when in fact it would be more correct to say, "As the translator writes..." or "As the translator translates this section..." Hence, we are making the translator and the translation visible.

Considering translationness might in some cases mean looking for differences in style between the text and what is common in the target culture, noticing anachronistic words, considering idiomatic or clich├ęd language and dialects, and so on. For example, if a text translated to English features Yorkshire dialect, a reader might very well wonder what the dialect was in the original text and if the text has been relocated in translation. None of this means looking for mistakes, per se, but it does mean paying careful attention to what has happened to the text in translation.

In the award-winning international literature book group I run here in Norwich, supported by the British Centre for Literary Translation and the Norfolk Library system, we don't just talk about the books by acting as though they had been written in English. Of course we talk about plot, characters, setting, and style. But that's not all.

We also think about the issues mentioned above, such as: whether and how this text seems to reflect its source culture and source language; whether we notice that we are reading a translation and whether that's a good thing; how book reviewers talk about the text, especially as a translation; how the work compares to other works - both translated books and non-translated ones - that we have read; whether the characters seem culture-bound or universal; and so on.

Our group members regularly look for information on the author, the translator, the source culture, and the reception of the text in both the source and the target cultures. We also look for texts written by the translator about the work, the author, and/or the process of translation. This can really illuminate the text and the translation.

All this does imply that reading a translation might take longer than reading a non-translation, because a reader might want or need to do some background research or to study a book more closely. But that's not a problem, because reading need not be rushed; the process of reading, and, more specifically, the process of reading a translation, is pleasurable, and it deserves our time and attention.

So, once again, I challenge you to pick up translated literature. As you can see, doing so is not only enjoyable in and of itself, but also because it allows you read books in slightly different way than you might have done before. Some of our group members have even said that they have started noticing more about a book even when reading non-translated literature because of the attention they have learned to pay to translated literature.

Discover and celebrate translationness!