What is Literary Translation?

Literary translation is working with a text in its original language to prepare a version in a new language. This work promotes broader reading and distribution of the work. In some cases—for instance, Gilgamesh, a work composed in ancient languages of the Middle East—translation is the only way the text is made available to general readers.

All but two of the works in Invitation to World Literature are translated from a language other than English. The two works in English, The God of Small Things and Things Fall Apart, have themselves become world literature in part through the many translations that have been made into other world languages. Next: What is involved in literary translation?

What is involved in literary translation?

The art of translation begins with reading, writing, and editing; the same skills a writer uses. A translator must be able to understand and appreciate the text in its original form, and then will use the resources of a writer: style, tone, diction, word choice, grammar, imagery, and idiom, to name just a few, to create a new version of the work that provides this experience to readers in the new language. Literary translators have sometimes been termed "double agents," serving two masters like spies who work for both sides, the original author and the reader in the target language. They must also understand the many varied contexts of the text, its time period, geography, and style and how those contexts affect translations for readers who are in different contexts. Just as a double agent will likely make compromises in his or her work, a translator must strike a balance as a text is ushered from one language into a new one. Next: The best translation?

The best translation?

For many works, particularly older ones, there may be a daunting number of translations available. Readers understandably want to find the "best" translation. They may be reluctant to begin without some guidance, fearing that reading the wrong version will be a negative experience.

In most cases, there is simply no one translation that is the best—there are different translations that work for different readers, who have varied interests and goals in reading a work in translation. For instance, an ancient work might be translated in a way that sounds modern, or in a way that aims to recaptures ancient speech and rhythm. Some translations seek literal accuracy, possibly at the cost of readability; yet others take poetic license. Some keep epic poetry in verse form, some turn it into prose. Translations also vary greatly in the amount of supporting material (introductions, glosses, and footnotes, etc.) that they provide.

The best translation is one that meets your needs and preferences, and that is compelling to you as a reader. If you are reading for literary interest and pleasure, you may be most interested in a translation that has a writing style that you find engaging. If you are staging an ancient Greek play, you may want the text that is clearest for use by actors and will be understood by modern audiences, but that still preserves the poetry and rhythm of the lines. If you are interested in understanding a culture and religion as presented in a great text of World Literature, you may wish to get the most scholarly and literal version of a text, complete with notes. Remember that translations are affected by the era and place in which they are done; elements that are not part the original work can find their way in, for instance cultural or social views, a political slant, or religious language. These may be biases that make the translation unsuitable for your purposes, or might be the basis of study and comparison. Often older or public domain translations pose these problems. A modern scholarly translation is less likely to suffer from such bias, but not always. For instance, texts associated with religious beliefs and published by religious publishers, will reflect that viewpoint. There are also some translations that are just bad; for instance, they are grossly inaccurate by modern standards because they rely on corrupt source material. This is a problem with some Internet translations, but is not generally a risk you run with printed editions published by major publishers.

When you understand the context and the goals of the translation, you are better able to see the choices the translator has made and how this translation might work (or fail to work) for you. Next: Try it yourself: compare versions of The Bacchae.

Try it Yourself: How Should We Translate The Bacchae?

Original Text

A passage from the play in which
Pentheus orders his army out to attack the
women worshippers:

Πενθεύς:
ἤδη τόδ᾽ ἐγγὺς ὥστε πῦρ ὑφάπτεται
ὕβρισμα βακχῶν, ψόγος ἐς Ἕλληνας μέγας.
ἀλλ᾽ οὐκ ὀκνεῖν δεῖ· στεῖχ᾽ ἐπ᾽ Ἠλέκτρας ἰὼν
πύλας· κέλευε πάντας ἀσπιδηφόρους
ἵππων τ᾽ ἀπαντᾶν ταχυπόδων ἐπεμβάτας
πέλτας θ᾽ ὅσοι πάλλουσι καὶ τόξων χερὶ
ψάλλουσι νευράς, ὡς ἐπιστρατεύσομεν
βάκχαισιν· οὐ γὰρ ἀλλ᾽ ὑπερβάλλει τάδε,
εἰ πρὸς γυναικῶν πεισόμεσθ᾽ ἃ πάσχομεν.


Translations

1 LITERAL TRANSLATION

Geoffrey Kirk (1970, Prentice Hall Greek Drama Series)

LEARN: Meaning

Already close by it blazes up like fire,
this mad insolence of the bacchants, a huge reproach to the men of Hellas!
There must be no hesitation: you, be off to the Electran
gate; order all the heavy infantrymen
and the riders of swift-footed horses to parade,
and all who ply light shields and make the bowstring
sing with their hand, since we shall march against
the Bacchants. No, this exceeds all bounds,
if at the hands of women we are to suffer what we do!

2 PROSE TRANSLATION

David Kovacs (2002, Harvard University Press Loeb Classical Library)

LEARN: Line Endings

The violence of these bacchants now blazes at our doors like a fire: it shames us greatly in the eyes of Hellas. We must not delay. (To his retinue) You, go to the Electran gate! Order a gathering of all hoplites, all riders of swift-footed horses, brandishers of light shields and those whose hands make the bowstring sing: we are going to war with the bacchants! No, it's beyond all bearing if we endure what these women are doing to us!

3 A MODERN FREE VERSE TRANSLATION

William Arrowsmith (1959, University of Chicago Press)

LEARN: Word Choice

Like a blazing fire this Bacchic violence spreads. It comes too close. We are disgraced, humiliated in the eyes of Hellas. This is no time for hesitation. (He turns to an attendant.) You there. Go down quickly to the Electran gates and order out all heavy-armored infantry; call up the fastest troops among our cavalry, the mobile squadrons and the archers. We march against the Bacchae! Affairs are out of hand when we tamely endure such conduct in our women.

4 A 19th CENTURY TRANSLATION

Edward P. Coleridge (1891)

LEARN: Tone

Already, look you! the presumption of these Bacchantes is upon us, swift as fire, a sad disgrace in the eyes of all Hellas. No time for hesitation now! away to the Electra gate! order a muster of all my men-at-arms, of those that mount fleet steeds, of all who brandish light bucklers, of archers too that make the bowstring twang; for I will march against the Bacchanals. By Heaven I this passes all, if we are to be thus treated by women.

5 RHYMING POETRY TRANSLATION

Gilbert Murray (1909, Harvard Classics)

LEARN: Culture

It bursts hard by us, like a smothered fire, This frenzy of Bacchic women! All my land Is made their mock.—This needs an iron hand! Ho, Captain! Quick to the Electran Gate; Bid gather all my men-at-arms thereat; Call all that spur the charger, all who know To wield the orbèd targe or bend the bow; We march to war—'Fore God, shall women dare Such deeds against us? 'Tis too much to bear!

You Try It

Original Text

Here are the opening lines from Beowulf, the
earliest epic in the Anglo Saxon tradition.

It is written in Old English, a precursor to
modern English. The speaker is identifying
himself and his listeners as part of the same
clan, the Spear-Danes, who are about to hear
a story of one of their great heroes, Beowulf.

Hwæt. We Gardena    in gear-dagum,
þeodcyninga,    þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas    ellen fremedon.

Translations

1 LITERAL TRANSLATION

Here is the version translated word for word:

What. We of the Spear-Danes    in old days of the people-kings,    power heard, how the princes    brave deeds did.

2 YOUR TRANSLATION

In the box below, write your own translation of these lines, using the literal translation. You can use poetry or prose, modern or ancient language, change words, add words, delete words—anything you want to do, so long as you feel it gets the tone and message of Beowulf across to your modern audience. When you're done, click "Submit".

Submit

You Try It

Original Text

Here are the opening lines from Beowulf, the
earliest epic in the Anglo Saxon tradition.

It is written in Old English, a precursor to
modern English. The speaker is identifying
himself and his listeners as part of the same
clan, the Spear-Danes, who are about to hear
a story of one of their great heroes, Beowulf.

Hwæt. We Gardena    in gear-dagum,
þeodcyninga,    þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas    ellen fremedon.

Translations

Great work! Now compare your translation to those of poets Michael Alexander, R.M. Liuzza and Seamus Heaney. Did you make the same choices as any of them? How was yours different, and how was it the same?

And now the most important question: which translation do you like best?

1 YOUR TRANSLATION

Try Again

2 R.M. LIUZZA

Listen! We have heard of the glory in bygone days of the folk-kings of the spear-Danes, how those noble lords did lofty deeds.

3 SEAMUS HEANEY

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness. We have heard of these princes' heroic campaigns.

4 MICHAEL ALEXANDER

Attend! We have heard of the thriving of the throne of Denmark, how the folk-kings flourished in former days, how those royal athelings earned that glory.

Going further: For the works in this series, we have recommended translations and editions for study and enjoyment (in the cases where multiple translations exist). Build on the experience from this interactive to compare and choose translations for these works. Go to a library or a large bookstore. Browse through and compare passages in several versions of a translated work and you'll be fascinated by the variety. One will likely speak to you. Even better, get access to the original for yourself by learning or brushing up on a foreign language. Even intermediate level language skills can be enough to get a sense of some aspects of a work. The best invitations to world literature are spoken in their own languages!

Meaning

Translators must convey meaning for each word, every passage, and the work as a whole. A literal translation, like this one, tries to get as close to the exact meaning of the words as possible. However, this goal may rob the passage of some of its emotional power. Kirk translates the second line as "a huge reproach to the men of Hellas!" In the same spot, Arrowsmith, in a freer translation writes, "humiliated in the eyes of Hellas." How do these choices suggest different underlying meanings about Pentheus' feelings as he speaks? Read the passages aloud and consider how the actor playing Pentheus might give voice to these different versions.

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Line Endings

Poetry or Prose? The original Greek text relies on regular line lengths, rhythmic speech, and stresses of words and syllables in patterns--something we might associate with sung drama today. Since this is not typical of modern spoken drama, a choice must be made. Should a translation work to parallel these aspects of the original text? Kovac's prose version does not.

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Word Choice

Which word? One literal translation of the first word of the Greek version is "Already at this time." Accordingly, two translators chose to begin this way. Is this a powerful way to begin a speech in English? Is it how we imagine a king might talk?

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Tone

Often translations feel and sound much more dated than the original. But some translators intentionally try to recapture a more ancient sense and sound. In 1891 Coleridge's translation "brandish light bucklers" might not have sounded odd, although even then it would have been old-fashioned. But to a modern ear, its tone is not only old-fashioned, but comical and hard to understand.

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Culture

Context: The original audience shares some cultural context with the author or authors of the work. The context for the readers of the translation may be very different, and the translator's own context adds a third element. In these examples, the terms "'Fore God!" and "By Heaven" are used as oaths. But the gods and heavens of the original play are from a very different world. Should these terms be used?

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