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Invitation to World Literature

The Epic of Gilgamesh Exploring Literary Translation

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.

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.

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.

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Invitation to World Literature


Produced by the WGBH Educational Foundation with Seftel Productions. 2010.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-892-0