Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Making Words Speak in a Different Language

Susan chimes in: Ever wonder what goes into translating a work of writing  from one language to another? When we looked at the Sept. 22-23 Casper College  and ARTCORE Literary Conference offerings, we saw that Julia Whyde, an instructor at the college, is doing a session on that very topic. In another session, she'll share the Chinese “mountains and rivers” poetic tradition. Julia was kind enough to guest post for us to share some of the issues she faces in translation.

by Julia Whyde

Umberto Eco, the great semiotician, translator, medievalist, and writer who recently passed away, insisted that translating should introduce readers to multiple possible “worlds” (See his Experiences in Translation for more information). With Eco’s ideal in mind, literary translation, for me, is a process that begins by getting myself (language habits and assumptions, my cultural associations) out of the way long enough to enter into the original text. I have yet to become completely proficient at this kind of simultaneous immersion and “letting go,” but translation for me begins in vulnerability – entering into an uncomfortable space where the “I” with its world view is held in abeyance long enough to encounter another world.

I am not a cipher or medium, however. At some point, I have to pull myself back into my language, and the associations and interpretations of the world inherent in language, and think about what will work for an English language reader (which, of course, is not a pure descriptor; there are many versions of “English language reader” and these also require their own levels of translation!).

Prioritizing is important here: I try to think about which aspects of the text I want to bring to life. When I translate by myself, I usually work purely in academic writing, which is easier, I think, since I can read closely, provide definitions, and then write on for pages at a time – discussing nuances, ambiguities and complications to an audience already familiar with theory or the original text. This type of translation rarely works well outside of academic writing. When translating for a more general audience, I work first with the authors or experts in the language and culture (usually native speakers). I spend much of my time listening, allowing the native speakers to do the translation heavy lifting work and provide information on language, cultural, and historical cues. This includes the jokes, puns, and intentional ambiguities that often differentiate literature from technical writing.

When I work on a team, I often ask to what extent the native speaker/writer wants the text to remain “distant:” maintaining names, measurements, et al. in the original language and using footnotes to explain names, events, or unique structural elements. The alternative is to make the text as close to the “target language” as possible. Such a process attempts, to varying degrees, to find names, cultural allusions, or jokes in the target language’s cultural and language-background that would, hopefully, evoke the same reader reaction as the original in the original language. This collaborative process takes longer, but I generally feel as though the translations are more fluid and engaging as literature.

Ultimately, however, I am always aware of the “translator/traitor” (traduttore, traditore) conflict; I have to choose those elements that I feel might most evoke the original to a reading audience, and this often comes at the cost of other aspects in the text.


Julia Whyde grew up in Wyoming. She holds a BA in Spanish from the College of St. Catherine  and an MA in Comparative Literature from Indiana University, Bloomington. She is currently ABD (all but dissertation) in Comparative Literature and, when not teaching at Casper College, parenting, and enjoying Wyoming's great public lands, spends time revising her PhD dissertation. See her at the Casper College and ARTCORE Literary Conference Sept. 22-23.


  1. Reading a good translation after reading some not-so-good ones is a joy. I've read several translations of Beowulf in undergraduate and graduate school courses and then read Seamus Heaney's recent translation and was enthralled by what before was rather dry and boring. Because he is a poet, like the original writer, he brings his poetic vision to the translation and makes it sing.

    I've read various translations of Basho's, Buson's, and Issa's haiku and find that many lack that verve that other translations, like those of Robert Hass and Robert Aitken, bring to them. A good translation is so much more than word for word, and a good translator is almost a genius as the original poet or author.

    Wish I were coming to Casper for the conference.

  2. Wonderful post! I never considered how much thought must go into the ideas behind a translation. So many languages don't have an exact correlation for words in another language. It's the ideas that have to come through.


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