Refractions, Ideas in Translation

March 16, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

In a global society, we are bound to read many works in translation. Quality literature from around the world is being produced at an increasingly fast pace. In fact, it is impossible to keep up with the literature in one's primary language, let alone international texts. This proliferation of material presents an opportunity for anyone interested in translation. More than simply studying translations, students often find it a valuable exercise to attempt a translation. Experiments in translation can be extremely difficult, but also very rewarding.

Language is ever-evolving. As such, translations continue to change. Take, for example, Dante. He wrote The Divine Comedy in the 14th century. From the beginning, Dante's verse clearly demonstrated mastery, but for years, it was available in the original only. It was not until 1802 that the full text had been translated into English. Since then, it has been translated into English more times than any other language. In fact, since 1802, there are now more than 100 full translations (this does not include translated portions, which number too many to list). Translators such as W.S. Merwin, Robert Pinsky, Dorothy Leigh Sayers, Charles Eliot Norton (Great Books version), and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow have provided very different versions of the same primary text. Why are there so many versions? Should we be satisfied with any one of these translations, or attempt to read a number of them?

Unless one is a scholar, there is very little reason to read a number of translations of the same text. However, when selecting the text you want to read, you might browse a variety of them. You may find one that sounds better to you than the others, or that contains more helpful notes, for example. In other words, when reading classics, it is a good idea to know who the translator is and what type of style they use.

On the other hand, one reason to read a variety of texts is to demonstrate the ways in which language evolves. For example, terms that Longfellow used may carry very different connotations now. The word gay, for instance, has evolved into a variety of meanings which may complicate a contemporary translation, particularly for younger readers. Rhyme schemes, cultural norms and style will illustrate some very different tendencies.

Working in the 1980s, André Lefevere proposed the idea that translations should be viewed as “refractions”. By this, he meant that the translated texts have been (re)produced in a way that aligns with some sort of ideology. In the same way that classics have been rewritten for young children, for example, translators also rewrite texts in a way that ensures success. More importantly, this “refraction” then becomes the “norm” for people who are unfamiliar with the content. In other words, a one time reader of Dante's Divine Comedy will only have access to their version. This will be their “norm”. It would surprise most readers, however, to find that the translations differ radically not only in word choice, but in the eventual meanings as well. Some versions have more supplemental notes than text and other versions leave it to the reader to do the research. Using the term “norm” in this case feels very misleading, and would be better represented by the idea that the texts we read in translation are, in fact, “refracted”. Susan Bassnet explains how some translations of Dante's “Inferno” completely miss the mark, unbeknownst to the reader. She writes, “The problem they share, here, of course, is that these lines are deliberately written in a particular style and are consciously ambiguous in their structure. It is not only the character of Francesca that emerges from these lines, it is also an autobiographically framed moral statement about the role of the writer. This aspect of the text has disappeared. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the courtly love ideal and the medieval notion of sin and repentance have ceased to have meaning, except as intellectual curiosity itself” (73). In other words, as the culture evolved away from the ideals of courtly love, Dante's statements about authorial intention also lost importance and were, therefore, missed or avoided in translation altogether.

In other instances, Lefevere demonstrates that, at times, translators elect to leave out sections which will be unsuccessful to target audiences. He claims that the first translators of Bertolt Brecht intentionally missed the mark, but that introduction opened the door for following translators (213). Once Brecht's name gained popularity, translators had more room in which to push the envelope and add foreign elements back into the text. When dealing with a common name, the text gains a sort of authority. Familiarity simultaneously elevates a work. Older texts, then, have an even stronger authority. The names Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dante or Homer carry a certain stigma or prestige that may allow a translator more leeway than in tackling contemporary literature. In addition, these texts discuss ideas of continued importance and relevance that they deserve the attention they receive. Translators struggle, then, to create a language that effectively communicates old ideas to the dominant power sources and ideologies.

Because culture continually evolves, these pieces of literature will also continue to evolve. It is worth noting, however, the structures at play in them may demonstrate more about our the target society than the original text. It is not merely about poetic diction or mimicking the original (which is extremely difficult in itself), but in presenting a successful text to a new, and probably unfamiliar, audience. In April, we will host a discussion about a handful of Chaucer translations. Though the Middle English is fairly readable, there are a wide-range of translations which offer a variety of readings. It is worth our while to understand the ideologies behind them.

To join in April's Quarterly Discussion or for more information, email

Bassnett, Susan and André Lefevere. Constructing Cultures: Essays on Literary Translation. Multilingual Matters Ltd., 1998.

Lefevere, André. “Mother Courage's Cucumbers.” The Translation Studies Reader, Third Edition, edited by Lawrence Venuti, Routledge, 2000, pp. 203-219.

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