Linguamania episode 3: Why should we read translated texts?


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Welcome to the LinguaMania podcast. Produced by researchers from Oxford University-led Creative Multilingualism, the series explores some fascinating perspectives on languages and language learning, asking: Do we really need human translators? Why do we use metaphors and what do they teach us about other languages and cultures? How much of an unfamiliar language can we understand? Would creative language teaching make the subject more popular? Can languages help protect the natural environment? And so much more, so stop what you’re doing and start exploring the wonderful world of multilingualism!

Episode 3: Why should we read translated texts?

Summary: In this episode of LinguaMania, we’re exploring what we lose or gain when we read a translated book. Are we missing something by reading the English translation and not the original language version? Or can the translation process enhance the text in some way? Jane Hiddleston and Laura Lonsdale from the University of Oxford discuss these questions and also look at what fiction and translation can tell us about how languages blend with one another and interact.

Listen and download the podcast on Apple Podcasts or University of Oxford podcasts.

Podcast transcript


(00:00  00:58) 

Rajinder Dudrah: Welcome to the LinguaMania Podcast presented by the Creative Multilingualism team. We are a group of people who love languages. We think languages are an essential part of being human, they’re part of our identity and part of our culture.  And we think they should be celebrated at every possible opportunity! So our podcasts shine a light on some fascinating aspects of languages and language learning which you might not have come across before.

I’m Professor Rajinder Dudrah from Birmingham City University. I’m also a researcher at Creative Multilingualism. We’re exploring the links between languages and creativity.

(00:58 – 01:20) 

In this episode of LinguaMania, we’re asking, ‘What makes us want to read a book which has been translated from another language?’ and ‘Are we missing something by only reading the English translation and not the original language version?’ Professor Jane Hiddleston and Dr Laura Lonsdale from the University of Oxford have been exploring these questions and they have some interesting conclusions for you.

(01:20 – 01:39) 

Jane Hiddleston: So, since English is such a dominant global language, sometimes it happens that we can be a bit lazy and perhaps complacent about paying attention to other cultures and languages. But actually, getting to know a bit about another culture can shed a whole new light on things, it actually helps us to think about our world differently, perhaps it shakes us out of our old habits.

(01:39 – 01:54) 

Laura Lonsdale: Yes, I think that’s true. The Mexican poet Octavio Paz, who was a great translator himself, said that translation was a way of acknowledging human diversity and I really love this quote, he said ‘to acknowledge the variety of visions and sensibilities is to preserve the richness of life and thus to ensure its continuity.’

(01:54 – 02:23) 

Jane Hiddleston: That’s a really beautiful quotation, isn’t it? And it’s true that also reading a translated work actually perhaps introduces you to completely different kinds of experiences, it might be different histories, different kind of emotions even. We could say that perhaps this isn’t only good for our general education but it also helps us to get a better grasp of our own culture. You might realise that some of your most treasured assumptions aren’t really actually that true or certainly not as fixed as you thought they were. Sometimes perhaps what we know about other cultures is actually based on stereotypes.

(02:23 – 03:17) 

Laura Lonsdale: Yes, that’s so true. The Argentine author Borges once pointed out that ‘in the Arab book par excellence, the Koran, there are no camels,’ which was a sort of very tongue-in-cheek way of saying that this most Arabian of books lacked the thing that foreigners most typically associate with Arabia. And he goes on ‘I believe that if there were ever any doubt as to the authenticity of the Koran, this lack of camels would suffice to prove that it is Arab. It was written by the Prophet Mohammed, and Mohammed, as an Arab, had no reason to know that camels were particularly Arab; they were, for him, a part of reality, and he had no reason to single them out, while the first thing a forger, a tourist, or an Arab nationalist would do is bring on the camels, whole caravans of camels on every page; but Mohammed, as an Arab, was unconcerned; he knew he could be Arab without camels’. In actual fact it turns out there are camels in the Koran, but I think Borges’ point still stands – the authentic works of a culture, he suggests, are not those with the most supposed ‘local colour.’

(03:17 – 04:28) 

Jane Hiddleston: Yeah, and it’s really witty because he’s kind of mocking those really misguided, misinformed stereotypes of Islam that we get all over the place and that have actually nothing much to do with Islam itself or with the Koran itself. We could also say that perhaps some of the best examples of world literature were also originally written in other languages. I read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment when I was quite young and I think it really sort of helped to change the way I think. Dostoevsky gets us to think about really big ethical questions, things like ‘can it ever be right to kill?’ in really compelling ways. So the story’s about this main character, Raskolnikov, and he goes out and he murders a pawnbroker both in order to take her money for himself but it’s and also an act kind of undertaken in principle in order to prevent her from going on and swindling more desperate poor people. The act goes on to then trigger this whole sort of spiritual and ethical self-questioning. But it also all takes place in nineteenth-century Russia, and Dostoevksy is also really thinking about the contemporary kind of ideologies, the contemporary rationalism and the influence of western thought in Russia and all the problems associated with that. So both, in reading Crime and Punishment I guess on the one hand we learn a little bit about 19th Century Russia but we also get to think about these big questions about murder and ethics in another context, and these are also major philosophical questions that perhaps affect us all.

(04:29 – 04:51) 

Rajinder Dudrah: So a translated text can help open doors to another culture.  It offers us a glimpse inside that culture, even if we don’t understand the language of the original text. But what happens in the translation process? Are things ‘lost in translation’ as the saying goes or could something actually be gained?

(04:51 – 05:12) 

Jane Hiddleston: The problem is that a lot can actually get lost in translation. Perhaps we can’t fully access another culture without understanding the language. Have you ever felt like you’re not quite yourself when you’re speaking in Spanish? Have you ever found that you can’t quite express something in another language, even though you might, in fact, look up the words in the dictionary? Sometimes the closest equivalent still doesn’t quite say what you wanted it to say.

(05:12 – 05:27) 

Laura Lonsdale: Yes, it’s true, I mean words just often can’t be translated on a one-to-one basis. If you look up a word in a dictionary, you won’t just find one suggestion. One word might need to be translated by a phrase into another language. Or, you might have to choose between several different words picking up on different aspects of the original word.

(05:28 – 05:45) 

Jane Hiddleston: Yes, did you know for example that they actually have different words for ‘light blue’ and ‘dark blue’ in Russian. So, you can translate these words into English, but the problem comes if you just want to translate just ‘blue’ into Russian. You have to choose one of those two terms and you can’t avoid saying more than the English did, you have to end up adding either ‘light’ or ‘dark’ to it.

(05:45 – 06:21) 

Laura Lonsdale: And even more, literature isn’t about communicating a message that can be straightforwardly translated. It’s also about effects. Think of poetry, how important sound is; rhyme, if you translated a poem literally, you would lose the rhyme. Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation is a really moving reflection on this problem. It’s the story of the narrator moving from Poland to Canada when she was 13 in 1959. And she talks about idea of ‘tęsknota’ which in Polish means ‘nostalgia’. But the point is that it’s not quite nostalgia, it also adds what she calls ‘tonalities of sadness and longing,’ a feeling that she can’t really express in English.

(06:22 – 07:09) 

Jane Hiddleston: Yeah, that’s really evocative, that reflection that she has, isn’t it? I also like the passage in the book where she talks about kindness, so what she says there is that ‘even the simplest adjectives sow confusion in my mind; English kindliness has a whole system of morality behind it, a system that makes kindness an entirely positive virtue. Polish kindness, though, has the tiniest element of irony. Besides, I’m beginning to feel the tug of prohibition, in English, against uncharitable words. In Polish, you can call someone an idiot without particularly harsh feelings and with the zest of a strong judgement.’ So I think she’s saying here that perhaps the words we know in a particular language point us to slightly different versions of reality, different emotions, different perceptions. It sounds like kind of science fiction, this idea of different versions of reality, but really it’s not, it’s just about how languages capture reality in very different ways.

(07:10 – 07:25) 

Laura Lonsdale: Yeah, so perhaps you have to think of translation then as a rewriting. You have to try and make something positive out of it rather than think of it in terms of loss. Literary translation is an art. It’s a highly creative process. It demands really sensitive negotiation between different languages.

(07:25 – 07:58) 

Jane Hiddleston: So, one critic that I came across says that translation is actually ‘a linguistic form of creative failure with homeopathic uses’. I thought that was really funny. In a way it’s suggests that there is some kind of benefit to translation, but that’s the kind of benefit that’s also perhaps somehow outside of the mainstream. So perhaps we could say translation is almost like the continued life of the text. That would mean that it’s not quite right to say, as Robert Frost famously did, that ‘poetry is what gets lost in translation’ the problem with that is this suggests there’s a pure original version that we access without maybe making some kind of new sense of it was we read.

(07:50 – 08:06) 

Laura Lonsdale: Yes, the novelist Gabriel García Márquez said that the translation of his great work, One Hundred Years of Solitude, was actually better than the original.

(08:07 – 08:16) 

Jane Hiddleston: I really like that. It suggests, doesn’t it, all sorts of questions about kind of what’s a primary work and what’s secondary and what’s derivative. Perhaps those are categories that can’t be decided quite so easily.

(08:17 – 08:29) 

Rajinder Dudrah: Well, we’ve looked at how translations can be more a question of ‘rewriting’ the original rather than being a carbon copy of it. But what can fiction and translation tell us about how languages work?

(08:29 – 09:02) 

Laura Lonsdale: So translation is even more complicated than we’ve been implying so far.

We tend to think of translation as a movement going in one direction, between source and target language. And we tend to think of it as a kind of bridge between two clearly distinct linguistic systems – English, French, Spanish, Arabic, etc. But the problem with this is that it also implies that those linguistic systems really are self-contained. That we can say clearly where there borders are, that there’s a single and unchanging entity called ‘English’ or ‘French’. And then we tend to imply that that system correlates to a particular national identity.

(09:02 – 09:21) 

Jane Hiddleston: Yes and that’s not really how languages work, is it? Languages are actually all the time rubbing up against one another. Many people use more than one language in their daily lives, and possibly within a single sentence. What we actually call ‘English’ is very diverse – our vocabulary is actually made up of borrowings from many other languages. It’s also always changing – new words keep being added to the dictionary.

(09:21 – 10:04) 

Laura Lonsdale: Literary writers can really play with this, to demonstrate that cultures are always influencing one another, and that we shouldn’t consider our languages or ourselves as fixed and determinate. Texts can really come to life through the dialogues they maintain with their place of creation, and also with the many broader cultural histories with which they come into contact. We could say that referencing several languages is one way of foregrounding and enacting that dialogue.

There are lots of ways of writing that expose linguistic interaction. This might be by incorporating words from another language into the apparently monolingual text. It might also be through more subtle rhythms or allusions. Or, the language might not be obviously multilingual, but nevertheless reflects an engagement with more than one language, cultural idiom, or set of intertexts.

(10:05 – 11:15) 

Jane Hiddleston: I work a lot on writers from North Africa who write in French, for example, and they’re often also native speakers of Arabic or Berber, all to varying degrees, but also educated in French. So they find ways of writing in French that somehow allows these other languages to resonate, to be present, whether or not that’s kind of obvious. They’re often writing, kind of against or in order to criticise the assumed superiority of French – its association with myths of clarity and rationality – but also against what is sometimes seen as an oppressive, and in any case quite unsuccessful, Arabisation policy.

So Assia Djebar, for example, is a francophone Algerian writer that I’ve worked on. She dramatizes this in really rich and subtle ways. She suggests many different ways of conceptualising her use of the French language. Sometimes she says, for example, it’s like war booty, something that’s kind of a positive thing that was taken from the war; also a stepmother tongue, so obviously there’s a play there on the idea of ‘mother tongue’; or a veil which suggests both a kind of a covering but also, for her, a form of self-expression. She’s also adamant that actually, although her writing appears to be pretty much French, it’s actually also multilingual. It contains traces of multiple other voices, murmurs, traces and idioms from other languages.

(11:15 – 11:52) 

Laura Lonsdale: That’s so interesting. José María Arguedas was a Peruvian writer who wanted to find ways to make the indigenous language Quechua resonate in his Spanish, subtly ‘disordering’, as he put it, conventional Spanish by introducing elements of Quechua vocabulary and syntax. And the North American writer Ernest Hemingway created a very strange and artificial English in his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls by literally translating and even deliberately mistranslating Spanish phrases and idioms. They were very different writers writing in very different contexts, but they both incorporated translation into their writing in ways that disturbed but also enriched the principal language they were using.

(11:53 – 12:56) 

Jane Hiddleston: Yeah, that’s really interesting. It’s a bit like one of the theoretical writers that I’ve worked on – that’s a Moroccan writer called Abdelfattah Kilito. One of the works of his that I’ve been trying to grapple with is called, in French, it’s called Je parle toutes les langues, mais en arabe. So, I would translate that as, I guess, as ‘I speak all the languages of the world, but in Arabic,’ which is quite a kind of an odd thing to say. It was published in 2013 in French and, as I say, it’s kind of also odd because it’s published in French and yet it references Arabic in the title. The title also references Kafka, who famously said ‘I speak all the languages in the world,’ but in Yiddish. I won’t go into Kafka here, but in the case of Kilito it’s really interesting that he’s kind of clearly saying that maybe the distinct between monolingualism (the idea that you speak only one language) and multilingualism (the idea that you speak many languages) should not be thought of in such straightforward terms. The speaker here actually seems to be both monolingual and multilingual at the same time, so when he speaks Arabic, it’s as if there are lots of other languages again present in the way that he speaks.

(12:56 – 13:23) 

Laura Lonsdale: So perhaps it’s not a question of some people speaking one language, and some people speaking many, but about keeping their usage of these languages separate. Perhaps that’s not quite the way languages work. What we think of as one linguistic system is always itself multiple – it’ll have different idioms and registers, for example. It’s continually absorbing terms from other systems and evolving. And multilingualism rarely manifests itself as the use of more than one language always strictly in isolation from one another.

(13:24 – 14:57) 

Jane Hiddleston: So, the problem is that some of this might sound quite abstract, but just to finish off, I thought I would quote a little bit from a poem to get to us to think a little bit more about what this actually means when writers are writing. So the extract I’m going to quote from comes from Shailja Patel’s ‘Migritude’, which was published in print in 2010, but was actually originally conceived as a form of spoken word theatre. Patel was born in Kenya, her parents though were of Indian Gujurati heritage. She’s also lived in England and in the US. So I’m just going to quote a little extract from the middle of the text.

Extract from: Migritude, Shailja Patel, Kaya Productions 2010

And then she carries on, I’m just going to quote a little bit from the following page as well, which really kind of concludes this idea in very beautiful ways.

Extract from: Migritude, Shailja Patel, Kaya Productions 2010

So it’s a really rich poem, that one and I think it gives a real sense of the potential, the richness of languages as they rub against each other, and perhaps then how reductive it would be if we only ever bothered to learn English.

(14:58 – 15:49) 

Rajinder Dudrah: Thanks for listening to our LinguaMania podcast. The series is produced by Creative Multilingualism, a research programme led by the University of Oxford and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Our aim is to make languages more visible, valued and vibrant!

If you’ve enjoyed this episode, have a listen to the rest of the series. And you can find out more about Creative Multilingualism at or follow us on Twitter @creativelangs and you’ll find all this information on our website.

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