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Teaching with Translation

Professor Daryl Hague discusses pedagogy and paratexts in translation at the 2022 College of Humanities Barker Lecture.

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An Introduction to Translation

To a layperson, translation might seem simple enough. You take a text in one language, crack open a bilingual dictionary, and just like that you’re translating. But any translator or linguist will tell you: translating is never an objective, one-to-one endeavor. “Translation is a cultural phenomenon, as is any language, as is any kind of cultural activity that we do,” said Professor Daryl Hague (Translation Pedagogy, Translation Theory) at the 2022 Barker lecture.

Hague’s lecture, given on October 27, was titled “Translation Literacy: Becoming Critical Readers as We Make and Read Translations.” A scholar of translation theory and a translator himself, Hague explained that not only does translation involve fluency in the source and target languages, but it also requires translators to make conscious, culturally informed decisions based on close readings of the texts. Helping students translate and examine translated materials, Hague explained, can be an excellent pedagogical tool for students learning about a language and culture.

Critical Reading and Translation

First, Hague overviewed some problems that translators tend to run into, from clever allusions to mistakes in the original text. Take, for example, the wordplay in Harry Potter. How could translators preserve the allusion in the name “The Mirror of Erised”? (Erised is desire spelled backwards.) In translating the book to Spanish, the translator found a clever solution that preserved the allusion in the target language: the mirror is called “Oesed” (deseo, the Spanish word meaning “desire,” spelled backwards).

Translators also run into a number of other difficulties, such as inaccuracies in original texts. In a book Hague translated, Spanish-speaking characters erroneously refer to a particular firearm as the “bz. 58” when really it is called the “vz. 58.” The author had inadvertently introduced the error into his book because the letters B and V sound almost exactly the same in some Spanish dialects. Hague faced a dilemma: correct the inaccuracy—to be true to real life—or preserve the inaccuracy—to be faithful to the original text? Luckily, Hague was able to contact the still-living author, who asked him to change the text because he had not known about the error prior to Hague alerting him.

Making these sorts of decisions requires critical reading, which is why Hague says that translation can be such an instructive activity for students. “Translation, like no other activity, forces you to be a critical reader, because you have to make choices. . . . You can’t say, ‘Well, the following possibilities are here.’ No! You have to make a choice!” Hague said emphatically.

Paratexts: A Valuable Critical Apparatus

But it isn’t just the word- or sentence-level decisions that impact a translated work. Also of note are different textual attachments to books—or paratexts—including titles, covers, blurbs, translators’ prefaces, critical essays, endnotes, footnotes, maps, and glossaries. “Paratexts provide an interface for this to-and-fro between the readers’ expectations and the otherness of the content of the novel itself,” Hague explained. Essentially, paratexts can be used (for better or for worse) to present and market books differently based on desired audiences. Analyzing these paratexts can open our eyes to how and why works of literature are perceived differently by American audiences.

For example, a seminal work of Mexican literature called Los de abajo has been translated at least eight times, each time with the title The Underdogs. This title has caused controversy because some say that it obscures the connotations of the Spanish title. Hague explained, “‘The Underdogs’ hides one of the principal ideas that underlies the title, and that is the battle of social classes. ‘Los de abajo’ literally means ‘the downtrodden’ or ‘those from underneath.’ ‘Los de arriba’ would be the elite. And ‘The Underdogs,’ of course, does not communicate that idea at all.”

Other paratexts associated with Los de abajo have caused further controversy: marketing the book as world literature or selling it with different cover images, from depictions of war to pastoral scenes. In some cases, these different covers and promotional materials seem like cynical attempts to market the book to different audiences, disregarding the author’s intentions for the book.

Whether paratexts are used for good or bad, Hague said that professors can use them to increase translation literacy. This “valuable critical apparatus,” he explained, can help students understand how translated books can promote a sense of otherness and perpetuate stereotypes.

Why Translation Matters

Awareness of the choices that translators make—both in the text itself and in its textual attachments—can help us become better critical readers. Hague concluded that culturally literate people have the responsibility to promote greater readership of translated texts in the US. “We have a responsibility . . . to identify who those writers are that people here in the US need to know,” he said.

Watch Hague’s full lecture here.