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Translated Texts: Better or Worse?

Esther Allen explains how sometimes, translated texts are better—and sometimes they aren’t.

A 1906 program from the performance of Helen Hunt Jackson's Ramona.

Which carry more meaning, translated texts or original works?

If you’re like most people, you would argue that the original text carries the most meaning, voice, and craft. But Esther Allen, a professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center, argued that restorative translations can be more meaningful than original works. Allen lectured on March 30, 2023, at the Humanities Center Colloquium titled “Conversation Between Languages: Restorative Translation in José Martí’s Ramona: Novela Americana.”

Allen defines restorative translation as when “a writer draws on a culture represented in another language and then somebody translates that work back into the culture that that writer was drawing from.” For example, the novel Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden was written in English about the experience of Japanese geisha. When the book was translated into Japanese, the translated version was known as restorative translation.

Helen Hunt Jackson in 1902.

Allen’s lecture centered on the fictional novel Ramona, written in English by Helen Hunt Jackson, about a Native American girl suffering hardship in Southern California during the Mexican-American War. Ramona became a protest novel advocating for Indigenous rights in the United States.

Eventually, José Martí, a Cuban and Indigenous Peruvian author and radical, translated the book into Spanish with the intention of making the text about Mexico available to Spanish speakers. Because of the translation, the book brought the treatment of Indigenous North Americans to light for the Latin American people.
According to Allen, the restorative translations helped Ramona reach a wider audience, even though the sense of voice and regional language disappeared. Many of the colloquialisms or cultural speech patterns faded in the Spanish text, making the translated text no longer sounded like Jackson’s writing. “It doesn’t really sound like something anyone would say,” Allen said. “The Indigenous and Hispanic characters in the novel speak very stilted and correct.” Even though the language may have switched, the change allowed for an appeal to new groups.

Jose Marti in 1885.

Ultimately, Allen argued that Ramona pushed for positive social change in both the US and Latin America and that much of its success came from the restorative translated text. She ended her lecture by saying that “Ramona was much more effective for him as a translation from a book written in English by a woman from the United States who shared the nationality, culture, and language of the invading settlers than it would have been if Martí had written it himself.”