The truth about translations

Translation can strip away meaning from a work, walks controversial line between linguistic accuracy, meaning

Professor Jennifer Hosek said the majority of the texts she uses are in translation.
Professor Jennifer Hosek said the majority of the texts she uses are in translation.

From Victor Hugo’s Les Misèrables to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude to Homer’s Odyssey, some of the most widely read works of literature have been translated into numerous languages. But a lot of the original meaning may be lost in translation, said Classics Professor Erez Natanblut.

Natanblut teaches a course on ancient Greek and Latin literature. He said he discusses the historical context behind each work with his class, as translation involves interactions between different cultures as well as between different languages. He said he also uses his knowledge of Greek and Latin to point out to his class critical words and how they are translated.

“In the class, what I’m offering is an interpretation,” he said. “Although we’re doing a translation, I try to bring attributes of the original. To truly understand a work, if you know the context in which it was written, you have a better understanding.” But translation can take away some of the original meaning from a work, Natanblut said.

“Translation, in a way, is only an approximation of the original,” he said. “When translating one language to another, you don’t always have accurate equivalents for words and nuances are lost. It’s more of an interpretation.”

Natanblut said there’s considerable debate over the best way to translate works from other languages.

“If you’re too literal, it doesn’t sound like English,” he said. “If you’re too free, it’s not accurate. It’s a fine line.”

Discussions on translation are important to the field of ancient literature because many of the works have only been retained through copies over the years and the continual translation and copying process can lead to variation, Natanblut said.

“When scribes recopied works in manuscripts like Euripides or Sophocles, you have a few different readings, so it’s up to the translator to decide what’s more accurate,” he said. “That’s a course of big controversy still. Any letter changes the meaning.”

Natanblut said another issue is the decision to keep works in verse or turn them into prose.

“Greek tragedies or Homer, the original’s in verse,” he said. “Although verse is a more accurate rendition, some prefer prose. Personal taste comes into it, too.”

German Professor Jennifer Hosek said her degree in comparative literature means she frequently has to deal with translated works.

“You’re always teaching in translation,” she said. “There’s no way that you’re going to find students that can read in all languages.”

Hosek said she focuses on the big picture when teaching translated works.

“I don’t attend as closely to the turn of phrase,” she said. “I tend to be more engaged with themes in a broader perspective. If you are a careful reader, you can tell that form and context are closely related. Phrase expounds a larger theme. You can’t do that when teaching in translation, except with the caveat of reminding students it s translation.”

There’s an intense debate over the validity of different types of translation, Hosek said.

“On one hand, the argument is that the translation should try to be as accurate as possible,” she said. “There’s still the question of whether it should be closer to the original or in the vernacular. On the other side, each translator does it in his own way. Any time that there’s a reader, a writer and a translator, they each have their own voice.”

One solution to the problems posed by translation is to teach the material in its original language, as Elizabeth Zawisza does.

Zawisza, the director of French undergraduate studies, also teaches a course on literary analysis. She said the literature section of the French Studies department largely focuses on reading and discussing French literature in its original language.

This helps students develop a deeper understanding of the material, she said.

“It’s a big advantage,” she said. “It’s a huge opportunity for our students.”

Gaining the ability to read and discuss literature in its original language takes significant time and effort, however.

Zawisza said students gain the necessary skills to discuss literature in French via other courses focused on developing their grammar and vocabulary.

She said she recognizes the necessity and difficulty of translating works into other languages, even if her courses don’t require it. “Translation is an art.”

Upcoming readings on and around campus

Who: Billeh Nickerson

What: Welcome Reception. Nickerson is Queen’s writer-in-residence.

Where: Lower Ban Righ dining room

When: Jan. 18 at 2:30 p.m.

Who: Billeh Nickerson, Sheri-D Wilson, Genni Gunn, Elizabeth Bachinsky and Carolyn Smart

What: A symposium of performative readings

Where: Lower Ban Righ dining hall

When: Jan. 24 at 7:30 p.m.

Who: Genni Gunn

What: Poetry reading. Gunn is the author of the novels Tracing Iris and Thrice Upon a Time, as well as the poetry collections Mating in Captivity and the recently published, Faceless.

Where: Watson 517

When: Feb. 4 at 2:30 p.m.

Who: Various artists including Billeh Nickerson and Lillian Allen.

What: Exposure Festival. for more information, please visit

Where: The Grad Club

When: Feb. 8, Time TBA

Who: Chris Turner

What: Poetry reading. Turner is the author of Planet Simpson and more recently The Geography of Hope.

Where: The Wilson Room of the Kingston Public Library

When: Feb. 14 at 7 p.m.

Who: A bevy of guests including Shelagh Rogers, Lorna Crozier, Sue Goyette and Michael Crummey

What: Common Magic: The Legacy of Bronwen Wallace Conference

Where: Around Queen’s campus. For an itinerary and further details, visit

When: March 7 to 9, tickets on sale now

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