Does Reading Translated Literature Help to Develop our Intercultural Understanding?

Usually when we read, we are confined to stories and pieces written in a language or dialect that is comprehensible to us. Foreign literature changes this though, it allows us to expand our views of society, the world, and our knowledge beyond the borders of language. When we read literature that was originally composed in a language beyond our understanding, it has been translated, so whilst reading foreign literature helps us understand foreign culture, does the translated text deliver the same effect?

Whilst “Les Adventures de Tintin” remain similar between both the original French and translated English, there remain many subtle differences between the two.

Though Tintin does not provide the best insight into foreign culture (but does provide insight into how the Belgians viewed foreign cultures), it highlights the changes that are undergone to translate a work from its original language. The character known in English as Cuthbert Calculus (a play on the fact that he is an expert physicist) whilst in French his name is Tryphon Tournesol, Tournesol meaning sunflower. Thus, in the French version rather than have a name based on his occupation, it is rather based on how the character often has his head in the clouds and is quite delicate(looking at the sun like a sunflower)*. The English translation of the story also cuts jokes that wouldn’t of fit with the slightly adjusted wording; staying on the theme of Calculus/Tournesol in one of the adventures he was given the nickname “Mammoueth” (I’m sure you can guess what that means) but this is completely cut from the English version. So, whilst the general idea of the story remains in translated versions, we never get a true insight into the foreign culture.

Reading stories throughout the World Cup of Literature really opens your perspective up to how similar yet also different cultures throughout the world are. The stories give an insight into the beliefs and everyday life of people throughout the world. Though these stories have been translated (I assume) they stay close to the original message, and this is what I believe is important when reading translated literature or translating pieces. Translations need to balance both the authors original piece while transforming into something relatable to a foreign reader; for me though it’s more important for a translated piece of work to reflect its original intent than for it to sound and act like another culture’s work.

The first of these World Cup of Literature stories I read was Naivo’s “The Conspiracists,” originally written in Malagasy, the story still explored the nature of life in Madagascar and seemed a rather direct translation of the text. This was good for my understanding of Malagasy culture as I felt like I was reading something straight from Antananarivo, the short story reflected upon Madagascar in a way legible to an English reader but not necessarily in a way that they can directly relate to. It is more important for us to learn from an authentic piece rather than one that has been fashioned into something just like every other piece of literature we have read. Naivo and the translator Allison Charette taught me about Malagasy society in a way that was familiar to the people of Madagascar rather than a way that would truly resonate with me. The story was insightful to Intercultural Understanding as it explored foreign literature with (in my opinion) a focus on telling the story rather than making the story enjoyable, and for that reason the story was enjoyable in a different way for me.

After visiting the Poetry Translation Centre and finding no Malagasy Poems I looked at one from Mozambique, which was of course in Portuguese and not very relatable to the society of Madagascar. I ended up looking at Malagasy poet Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo’s “Les Trois Oiseaux”, in this instance translated by Vivek Narayanan. The poem does not have much of a rhyming scheme but when you start to read the different stress patterns and syllables become immediately obvious between the original French and the English. Narayanan has attempted to fix this by translating some word to synonyms (for example, in French, ‘chair’ means flesh, whilst to balance the pattern of syllables it becomes corporeal in the English translation). It’s immediately obvious that the flow is buffered in the translated version of “Les Trois Oiseaux”, here Narayanan has tried to remain in touch with the original but it’s impossible to translate poetry directly and still get a nice piece, you’re always going to lose something.

It is important for us to expand our knowledge and understanding of cultures other than our own, and a great way to see the way other people work, act, and live is through literature. Foreign literature gives us an understanding of the world around us, and this is what it should do. Translations of literature should not be word for word as this is incomprehensible to the reader, but the story should focus on being true to the authors original message rather than being remade into something for foreign readers. If we want to understand foreign culture and the people that live lives so similar yet different to our own, the translation must prioritise closeness to the original rather than flow and easy reading. With prioritising similarity to the original rather it becomes near impossible to translate poetry, poetry should be read in its original language as much as possible to keep the work sounding as beautiful and majestic as well as continuing to explore the authors thoughts the way it does.

*When I was writing this, I learnt that Tournesol can also refer to Litmus Paper, so there is a double meaning to his name that also partners to science.