MLA: reading more than words

December 15, 2000

The issues involved in translation require and foster critical and associative thinking, heightened reading skills, and an increased interest in and understanding of other cultures.

All too often, students read work in translation without realising they are reading translated material and without considering the factors involved in the search for familiar words that will convey unfamiliar concepts and situations. This means that they read translations but they are not reading in translation, because they are not drawn into the act of thinking critically about subtle cultural differences and resemblances.

Even without their knowing a foreign language, though, students can be taught to read as if they were translating into English from a foreign language. For example, by examining multiple translations of a text or conducting research about international writers, students can be sensitised to the role that interpretation plays in translation and to the possibility that there can be more than one valid translation of not only words, but situations. One can imagine both a classroom discussion of Pevear and Volokhonsky's new translation of Anna Karenina in the context of previous translations by Constance Garnett and others, and a similar discussion that might occur in a couple of years, when Seven Stories Press brings out yet another version by Marian Schwartz.

Through such work, students can learn to recognise that translators have individual styles and ideological commitments that bear on their work, and can learn to "read" a translator's style or interpretation as well as the words themselves.

Carol Maier, Kent State University, and Kathleen Ross, New York University, will lead a roundtable on issues in teaching texts and translation at the MLA convention.

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