So – what follows below is very unlike my usual blog posts about new releases and giveaways… some random thoughts on the Power of Translating literature and my new found appreciation of the people who make it happen:
Recently, a friend and I discussed the different types of colleges and universities. We debated all the options: two-year, four-year, public, private, trade schools, liberal arts, fine arts, graduate and doctoral programs… that turned into a conversation about curriculum and text books. As people who studied History in college, we marveled that much of what we read and studied were ancient texts that have been read and studied by students for literally thousands of years.
I bragged on my alma mater, Queens College (known today as Queens University of Charlotte). My fellow QC alumni will lovingly recall Liberal Learning, and how we studied the development of civilization: the individual -> the family -> the community -> the state -> the nation -> the world. For each phase of study, we read non-fiction accounts and classic literature that had been translated into English from the original language, most often Akkadian, Greek, and Latin.
My favorite books in Liberal Learning (The Allegory of the Cave, Gilgamesh, Lysistrata, etc) were written between 2,000 and 4,000 years ago. If these works had not been painstakingly translated into English, a liberal arts education in America as we know it today would not exist. So much of what our nation’s students learn about philosophy, art, literature, and social science is undoubtedly anchored in the treasured documents of ancient civilizations. While I can certainly spend forever “unpacking” that broad theme, I wanted to spend a moment focusing on the importance of transcribing old texts into modern languages so that everyone on the timeline may benefit.
The biggest example of this (in my opinion) is the translation of the three most influential Holy Books: the Torah, the Koran and the Bible. On a more secular note, what if British scholars had not spent years translating Homer’s Odyssey or Plato’s Republic into other languages so that those titles can have a global audience? While thinking about this, I remembered another one of my favorite ancient texts that continues to influence cultures millennia after it was written: Aesop’s Fables.
Long before the fables were a collection of poems, they were the very definition of storytelling: entertaining, spoken words. While the words Aesop may or may not have spoken in the 6th century BC are not identical to the fables we enjoy today, these stories were written in Greek between the 10th-16th centuries AD. We can all agree that oral stories evolve, but once the text is written down, we can better track the translations through time. These allegorical lessons have entertained children and illuminated truths for thousands of years. Scholars understood the value of these “little lessons,” so through their efforts, Aesop’s Fables are a staple in childhood libraries. There are many versions of the same stories; and while the words and illustrations change, the ideals and values never do.
Dr. John Horgan, historian and professor, says it best: The fables transmitted important life lessons while also describing the “world of childhood.” The primary characters often acted in a child-like manner. The stories described the challenges of adulthood thus allowing young readers to engage the characters and morals of adulthood at an early age.
The stories also provided an opportunity for a measure of self-reflection. At those moments when Greeks suspected their culture or civilization was not living up to expectations, the fables provided an opportunity for a degree of self-reflection. Although humans and animals share similar traits, humans are different due to their power of reason which allows humans to make different choices about life and living.*
This holds true despite the time, place, or version of the translation of the fables. In my opinion, “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” The Tortoise and the Hare,”The Lion and the Mouse,” and “The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” are timeless life lessons with universal application. The simple, brief stories are teaching parables for children and adults alike. It would have been a shame if these stories had been kept in the past, and I am sincerely grateful to the translators for their hard work several generations ago.
Today, I have friends who write historical romance, horror, epic fantasy and mystery novels. Some have shared images of their international book covers once their book has been signed on for foreign distribution. I love that they are able to have a global audience. The work of popular American romance writer Nora Roberts is translated into 33 languages and distributed on 6 continents.** I like to imagine someone on the other side of the world enjoying one of her thrillers set in the South or a Texas cowboy romance. All because publishers know that a great story will resonate in any language, any culture. I am sure it is no easy task, however, and that it takes much more than the Google translator app to turn a 500 page novel into something a foreign audience will understand and cherish as much as the author’s native fans.
I know I have devoured many, many books not written originally in English: anything Alexandre Dumas ever wrote, Diary of A Young Girl, The Alchemist, Suite Française, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series. Again: THANK YOU to the men and women who made it possible for me to read books written in other places and times.
We are truly blessed in modern times to have the overwhelming resources to understand other languages and cultures. We have apps to help with etiquette, travel phrases and currency conversion. In case you haven’t heard about Smartling, they are a translation software company that translates website content into many languages so that businesses can effectively communicate with their audience. It’s awesome!