Invitation to World Literature
The Epic of Gilgamesh Exploring Literary Translation
What is Literary Translation?
Literary translation is working with a text in its original language to prepare a version in a new language. This work promotes broader reading and distribution of the work. In some cases—for instance, Gilgamesh, a work composed in ancient languages of the Middle East—translation is the only way the text is made available to general readers.
All but two of the works in Invitation to World Literature are translated from a language other than English. The two works in English, The God of Small Things and Things Fall Apart, have themselves become world literature in part through the many translations that have been made into other world languages.
What is involved in literary translation?
The art of translation begins with reading, writing, and editing; the same skills a writer uses. A translator must be able to understand and appreciate the text in its original form, and then will use the resources of a writer: style, tone, diction, word choice, grammar, imagery, and idiom, to name just a few, to create a new version of the work that provides this experience to readers in the new language. Literary translators have sometimes been termed “double agents,” serving two masters like spies who work for both sides, the original author and the reader in the target language. They must also understand the many varied contexts of the text, its time period, geography, and style and how those contexts affect translations for readers who are in different contexts. Just as a double agent will likely make compromises in his or her work, a translator must strike a balance as a text is ushered from one language into a new one.
The best translation?
For many works, particularly older ones, there may be a daunting number of translations available. Readers understandably want to find the “best” translation. They may be reluctant to begin without some guidance, fearing that reading the wrong version will be a negative experience.
In most cases, there is simply no one translation that is the best—there are different translations that work for different readers, who have varied interests and goals in reading a work in translation. For instance, an ancient work might be translated in a way that sounds modern, or in a way that aims to recaptures ancient speech and rhythm. Some translations seek literal accuracy, possibly at the cost of readability; yet others take poetic license. Some keep epic poetry in verse form, some turn it into prose. Translations also vary greatly in the amount of supporting material (introductions, glosses, and footnotes, etc.) that they provide.
The best translation is one that meets your needs and preferences, and that is compelling to you as a reader. If you are reading for literary interest and pleasure, you may be most interested in a translation that has a writing style that you find engaging. If you are staging an ancient Greek play, you may want the text that is clearest for use by actors and will be understood by modern audiences, but that still preserves the poetry and rhythm of the lines. If you are interested in understanding a culture and religion as presented in a great text of World Literature, you may wish to get the most scholarly and literal version of a text, complete with notes. Remember that translations are affected by the era and place in which they are done; elements that are not part the original work can find their way in, for instance cultural or social views, a political slant, or religious language. These may be biases that make the translation unsuitable for your purposes, or might be the basis of study and comparison. Often older or public domain translations pose these problems. A modern scholarly translation is less likely to suffer from such bias, but not always. For instance, texts associated with religious beliefs and published by religious publishers, will reflect that viewpoint. There are also some translations that are just bad; for instance, they are grossly inaccurate by modern standards because they rely on corrupt source material. This is a problem with some Internet translations, but is not generally a risk you run with printed editions published by major publishers.
When you understand the context and the goals of the translation, you are better able to see the choices the translator has made and how this translation might work (or fail to work) for you.
Unit 1 The Epic of Gilgamesh
The first known human story is that of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. Images of artifacts from ancient Iraq mix with beautiful illustrations, dance, and costume to tell of the relations between gods and mortals, the search for friendship, love, and immortality. Featured cast members include Assyriologist Ben Foster, comic book illustrator Jim Starlin, and poet and playwright Yusef Komunyakaa.
Unit 2 My Name Is Red
Both an historical novel and a graphic murder mystery set among the miniaturists of the Ottoman court. With its focus on Istambul, a major crossroads of the world, it tells of the artistic/cultural contest between Europe and the East. Cast members include the book's Nobel-prize winning author, Orhan Pamuk, and its English translator, Erdağ Göknar.
Unit 3 The Odyssey
Odysseus must travel the known and unknown world before he can return home to his beloved island kingdom of Ithaca. What does this ancient story say to readers today? In this program, Odysseus's story is given ancient and modern historical and philosophical context, and illustrated with centuries of art. Featured are theater director Mary Zimmerman, actor-director Tim Blake-Nelson, and psychologist/author Jonathan Shay.
Unit 4 The Bacchae
The city of Thebes is torn apart by the conflicting demands of reason and religion, as the disguised god Dionysus returns to his home town demanding to be worshipped. Opposing him is the young king Pentheus, who is doomed to suffer the ultimate punishment for his disbelief. Featured speakers include world-renowned playwright/author Wole Soyinka, actor Alan Cumming, and Daniel Mendelsohn of Bard College.
Unit 5 The Bhagavad Gita
This epic tale of the warrior-prince Arjuna confronting a life-or-death dilemma during civil war presents a unique and powerful philosophy of duty, discipline, and serving a higher purpose. Beautiful illustrations connect the story with its rich history and culture. Featured speakers include Sheldon Pollock, Professor of Sanskrit Studies and acclaimed composer Philip Glass.
Unit 6 The Tale of Genji
This portrait of court life in medieval Japan follows the life and exploits of the great Genji. Written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady of the Japanese court, it provides an insider's view of Japanese court life, the official and behind the screen. Art, clothing, music from the time of the novel illustrate the obserations of authors Jane Smiley and Chiori Miyagawa, among others.
Unit 7 Journey to the West
The powerful and mischievous Stone Monkey King brings chaos to heaven and earth. Freed from a mountain prison in order to guard a Chinese monk on his journey to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures from India, Monkey seeks his own spiritual transformation. Modern performance, contemporary art, and Buddhist philosophers provide a rich context to the ancient tale. Featured cast members include playwright David Henry Huang, storyteller Diane Wolkstein, and translator Professor Anthony Yu.
Unit 8 Popol Vuh
The Mayan book of creation, the dawn of life, and the glories of gods and kings. This magnificent epic was saved from destruction at the hands of the Spanish by Quiché chroniclers. Once repressed, the story is now interwoven with the history of today's Mayan people. Featured speakers include archaeologist Richard Hanson, humorist Mo Rocca, and Guatemalan artist Shuni Giron.
Unit 9 Candide
A satirical novel following the travails of Candide, a hopeless optimist whose faith in his tutor's mantra that his is "the best of all possible worlds" is tested beyond all limits. Voltaire's challenge to the aristocracy of his day proves refreshingly amusing and biting today. Original illustrations, songs, and comic book figures plumb the depths of this satire. Featured speakers include director Harold Ramis, actress Kristin Chenoweth, and cartoonist Chris Ware.
Unit 10 Things Fall Apart
In this foundational modern African novel, Chinua Achebe's story follows the lives of people trying to understand which belief systems deserve their loyalty. The protagonist, Okonkwo is a tribal leader who battles neighboring villages, the English, and his own demons in early colonial Nigeria. The perspectives of readers from around the world reveal the novel's universal themes. Cast members include playwright and professor Tess Onwueme and theater director Chuck Mike.
Unit 11 One Hundred Years of Solitude
Gabriel García Márquez's multigenerational saga of the Buendía family in the isolated town of Macondo inaugurated the boom in Latin American literature in the 1970s and marked the beginning of magical realism. Writer Sandra Cisneros and scholar of Latin American literature, Ilan Stavans lend their thoughts and voices to the discussion of this epic novel.
Unit 12 The God of Small Things
Fraternal twins Rahel and Estha struggle to reclaim their lives after their childhood is destroyed by tragic circumstances. As past and present merge in this narrative of Indian society and politics, the many layers of the caste system are mirrored in the poetic and inventive language of the author. Featured speakers include Simon Gikandi of Princeton University, author Evelyn Ch'ien.
Unit 13 The Thousand and One Nights
Shahrazad must hold the interest of her despotic husband the sultan with nightly tales, lest she lose her life in the morning. This wellspring of storytelling, circulating from medieval Persia to Egypt to Iraq, like its wily raconteur lives on in many modern adaptations. Art, performance, and film images are employed to show the collection's broad span of influence. Featured speakers include Marin Alsop, musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Aly Jetha and Shabnam Rezai, co-producers of the 1001 Nights animated series.