Lost in Translation

Kristin Jenkins's picture

          Throughout the course of this semester, our class has discussed the usefulness of the story of evolution as an explanation of the way life has evolved but also as an explanation for the way other things evolve as well. We have found literature, in particular, to be one such topic that can be explained in terms of the story and mechanics of biological evolution. By reading and discussing E.M. Forster’s Howards End and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, the idea that books can be adaptations of one another, like an adaptation in the biological sense. Literary adaptation, also like biological adaptations, can be successful or not, depending on multiple factors. Unlike biological evolution, though, these factors are mostly dictated by humans, and the environment in which the work is released. Zadie Smith’s style of adaptation, regardless of its inherent generativity, is not the only style of adaptation available to an author. Although not normally thought as a method of adaptation, the art of translation is a useful and fascinating way to adapt a piece of literature.

          In order to delve deeper into this topic, though, one must consider what constitutes a biological adaptation and how this correlates to the literary world. A biological adaptation is a result of the underlying mechanism of evolution called natural selection. This is where nature selects for the fittest of a species to continue to generate offspring. These offspring are likely to possess adaptations over time that allow them to increase their fitness and succeed in their environment (1). Literary adaptation works in a similar, but not entirely same, way. Zadie Smith identifies her novel as an “homage,” or something done or given in acknowledgment or consideration of the worth of another (2), to Forster’s novel. In this homage, Smith modernizes many of Forster’s characters, and contemporizes many of his themes-- all while adding her own personal touch to the values and ideas that flow through Forster’s original work. Literary adaptations can come in more than just book form, however, as seen in the film version of Howards End, and in the array of artistic mediums that have come to portray novels in their own way over the years. In this way, an adaptation of a literary work can be more like a piece of art inspired by literature. Despite the medium, however, a literary adaptation is still like a biological adaptation in that over time, adaptations will be weeded out of the mainstream if they are not sufficiently “fit” for society. Societal selection, like natural selection, will determine the staying power of any adaptation.

          Now, while considering the idea of a translation as a literary adaptation, one must ask whether or not it qualifies as a true adaptation. In the strictest sense, a translation should be an exact replica of the original text, true to the original vocabulary and themes, except in a different language. In this sense, a translation is not an adaptation at all in that it does not change and does not alter the “fitness” of the literary work.

          The inherent complexity of language however, keeps translations from being mere copies of what they are based on. Often times it is difficult to find an exact equivalent of specific words in other languages. This prevents the text itself from being an exact replica of the original just on the basis of vocabulary alone. In terms of rhyme and meter, certain works cannot be translated to mirror the original text exactly. Cultural contexts would also keep a text from being read the exact way that it was intended to be read in its original language. For all of these reasons, the translator has no choice but to project his or her own creative means onto the work they are wiriting. In this sense, translations are very much literary and creative adaptations of previous works.

          One must also beg the question as to whether or not translations as literary adaptations are generative. I would venture to say that translations as exact copies of the texts they are based on fail miserably. Translations as literary adaptations are quite generative because they allow people and cultures around the world to experience literary works that they might not understand in the original form. If the writer accepts the fact that their translation is in fact an adaptation, and is comfortable with the knowledge that they are imposing their own style and creativity onto the literature, and the reader is in turn comfortable with the knowledge that they are not reading the exact text as the original author intended it to be, then translations are incredibly useful or generative.

          In all, literary adaptations in general are quite generative, especially the translations of texts into other languages. Although Smith and Forster’s novels are not translations of each other, the discussion of these novels in terms of adaptations has obviously been quite generative and has sparked much conversation about not only other adaptations like translations, but other adaptations as well.               


Works Cited


1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution#Morphological_homology


2. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/homage




Kristin Jenkins's picture


Hi folks,

I just wanted to thank everyone that contributed ideas today in class regarding the topic of translations and languages. I only wish that we had talked about more of this before I had written my paper-- there are so many ideas that I wish I could have incorporated or expanded upon! Looking back on it, I feel like my paper is under-developed =( Please read leniently and with the knowledge that many of these ideas could (and were today in class) be exapnded upon vastly. Thanks!

Kristin Jenkins

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