Sunday’s Sundries: The Importance of Translation

Sundries - Dominic Hartnett
Image: Dominic Hartnett
Image: Erik Tjallinks


If you do a simple web search for the percentage of Americans who are bilingual, you will find not only the statistic (1 out of every 4 according to a 2001 Gallup poll) but article after article on the fact that most Americans are monolingual and why that is a problem.  I’m not here to reiterate that, even though I do agree 100% that America needs to catch up with the rest of the world.  No one can share their thoughts and ideas without being able to communicate effectively.  However, putting the lack of bilingualism in America aside, no one person can communicate in every language, and so there will always be a need for translation, especially when we live in an increasingly fast-paced and global world.  We want information, we want to be able to understand it, and we want it now.  From the time that Dante began writing in his “vulgar” native Italian, instead of the Latin everyone in the western world who had had an education could understand, there has been a need for translation.  The idea of writing in the language of the people opened up a world of possibilities, but it also created a separation.  There is no such thing as a universal language.  Dr. Golato, an Associate Professor of French at Texas State University, brought up the fact that a lack of access to a piece of literature can lead to a lack of interest, and this is most often seen in the works of authors writing in what are called LCTLs, or Less Commonly Taught Languages.  After all, it’s not just monolinguist Americans that have a need for translation.

The Diary of Anne Frank, originally written in Dutch, has been translated and read in 67 languages, and it is a book read by young adults around the world.  It is the most well known personal first-hand account of someone who did not survive the Holocaust.  Her writing not only tells her thoughts and feelings, which are relatable to anyone who has ever been a teenager, but it makes the most horrific part of human history very real and side barunforgettable.  If The Diary of Anne Frank had never been translated, would the generations of people living today, who didn’t experience WWII or even the immediate after effects of the Holocaust, understand the unspeakable acts the Nazis committed in
quite the same way?  As a teenager, I had no interest in military history or the stories of my grandparents, who had been near adulthood when Anne Frank was writing her diary.  However, when I read her words, I was spurred on to read every story I could find, both fictional and true, about the Holocaust and the millions of people who suffered and died at the hands of those who hated them.  Reading about and trying to understand those events opened my eyes and changed how I view the world, and I doubt that would have happened if I had never read The Diary of Anne Frank.  I also know that I’m not the only one deeply affected by her writing.  During a conversation about translation with Dr. DiMauro-Jackson, a Senior Lecturer of French and Italian at TSU, I brought up my experience with reading The Diary of Anne Frank.  She shared her similar experiences when she read the book in not only her native Italian, but also in French, and in English, all translations, and all equally as powerful.

Another example that illustrates the importance of translation wasn’t a translation.  Chinua Achebe deliberately wrote his most famous book, Things Fall Apart, in English, to ensure it would reach not only a wider audience but his intended audience as
well, one which likely wouldn’t have read his book if he had written it in any other language.  Though his use of the “language of the oppressor” was heavily criticized by those that chose to write in indigenous African languages, he was more than successful at getting Things Fall Apart read by the English-speaking population.  His book became the most well known and taught piece of African literature and was eventually translated into 50 languages.  I had to read it, not once, but twice, while in college because of how important his book is to the world.  Another prolific author, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, who writes in Gikuyu, is someone whom I had never heard of until he was mentioned in passing during one of my college literature courses.  This is not to say that everyone has to write in English to get read, but to express the importance of having literature either written or translated into languages that are spoken by a large number of people.  The more people who read a piece of literature, the more likely that literature has an impact on the world.

An even more modern example of literature that has been read by people the world over is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.  With over 450 million copies sold she just might be the most widely read author of children’s literature in history.  That’s not likely to have happened if it weren’t for her books being translated from the original English into at least 67 other languages.  Her books allow people, across vastly different cultures, the ability to connect over a shared love of a magical world and the Boy Who Lived.  As Rachel Cordasco brings up in her article about reading books in translation, we are all human, and that means that, despite all our differences, we have a lot in common.

While it is extremely important for human beings to learn how to communicate with each other in more than one language and to be aware of the cultural differences that abound from one country to another, it is equally as important to have literature written throughout the world translated into multiple languages.  Translation allows for a wider audience, a cross-cultural connection, and the greater impact of ideas.  The Diary of Anne Frank, Things Fall Apart, and the Harry Potter series are just three examples in an impossible to count number of literary works that have been translated, shared, and discussed to the point that their messages and lessons have helped shape the world in which we live and have inspired so many to share their own stories or to learn more about the people and places they’ve read about.



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