On Developing an Adventurous Translation Pedagogy

Essay by Rebecca Hanssens-Reed

I’m going to ask you to do an exercise. Write down the following words and phrases.

“lost in translation” (and, for that matter, “found in translation”)
“[make the text] stand on its own”
“building bridges” / “bridge to other cultures”
“give voice to”
“render” or for good measure “deftly render”
“stay close to the text”
“the spirit of the text”  

Keep them next to your computer or pin them up on your wall for reference—this is your translation cliché moratorium. Next time you are thinking, writing, or talking about a translated text, keep track of how many times you reach for one of these words or phrases. When you do, pause for a moment. What is it specifically that you are thinking about, or striving to describe? Is it a particular rule of grammar, perhaps one single word, or something about overall tone, a precise cultural referent? Could you talk about it on these specific terms? If you’re gesturing towards a quandary broader in scope, is there a way to articulate it in words that feel as unique and urgent to you as the text/issue in question? 

I fall back on these clichés more frequently than I’d like to admit. That’s how stubborn they are! And, perhaps, also how challenging it is to talk about translation and know what we mean, to express what we’re actually trying to get at. When I began teaching about translation I was surprised by how prevalent these clichés were in our early discussions, even among students for whom this was their first (conscious) engagement with literary translation. They claimed not to know how to talk about translation—an exciting note on which to start the semester—but they did know, somehow, to be suspicious of the translation or even the translator, preoccupied with the notion of loss and finding where translation inevitably fails in some way. As I fumbled to defend the art—where did they all get this idea that they can’t trust a translation?!—I nevertheless found it challenging initially to propose an alternative framework for us to employ. 

A translated text is not a beautiful woman who betrays you,[1] and it is not a robotically manufactured copy, so why do we still use language that suggests these things? In her essay “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent” Anne Carson suggests catastrophe as the answer to cliché, which she defines as the thing that we resort to out of an inability, or an unwillingness, to step into the unknown:

I say catastrophe is an answer because I believe cliché is a question. We resort to cliché because it’s easier than trying to make up something new. Implicit in it is the question, Don’t we already know what we think about this? Don’t we have a formula we use for this?[2]

Put another way: Don’t we know what’s there on the page? Can’t we fit this into our existing worldview? Translation can invite us to step into the unknown, but when we fall back on clichés, we’re only reinforcing old, rigid worldviews that insist on binary (and often problematic) thinking, like “good” or “bad” writing, faithfulness or betrayal, original or copy. Perhaps we use clichés out of a fear of talking about the unknown—how to engage with something translated from a language we don’t speak, for example, or a murky set of ethical quandaries.  

But Carson, too, understands that cliché is hard to avoid—“After all what is one’s own language but a giant cacophonous cliché. Nothing has not been said before,” she writes.[3] When a painter, for example, approaches a white canvas, that canvas is already filled with the entire history of painting, all of the clichés of representation that exist or that might exist. It can be overwhelming to face that already-full canvas, particularly for translation, which has a long history of being a tool for artful communication but also for colonization. But it might also be generative to understand translation’s potential now to offer a new way of reading a text—of painting the canvas, to overextend the metaphor—and of reading our present moment, this bizarre and complex world that we currently inhabit.

Translating the so-called “classics” of antiquity presents an especially rich possibility precisely because of the fact that they have been read and interpreted for centuries, and often have been prolifically translated. The act of retranslation then can become an opportunity for understanding the ancient texts anew, in the context of the preexisting translations and in our current cultural values and polemics. Each retranslation offers another angle from which to look, another insight into how we as readers engage with a text whose source we may not be familiar with. Resources like Ancient Exchanges, in presenting ancient classics in translation to readers of all seasonings, allows us to interact with works that we may believe (or even have been told) we do not or cannot understand without access to the context, the history, and so on, in which the source text was first created. In revisiting a text in all its proliferations, readers can discover a method of pulling apart and rearticulating normative notions of language and history—this is what Anne Carson calls a method of catastrophe, “a method organized by the rage against cliché.”[4] 

The texts in this new issue are in many ways a rage against cliché. A rage against the cliché of what a translation is supposed or allowed to do, or, for that matter, that a translation is always a direct transfer from a singular, immaculate “original” text (like Fletcher Nickerson’s graphic depictions in which translation becomes source text, or Kathryn H. Stutz’s transposition of Sappho onto working-class Victorian anxiety); but also a rage against the clichés of how a reader might engage with a text and/or participate in meaning-making (like Christopher-Rasheem McMillan’s translational choreography); a rage against the cliché of queer erasure from ancient texts (such as in Emma Pauly’s queer re-reading of Dionysus); against the cliché that ancient texts are not still full of vitality (like Aya Labanieh’s urgent translations of Majnoon’s poems, produced in the throes of New York City’s pandemic lockdown).

In my own classroom, I find value in bringing ancient classics into our conversations about creative writing and translation, despite—or perhaps because!—they lie outside my area of expertise.[5] Bringing translation into the classroom encourages—though for the teacher it may mean relinquishing mastery over the text and the students—the invention of an adventurous classroom ethos.

In the spirit of adventure, I invited our class to embark on our own “catastrophizing translation” writing experiment, based on Carson’s translations of an Ibykos poem, included at the end of her essay, where she restricts herself to using only the words found in a selected source text (e.g., Bertolt Brecht’s FBI file, or her microwave manual). The prompt was simple:

Find a poem you really like, one that inspires you. Then choose any other text—a newspaper article, the back of your cereal box, or even this writing prompt—and see what resonances you can find between both, to reconstruct something that still rings poetic and true to you: your own translation using only words from your chosen source text. It may not at first glance look like a “translation”—but you may find that, through this nonsensical process, something actually does in its own way make sense.

The results were spectacular. One student did an interpretation of “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin using only text messages exchanged with a friend. Another rewrote William Carlos Williams’s “This is Just to Say” using words from their parents’ divorce decree. Another versioned Richard III’s opening monologue using the lyrics of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.” These few examples give a glimpse of how this kind of exercise along with others we did throughout the semester (see “Additional Exercises”) can explode the way we read texts in the classroom. Repurposing found language in a process of translating can remind us how rich and ubiquitous and bizarre language is, how we draw from so many sources every single day. It invites each of us to think about the elements that build the sense and life of a text from a more oblique, playful angle; but with the result that students seem to take translations more seriously, with less skepticism, from then on.

This is not to suggest that students of translation should just mess around however they like without considering the ethical risks also involved. Play does not replace ethics—rather, it cultivates the kind of deep care, the investment, that leads to an ethically produced translation, and one that is enjoyable to read. A catastrophized translation suggests the possibility of new frameworks for textual engagement. A retranslation suggests the vital ongoingness of a text, even one that is thousands of years old and fragmented, immaterial. Any translation is an opportunity to examine our values as a reader and experience the present moment, so long as we are willing—in the spirit of adventure, in the spirit of Ancient Exchanges—to set down our comfortable clichés and step into the unknown.

 [1] David Bellos succinctly describes the origins of this cringey adage in his book Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, which is, essentially: translators in seventeenth-century France would make liberal amendments and omissions to Greek and Latin classics in order to smooth over details that were considered rather rude at the time (according to the rules set by the Court of Versailles—this included references to drinking, bodily functions, homosexuality, and polyamory.) These adaptive translations were then dubbed “les belles infidèles” (“beautiful unfaithful ones [feminine]”). As David Bellos explains: “This construction of the phrase allowed for the invention of another adage that has burdened translation commentary ever since. Translations, the saying goes, are like women. ‘If they are good-looking, you can’t trust them to be faithful, and if they stick by their mates, it’s because they’re old frumps.’ […] Sexist language has been the object of long and mostly successful campaigns in France as in the English-speaking world, but only rarely has it been observed that outside the context of politeness as it was understood in the French seventeenth century, les belles infidèles, whether used as a three-word catch-phrase or in the longer adage that was built from it, is an insult to women.” This seems obvious to me but Bellos goes further: “Most people let it pass because they think it is a statement about translation. It is not. It’s about male anxiety—to the point of misogyny. It applies to translation, I suspect, only because, like other versions of the betrayal motif, it says just how frightening translation can seem.” From Bellos, David. Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything. New York: Faber and Faber, 2011, 128–130.

[2] Carson, Anne. “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent” from Nay, Rather. Paris: Center for Writers & Translators, American University of Paris, 2013. 10.

[3] Carson, 24.

[4] Carson, 24.

[5] This aligns with what Joyelle McSweeney and Johannes Göransson argue in their “Manifesto of the Disabled Text”: “Meanwhile, English and writing teachers must get translation into the classroom by any means necessary. This may be threatening because it may mean presenting works over which the teacher herself does not have mastery. Thus the practical magic by which mastery over the text means mastery over the students will breakdown. Students and teachers will just have to invent an adventurous classroom ethos from there.” Of course I’d argue this can apply to teachers of other languages as well—and, in fact, why not invite students to read this manifesto and share their thoughts on the possibilities of the classroom ethos? From Johannes Göransson and Joyelle McSweeney, “Manifesto of the Disabled Text,” Exoskeleton (June 14, 2008). A print version of this essay was also published in New Ohio Review, vol. 3 (2008): 94-98.

Additional Exercises

First day warm-up translation exercise

Translate the first thirteen lines from Hamlet’s soliloquy into contemporary English (you could also do this with any ancient text that exists in an antiquated English translation). I tend to do this exercise along with students, in a deliberately corny and bad version. It’s an excellent icebreaker and preliminary foray into thinking about meaning, and how many versions of English there are (often we discover this even varies wildly from student to student).

More versions of Wang Wei

This is an exercise students can do on their own after reading Eliot Weinberger’s classic 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei.* 

Write your own version of Wang Wei’s poem. Then write your own poem (can be haiku, free verse, prose poem, or any other form that is calling to you) inspired by the experience of reading and versioning Wang Wei. Finally, write a brief reflection: based on your experience composing the versions and new poems, ponder some ideas that may have come up for you regarding the relationship between writing and translating. (Optional additional prompt: translate Wang Wei’s poem into Emojis.)

 Discuss in class:

  • What were your experiences composing your own version of Wang Wei, and then writing your “own” poem? Do you feel you gained any insights into any relationship between translation and creative (first-version) writing?
  • To what extent did intuition play a role in your choices? To what extent did critical thought play a role?
  • Think about other poems you could explore in this way: What would your version of Sappho’s “Brothers Poem” look like? How would your version reflect twenty-first century poetics and/or your own poetic and cultural values? 

*Weinberger, Eliot. Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei. New Directions, 2016.

Exercises in style (or, revision practice, or, what makes a “good” translation?)

This exercise uses Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, translated by Barbara Wright.*

In our class this was a preamble to the creative writing/translation workshops, but this could be adapted for any number of writing assignments, or even for rewriting a preexisting translation. It’s a process but one that, like the first two exercises, really helped students crack open a lot of their preconceptions about what a translation can do. It also secretly encourages them—or the class as a whole—to define and articulate their own values and biases as readers. After this exercise my students were much more sparing in what they qualified as “bad” writing, which led to more nuanced discussions of the literature we read.

Stage 1. In class:
First, write the worst possible poem/story/whatever that you can imagine.
(You may also briefly discuss: What was your experience writing this? How did you feel? Did it feel different from when you write something “serious”? Is there anything that came out that you think isn’t actually that bad?)

Next, with a dozen or two (depending on class size) photocopied pages from Queneau’s Exercises in Style laid out on the table, everyone can select one “exercise style” and 1) pass your “bad” piece to the left and then 2) rewrite the piece you’ve been given in the exercise style you’ve chosen. Once you’ve finished, pass your piece to the left again, and pass your “style” to the right. Try again. (This can sound complicated but once they get going the exchanges should go smoothly!)


  • How do we differentiate between an author’s style, the voice of the piece, the language itself? How did the style alter the content for your exercises?
  • What about each piece might be hard to translate? What would be “crucial” to maintain or emulate somehow? Does it matter what the story/moment/experience is, or how it is told? Can you describe how the text means versus what the text means?

Stage 2. At-home assignment:
There will invariably come a time when you must transition from the writing phase of a piece to revising and/or re-writing. This may also be the stage at which you consider that beguiling dance of form and content. Here is your opportunity to “let loose” and tease out some of your ideas/feelings/creative impulses.

Choose a paragraph/stanza/blurb from one of your creative pieces that you feel is the weakest of the whole text (how you evaluate the term “weakest” is up to you, but it should be something you would genuinely like to rework and to which you would like to pay closer attention). Think about why you would like to revise this selection, and then do three or more of the following:

a) Record yourself reading the selection out loud, and set it to music or remix it
b) Rewrite the selection as a tweet with 280 (or 140 if you prefer old-school Twitter) character limit (including mentions and hashtags if possible)
c) Break it down: create lists of parts of speech, and place each word under the correct category
d) Draw a diagram of the selection
e) Make a mixtape/playlist for the selection
f) Rewrite the selection in the voice/style of one of your favorite authors
g) Make a collage, painting, or other visual expression of the selection
h) Any other type of “rewrite” you feel compelled to do! The sky is the limit on this assignment.

Once you have rewritten this selection in several ways, write a brief, informal reflection on your “revisions.” Which was your favorite, and why? Was it the style that made your rewrite your favorite? Or did you alter the content in any way?

Afterwards, in class, after students share, ask this question: Why don’t you always write/work in this style? Is it the demands of the formal academic context? Or had you just not considered it at all? Do you think you can integrate this style into your own voice in your future writing projects?

*Queneau, Raymond, trans. Barbara Wright. Exercises in Style. New Directions, 2013. 

Rebecca Hanssens-Reed


In the Classroom