WAAT #39: On Anachronisms in Literary Translation


Every day is International Translation Day at ‘We Are All Translators’ but Happy International Translation Day to you all. Let’s consider the cases for and against literary anachronisms (and archaisms) in translation, shall we?

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This week, I had a first in my career as a literary translator. I was invited to speak to students—sophomores, freshmen, juniors, and seniors—at a local high school about my recent translation, The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories by Dhumketu. I spent a day with them and left feeling so energized and exhilarated. I want to share with you why. And to encourage you, if you’re a literary translator, to not forget your local high schools when you’re doing book tours and events. And, of course, I want to tell you what all of this has to do with the title of this newsletter edition.

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In the first 80-min sophomore session, a petite girl came up to me during the break, saying she was a 3rd-generation Gujarati. She can’t read the language and doesn’t even speak it at home. But she and her parents were so happy to learn about Dhumketu and Gujarati literature. During the second 80-min session with juniors and seniors, a tall boy gushed about wanting to learn about Indian literature because his parents are from Gujarat and Karnataka. And how he wants to be a screenwriter and make better movies about India than we get to see now. In the final, third 80-min session, we had freshmen who split up into four groups and debated a story each. The way their faces got animated, it was as if I could see the synapses firing all around that beautiful library.

When everyone was gone, a thoughtful-looking boy waited quietly. We, the teacher who had organized the visit and myself, turned to see if he needed something. He asked me, “Did you say you’re from Bombay?”

I nodded.

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“My mom’s from Dharavi,” he offered, finally meeting my eyes, “I’ve been there once. She tells us stories. She’s Tamil.”

If you know Dharavi, you know what I’m thinking. How did his mother get from there to here—in the Dallas metroplex area? What was that journey like from growing up in Dharavi to sending her son to this amazing, state-of-the-art school? And what did he think of her stories? I didn’t know how to ask this shy kid such questions. I wished him well, thanked him, asked him to give my regards to his mom, and hoped they’d like the Dhumketu translation.

My heart is still full today from all the conversations, including this last one. During lunch, a bubbly Indian American girl came to sit with us and mentioned how she had never met an author/translator with a book from India.

All of which is to say: if you’re a writer or translator with a new book out, please go to your local schools and libraries too. Look beyond the lovely bookstore events and parties. Especially if you grew up without seeing or knowing writers like yourself. You might say: my book isn’t appropriate for kids. Fine. Could you maybe share an essay or teach/discuss another writer’s works? Could you maybe lead a book club discussion? Get creative. But engage with your local communities and with the young ‘uns who are the future.

What does all of this have to do with anachronisms in literary translation? During this school visit, a particular kind of question kept coming up and it was about certain non-English word choices I had made in my translation. Now, every translator has their own philosophy for when to translate a word or phrase into English even when there isn’t a perfect equivalent, when to substitute it in English in a way that localizes the cultural reference (see this earlier edition discussing foreignization versus domestication), and when to skip it entirely. Some translators maintain their own stylesheets for each work like editors typically do. I have certain rules of thumb that I’ve developed along the way. Not all were accepted by my editor but at least they gave me some consistency and rationale. And they helped me ensure I wasn’t leaving a non-English word in my translation for exoticization or fetishization (see my notes from last year on #mangodiscourse.) Here are three of the more straightforward examples:

1) If a non-English word or phrase exists in the Oxford English Dictionary, I will not translate or italicize it. For example, “sahib” is an honorific word used to address superiors. Beyond that, it carries sociocultural baggage because it reveals some of the age-old class and caste hierarchies that exist even today. “Sir” just doesn’t have the same heft and weight to it.

2) If a word or phrase is widely used in the particular cultural milieu even today and even by English speakers, I will not translate or italicize it. A simple example is the word “arrey”, which is found in multiple Indian languages. It’s used as “hey” but also in many other diverse everyday contexts and situations in India even today—including by English speakers. So I prefer to leave it untranslated.

3) If a word or phrase is not in current usage but would have been the correct usage for the story’s characters, I will not translate or replace it. A simple example: in the opening story of my translation, the main character offers another character “three tolas of gold.” Tola is a unit of measure for weight. The story is set in late-eighteenth or early-nineteenth-century colonial India. In that cultural milieu, during that time period, this uneducated man would not have used grams or ounces as units of measure for gold. So, to me, it would be anachronistic to change tola to either of those words. As a fiction writer who also teaches historical fiction workshops, this kind of anachronism, which cannot be justified with evidence-based research, bothers me. [Note: In my draft manuscript, I had included a contextual footnote—which, as I’ve mentioned in various places, I love even in Anglophone fiction—for this word. Per the Indian publisher’s house style, I had to remove it and trust that the motivated reader would google it if they wanted to understand it further. So that’s a caveat to keep in mind as well: what does your publisher require with such words and how committed or well-positioned are you to negotiate your convictions?]

Not all readers will be as picky. And, to be fair, this concern with literary anachronisms is fairly recent. Before the nineteenth century, general readers didn’t care much about them. They abounded in the works of even great writers like Shakespeare. Religious texts like the Bible are full of them. Epics like the Odyssey, the Mahabharata, and the Ramayan, have many such in both overt and not-so-overt ways. But, in our times, such anachronisms can be jarring and pull the reader out of their immersive reading experience even more than, I believe, a non-English word or an explanatory footnote.

That said, I need to give you the flip side of this case against anachronism too. Sometimes, a translator will intentionally introduce an anachronism as Maria Dahvana Headley did with her “Bro” in the brilliant opening of her translation of the old English classic, Beowulf.

Bro! Tell me we still know how to speak of kings! In the old
everyone knew what men were: brave, bold, glory-bound. Only
stories now, but I’ll sound the Spear-Danes’ song, hoarded for
hungry times.

Headley, Maria Dahvana. Beowulf. New York, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020.

Headley’s aim is to push the reader to make new associations that invite certain comparisons, responses, and connotations. Anachronisms and archaisms can create richer meanings—a modern parallel like this one can create a heightened awareness of the temporal distance of the fictional world from our own times. She does a great job of explaining her rationale in her Translator’s Note. I’ll leave you with some of her words by way of example and inspiration.

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Given that both poetic voice and communicative clarity are my interests here, my diction reflects access to the entirety of the English word-hoard—some of these words legitimately archaic or underknown (“corse,” “sere,” “sclerite”), others recently written into lexicons of slang or thrown up by new cultural contexts (“swole,” “stan,” “hashtag: blessed”), and already fading into, if not obscurity, uncertain status. Language is a living thing, and when it dies, it leaves bones. I dropped some fossils here, next to some newborns. I’m as interested in contemporary idiom and slang as I am in the archaic. There are other translations if you’re looking for the language of courtly romance and knights. This one has “life-tilt” and “rode hard … stayed thirsty” in it.

Back I come, for that reason, to hwæt. It’s been translated many ways. “Listen.” “Hark.” “Lo.” Seamus Heaney translated it as “So,” an attention-getting intonation, taken from the memory of his Irish uncle telling tales at the table. I come equipped with my own memories of sitting at the bar’s end listening to men navigate darts, trivia, and women, and so, in this book, I translate it as “Bro.” The entire poem, and especially the monologues of the men in it, feels to me like the sort of competitive conversations I’ve often heard between men, one insisting on his right to the floor while simultaneously insisting that he’s friendly. “Bro” is, to my ear, a means of commanding attention while shuffling focus calculated away from hierarchy.

Depending on tone, “bro” can render you family or foe. The poem is about that notion, too. Marital pacts are made and catastrophes ensue, kingdoms are offered and rejected, familial bonds are ensured not with blood, but with gold. When I use “bro” elsewhere in the poem, whether in the voice of Beowulf, Hrothgar, or the narrator, it’s to keep us thinking of the ways that family can be sealed by formulation, the ways that men can afford (or deny) one another power and safety by using coded language, and erase women from power structures by speaking collegially only to other men.

There’s another way of using “bro,” of course, and that is as a means of satirizing a certain form of inflated, overconfident, aggressive male behavior. I think the poet’s own language sometimes does that, periodically weighing in with commentary about how the men in the poem think all is well, but have discerned nothing about blood relatives’ treachery and their own heathen helplessness.

Headley, Maria Dahvana. Beowulf. New York, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020.

Please do share your examples below of justifiable (or unjustifiable) anachronisms you’ve dealt with either as a reader or a translator.

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Jenny Bhatt is an author, a literary translator, and a book critic. Currently, she is a Ph.D. student of literature at the University of Texas at Dallas. She has taught creative writing at Writing Workshops Dallas and the PEN America Emerging Voices Fellowship Program. Sign up for her free newsletters, We Are All Translators and/or Historical Fiction Craft Notes. Jenny lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Texas.

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