WAAT #55: Translating Motifs in Literary Works


When a word recurs as an important theme-driven motif in a story and is intentionally left untranslated, it can draw the reader’s attention and make them even more alert and attuned to its various, complex meanings. And a few interesting links at the end.

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A motif is a concrete, observable element that repeats or recurs in a narrative to emphasize an idea, theme, or mood. Technically, it’s not the same thing as a symbol, which is an object, sign, or shape that represents something else. A symbol may or may not recur in the text. If it does recur, then it becomes a motif. With both symbols and motifs, a writer is looking to guide the reader’s subconscious mind to attribute greater psychic significance to theme, plot, and/or character complexities. And both literary devices are always connected to at least one of the story’s larger themes.

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translating motifs in literary works

A Couple of Caveats About Symbols and Motifs

That said, before we go further, let me put these two caveats on the table.

First, please be wary of the anti-symbolists (e.g. some extreme proponents within the New Criticism movement) who say all things should simply be what they are and nothing more. This is somewhat naïve because our brains are always working to make connections between objects and ideas and memories, whether we are fully conscious of this or not.

Second, sometimes readers search for symbolism where it’s not intended. In a famous letter (found in the collection, The Habit of Being) Flannery O’Connor described how a young, earnest Wesleyan University teacher asked her about the significance of the Misfit’s black hat in her story, ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find‘. She replied that most countrymen in Georgia wore black hats then. It was just a hat with no additional meaning to it. Apparently, this left the teacher and a few others disappointed.

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Generally, if we’re diligently close readers of our original texts, we’ll pick up on the author’s intended themes, symbols, and motifs. We’ll also think deeply, as we translate, about which of these we want to leave as “foreign” (to the receiving readership) and which we may want to “domesticate” and why. See an earlier discussion on “foreignization and domestication“, which are Lawrence Venuti’s terms, not mine. I’ve also discussed elsewhere the cases for and against anachronisms in literary translation. And we’ve spent some time thinking through cohesion and coherence in translations too.

An Example Motif

These last few days, I’ve been translating a particular folktale by the great Gujarati litterateur, Jhaverchand Meghani. Now, as this is an ancient folktale passed down through the centuries, it is richly weighted with symbols and motifs. Enduring folk literature, in any culture, is filled with archetypes, symbols, and motifs. Mostly, this is because they began with the oral tradition and such literary devices made it easier for the average person to memorize and pass them on. Some folklorists will tell you that every single story we read has folkloric elements, whether we recognize them or not. Famous fiction models (e.g. Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey) have borrowed much from these elements. My discussion about motifs here relates specifically to the folktale I’m currently translating but much of this applies to any fiction, really.

The story is about an ancient Rajput clan in what is present-day Gujarat, India. They’ve left their homeland after a terrible drought and famine has been wiping out most of their cattle and vegetation. In the new region where they are hoping to settle, the local ruling clan is suspicious of them and tries to drive them away with deceit and treachery. The migrant community, though less in number, fights a brave battle to preserve their honor.

The Word I’ve Left Untranslated and Why

Now, on almost every page, the writer has used the word “baap” or some variation thereof. Depending on who’s saying it, the meaning could be father, benefactor, ruler, or even friend. For example, when a person lower in the class or caste hierarchy refers to someone higher as their “baapu”, they are expressing more than respect. It’s about a kind of reverence and a reminder of their dependence on the mercy of the more powerful one. It’s like saying, “I exist because of you; I depend on you for my very life.” And, when a mother says “my baap” to a son or a defenseless bird, these are somewhat different contexts too. In all cases, though, we’re reminded of the imbalance of power in interdependent relationships and, just as importantly, about how the speaker views that imbalance and relationship.

As this recurring word is connected to one of the story’s major themes, I see it as an important motif and have left it untranslated. My editor may eventually think otherwise but we’ll see. In keeping the original word in all its different versions and contexts, I want to do exactly what some translators hate doing: jar the reader out of their smooth reading experience.

When we notice something new or unexpected popping up frequently enough, our attention grabs a stronger hold of it. We become more alert and attuned to it—not just in the text but also in our daily lives. I want to draw the reader’s attention to this repeating foreign word so they might consider its multiple meanings. Perhaps, it will make them question their own perceptions of this theme of power imbalance and interdependence. The English equivalents just won’t have the same desired effect. I hope that, on finishing the story, the word—with all of its variations and repetitions—will have lodged well enough in their minds. So that, as they go about their everyday lives, they’ll notice aspects of this theme even more.

Bottomline: I’m retaining this word from the original text to generate a certain effect on the reader. Much the same as I do when I’m writing my own fiction and choose to introduce certain non-English words carefully. Not for exoticization but for something more profound.

What Do You Think?

Over to you. I’d love to know about a recurring foreign word you’ve come across in a translated text. Did it direct your attention in ways that the English word might not have done? Or, if you’re a translator, have you done something similar? Or, maybe you just disagree with all of this—I’d love to hear your point of view too.

Some Interesting Links

1) This New Yorker essay about ‘J. M. Coetzee’s War Against Global English‘ by Colin Marshall came out in December and I thought I’d shared it but it appears I hadn’t. Coetzee decided some time ago not to have his books published in English first. This stance against the hegemony of English is not new. Writers like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Minae Mizumura have taken similar positions. Of course, in colonized regions like South Asia, so many of the writers who write in local languages versus the dominant one (whether English or French or whatever), do so by choice too. I’ve shared about the Gujarati writer, Suresh Joshi, before. There’s also the recent Booker-winner, Geetanjali Shree, who can communicate perfectly well in English but chooses to write in Hindi.

2) Speaking of Geetanjali Shree, here’s a lovely speech by her for the inaugural edition of the MR Narayana Kurup Memorial Annual Lecture at Government College, Madappally, Kerala, and published at Scroll.in. Lots of nuggets there.

3) I’m still reading everything I can about ChatGPT and how artificial intelligence is going to change the ways we communicate and write and read. I’m still as confused as ever but here are a couple of pieces that give more food for thought. First, a New York Times piece (gifted without the paywall by me) by Kalley Huang about how A. I. chatbots are forcing universities to change how they teach. Second, here’s a piece at Nautilus by Philip Ball that talks about how it’s not all bad and can lead to some interesting new developments too (metered paywall.)

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4) I meant to share this earlier too but forgot. Starting this year, I’m also publishing a free newsletter on historical fiction. I figured, I read, write, translate, and teach this genre so I may as well consolidate and share some of my ongoing learning in a newsletter. It’s monthly for now but might become biweekly when I finish a couple of pending projects. Free, no spam, and private as always. If you get my translation newsletter, you won’t automatically get this new one. You’ll have to opt-in on that page.

5) And, finally, this piece by David Bentley Hart at The Lamp Magazine about ‘How to Write English Prose‘ had me laughing out loud at multiple places. Stuff like “…if you own a copy of The Elements of Style, just destroy the damned thing.” There are 33 rules there and I think my favorite so far is the second one. But I have enjoyed reading this piece a few times and will, no doubt, return to it a few more times.


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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. (Photo Credit: Pixel Voyage Photography / Arushi Gupta)

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