The Value of Teaching Translated Texts

Join our PWR’s very own Dr. Nezami as she shares her wonderfully fruitful experience at Kent State University’s NEH Summer Institute, exploring the immense benefits of teaching students the value of cross-cultural literacy through global texts.


The National Endowment for the Humanities

Summer Institute for College and University Faculty

Kent State University

June 2017

Dr. Rita S. Nezami


Introduction to Cross-Cultural Literacy:

          I returned from Kent State University’s NEH Summer Institute after spending 25 days presenting papers, sharing ideas, listening to talks, having discussions, and learning about teaching translated texts. The topic, “What is Gained in Translation: Learning How to Read Translated Texts,” was dedicated to the study of texts in translation as a means of developing cross-cultural literacy and to exploring what can be gained by introducing translations in the classroom. The institute provided “the theoretical models and applications developed through Translation Studies that can enable us to exploit translation as a teachable moment.”

These strategies are designed to make students aware of the universal issues embedded in other languages and cultures, and also to highlight their own awareness of the cultural specificity of their own modes of thinking and being. The overall goal of the seminar was to develop “systematic approaches to teaching translated texts so that readers can perceive the worldviews to which those texts give us access.”

The NEH Summer Institute provided participants with “the resources necessary to engage with the unique issues posed by translated texts and raise awareness about the crucial role played by translation in the making of cultures” and facilitate cross-cultural communication. The readings and discussions enabled us to use translated texts more knowledgeably in our classrooms, research, and literary translation.


Ideology and Methodology:

          The institute’s approach was “collaborative” and “constructivist.” The seminar’s daily sessions were also devoted to theoretical readings on five main themes: relationships, time, space, authority and individuality; from a variety of disciplines: literature, philosophy, intercultural communication, history, performing arts.

Readings included writers, scholars, and translators such as Roman Jakobson, Lawrence Venuti, Kwame Appiah, Susan Bassnett, Momammad Ghanooparvar, Jorge Luis Borges, and others. These readings offered us an opportunity to familiarize ourselves with the most current translation scholarship and issues in cross-cultural communication. They also offered guidance by seasoned translators on how to incorporate approaches to reading in translation into our own research and teaching. As a literary translator, I am interested in texts that reflect cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural issues. Such texts make our students aware of various disciplines and how they are related. They also spur students to learn about other cultures and ways of being through interdisciplinary and intercultural conversations.

The sessions were structured around a discussion of the readings and group work in which we had to bring in texts from our particular discipline that we wished to discuss. Participants were from a variety of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, from literature and applied linguistics to history, religious studies, communication, cultural studies, anthropology, and philosophy; as well as a variety of languages and cultures (European, Asian, African, and Middle Eastern). 

Resulting Pedagogy:

          The NEH experience helped me realize the importance of teaching translated texts in all my writing courses. In WRT 102, WRT 302 and WRT 303, I teach fiction and nonfiction that is often in translation. While reading translated texts and writing their textual analyses papers, for example, students look closely at word choice, phrases, and expressions that seem foreign yet intriguing. They ask themselves why commonly used words or phrases in English are replaced by unusual ones in translation.

One such phrase, for example, is the use of “my little liver” instead of “my sweetheart” as a term of endearment. The word “liver” is frequently used in South Asia, North Africa and the Middle East. Instead of rejecting this cultural strangeness, I urge students to instead understand why there is such a difference and why the translator has decided not to domesticate such moments to make the text more palatable for the Anglophone, Western reader. By understanding and appreciating cultural differences, students learn to accept the fact that there are other cultural ways of being, and that the American way is not the only way.

The comparative analysis of various translations of cultures from texts in Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian, and Spanish into English helped me understand the various cultural nuances that enrich the texts and inform readers about the rich cultural differences captured through world languages. Teaching in culturally diverse classrooms at Stony Brook, this NEH experience will further help me appreciate and guide students’ understanding and approach toward the readings of translations and the language of these texts, including word choice, syntax, and semantics. If students have another language, my WRT 303 (personal essay) students first write an essay in their native tongue and then translate it into English to see how the writing is different from essays written directly in English. Especially when writing through translation in this creative nonfiction genre, their word choice and syntax (structure that may be directly influenced by their native tongues), though unusual, often add an interesting and poetic touch to their English language. They discover and are surprised to see what is gained – or lost – in the translation process.

Further Lessons of Translation – What is Gained?:

          Twenty-five scholars and teachers were selected from the United States to participate in the institute. Each day we had to read about 100 pages of scholarly essays, discuss them in small groups, and present our own thoughts and criticism. We were encouraged to present our own projects pertinent to issues of translation and cross-cultural competency and to make formal presentations of our individual case studies. I read one of my literary translations, discussed my claims about translation and cultural domestication, and spoke about the translation process and how and why I teach translated texts in the writing classroom. I also shared my experience teaching experimental writing through translation from a source language into English.

On the last day of the seminar, I read my translation from French of a novella, By Fire, which was published in The New Yorker in 2013. The audience warmly responded to it. I have been teaching this novella and my book of translation on the Arab Spring (published in 2016) for several semesters in WRT 102. The book is divided into three sections: my academic introduction to the Arab Spring and the young Tunisian’s self-immolation that triggered the revolts in the MENA region so that readers may enter the following two sections, nonfiction and fiction, with confidence. Looking at the young man’s suffering due to unemployment, poverty and police violence, most students are able to understand his plight, though not his society and culture. Some students see him as a hero, while others see in him a weak and stubborn character as he refused to bribe the police and continue working as a street fruit vendor to support his family. Condemning his decision to commit suicide, students ask questions like why couldn’t he move in with his girlfriend’s family? Why didn’t he emigrate to Canada? Or why didn’t he bribe the police? Because students don’t understand the Muslim man’s religious, social and cultural background, their questions are justified. Yet, as I explain what is permissible in such a society, culture, and religion, students do begin to understand that there are no easy answers, and that what is possible and natural here may not be the case there.

Back at Stony Brook, I would like to share the NEH experience with my PWR colleagues individually, if they are interested. I hope to share with them my experience of teaching how to read and write about translated texts in the writing classroom to foster global citizenship and bring about global perspective and awareness.

So to answer the question what is gained in translation, how reading and writing about translated texts affects students’ thought process and knowledge level, I must say that much is gained:

  • Students are intrigued by other cultures, traditions, values, and ways of being
  • Students ask questions about the differences and have animated discussions
  • Students become motivated to learn more about various universal issues
  • Students become sensitive and realize no culture is superior or inferior to another
  • Students learn to respect and tolerate other perspectives, languages, and religions
  • Students become mature thinkers while they read, especially literary translation
  • Students write about these texts thoughtfully and in a compassionate manner
  • Students break their thinking bubbles and emerge as informed, global citizens

About josephtlabriola

Joe Labriola is an author, blogger, and lecturer of Writing and Rhetoric at Stony Brook University. He enjoys writing, swimming, and cooking crazy Joe-coctions. His more eccentric hobbies include collecting beach glass, reading great books at bars, and describing himself in the third person when writing "about me" biographies. Please visit some of his very professional social media sites for more info!
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