Untranslated Words in Literary Texts

Authors frequently use words from a non-English language (often the writer’s “native” language or languages) in what appear to be monolingual English texts. Some translate the non-English word right away (known as glossing) and others allow the reader to gain access to the word’s meaning through context. Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart,” a novel that builds a vocabulary for the reader through glossing (immediate translation) and then forces the reader to draw from to his/her recently acquired lexicon to understand key turns later on in the in the text, is a good example. (Of course, the reader can also go back to Achebe’s glossing and enter another level of non-linear readership).

Some consider this to be a way of representing difference. In that reading of symbolic language use, the author uses words from a “foreign” language to emphasize the “different” nature of his/her text or language, a text that will engage in critical subversions of dominant languages and canonical texts written in those languages. Others see the use of a “foreign” word in a text as a symbol of the gap between languages and cultures that authors write from: the cultural context and cultural referents that are attached to the word are untranslatable and/or non-existent in the English language (or another other languages of empire: Spanish, French, Portuguese, etc.)

But Ashcroft, Grifiths, and Griffin offer a much more dynamic and powerful approach to unstranslated words in an otherwise monolingual English text. According to the mentioned scholars, leaving words from Igbo (in the case of Achebe), or Yoruba (in the case of Abdias do Nascimento) is one way of showing that “the language which actually informs the novel is an/Other language.” (63) In other words, the language that “informs”, acts as a base, operates as the driving aesthetic, provides the perceptive framework of author/reader is Igbo or Yoruba, and not the English language despite the text’s apparent monoligualism. Several key words, then, operate as symbols of the language that drives the text: a slightly submersed language/way of viewing the world, but one that has the potential to form the entire narrative. Interestingly, a given author’s decision to not translate the non-English/non-European word grants the word even more power to inform the text — it doesn’t allow the European language to be the default language, it forces the reader to comprehend the world vision that the Igbo word provides, and it transforms the very notion of the cultural system that the work comes out of/contributes to.

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