Creative Translation in Classics

Dr Stephanie Holton, Lecturer in Classics

School of History, Classics and Archaeology

Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

What did you do?

Diversifying linguistic skills in ancient languages through non-traditional assignments.

Who is involved?

Intermediate Greek students (Stages 1-2)

How did you do it?

Intermediate Greek students had four contact hours per week during the semester  2 19/20. Each week, three hours focus on developing linguistic proficiency through the close reading of a set text along with necessary grammar revision as and when required. This year, I was responsible for the ‘fourth hour’ and turned it into a student-led seminar: weekly readings were assigned on key concepts, theories, and approaches to their set text (Euripides’ Helen) as well as some introductory reading about translation.

As part of their assessment, students then had to produce a creative translation of one of two extended passages from their set text, along with a reflective commentary exploring and explaining their translation choices. Format was left open and students were supported throughout the process (regular check-ins, examples of creative translations for them to review, supplementary reading and materials on the VLE); they also participated in a ‘Work In Progress’ session before submission to share their approaches with each other and receive peer feedback.

We’d covered most of the work before we moved to delivering teaching remotely but we did deliver the ‘Work in Progress’ section via Zoom instead of in person.

Why did you do it?

Translation in ancient classical languages is notorious for maintaining an archaicising pedagogy. A high focus on ‘proving’ grammatical knowledge means that students often produce awkward, literal translations which make little sense in English.

I had noticed that students at post-beginners level could be extremely skilled at parsing and have excellent vocabulary recall, but when moving on to read ‘real’ texts they were unable to explain the actual story that the words were telling, or engage with the wider literary themes.

For one of our seminars, I set Johanna Hanink’s Eidolon piece “Twists and Turns of Translations” which reflects on the process of translation between ancient and modern languages. The students responded enthusiastically to Hanink’s discussion and were very open in sharing their own experiences; this in turn prompted other important conversations about the broader accessibility of learning classical languages and the barriers created by rigid assessment types. The Hanink piece therefore became the basis for them to develop their own so-called ‘creative’ translations – i.e. a piece of translation work which was deliberately not about mirroring the exact grammatical and syntactical features of the Greek language, and would not ‘take marks off’ for any deviations from the original.

Instead, they were asked to use the original Greek to produce a piece which communicated the text’s ideas and themes to a modern English audience (engaging with the concepts of ‘domestication’ and ‘foreignization’), then provide an accompanying commentary – this was the part which allowed them to show their linguistic knowledge of the original ancient text by explaining their translation choices.

Does it work?

Our external examiner specifically singled this out as an innovative assessment for the languages which gave us confidence in this approach.

In terms of attainment, the submitted work was of a very high standard. Several students in the class moved up a clear grade boundary when compared to their previous traditional commentary assignment. The feedback from the students themselves was very positive; many reported that they had invested a lot of time and energy in their pieces, and had enjoyed working on them. Notably, each student chose a completely different approach – poems, theatrical scripts, screenplays, an illustrated children’s story – but each piece was still linguistically proficient, while also deeply grounded in the key themes of the Euripidean text and supported by well-researched commentaries.

Shifting the focus away from the “translation as cryptography” approach discussed by Hanink enabled the students to engage more thoughtfully and directly with ideas of the text while also reflecting critically on modern scholarship and translation theory – often difficult areas to support at this stage of language teaching. This ultimately allowed them to skilfully communicate complex ancient ideas to a modern reader, while also demonstrating their own independence and creativity. After seeing the level of engagement the task encouraged, I plan to continue building on this approach for future activities across both Greek and Latin.

Any useful resources?

Johanna Hanink’s article on translation:

Graduate Framework

This approach develops the following attributes:

  • Critical Thinkers
  • Confident
  • Creative, Innovative and Enterprising
  • Engaged

Staff can find out more about the Graduate Framework on the University intranet.

Contact details

Dr Stephanie HoltonDr Stephanie Holton, Lecturer in Classics, School of History, Classics and Archaeology

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