Part 1: Works in Translation

The IB Programme is of course defined by a number of core principles. One of these is an holistic approach to education - an interest in the development of different aspects of a student's intellectual, emotional, moral and physical development.

Another fundamental idea has to do with intercultural awareness and understanding; all DP courses are designed in such a way that through various means, students become aware of themselves as representatives of cultural place and time, and of the nature and origins of both connectedness and difference.

Part 1 of our course, entitled Works in Translation invites the study of texts originally written in languages other than the language of instruction; these are read and discussed in terms of their status as literary works - as with every other text on the course. However, they are also read and discussed in terms of the way they illuminate issues to to with cultural location and readership. There are 4 'stages' through which teachers and students have to go that move from a focus on issues associated with contexts in which literary works are written and read, through to the writing of an essay that centers on a more literary topic.


The Subject Guide describes the character of Part 1 study in this way:

Part 1 of the course aims to deepen students’ understanding of works as being products of a time and place. Artistic, philosophical, sociological, historical and biographical considerations are possible areas of study to enhance understanding of the works.

Teachers should aim to develop students’ ability to:

  • understand the content of the work and the qualities of the work as literature

  • respond independently to the work by connecting the individual and cultural experience of the reader with the text

  • recognize the role played by cultural and contextual elements in literary works.

(Language A: Literature Subject Guide, p.18)

These aims ask for exploration of the following kinds of questions:

1. In what ways are particular works studied reflective of the period of time or the place in which they were originally written? This may include such things as:

  • action, character, relationship and theme that embody particular cultural ideas or attitudes
  • elements of historical context e.g. particular 'real life' events that appear either directly or indirectly in the work/s
  • social or political ideologies that are symptomatic of place and/or time

2. How important are elements of the writer's biography to the production of the work e.g:

  • are there elements of biographical detail reflected in the work?
  • does the work express points or ideas directly connected to the personal circumstances of the author?

3. Consider the importance of literary context:

  • does the work extend or reflect the literary context in which it was created?
  • does the work counter particular literary traditions, conventions or trends?

4. Examine the importance of context in terms of the way the work is read:

  • in what ways is our reading of the work affected by present cultural, social or political circumstances?
  • does the work portray characters, situations, settings, motifs that are culturally recognizable, or 'other' to the particular circumstances in which the reader encounters it?
  • to what extent are the knowledge claims we make as much constructed by our present circumstances as found within the work?

In addition:

The fact of works being in translation inevitably opens a door to a wide range of fascinating issues concerning what happens to the meaning of a work when it is translated into a different language. Some of these are of course linguistic, but given that language of course operates within a set of social and cultural circumstances - embodying meaning and values that exist within a particular society, many political, sociological, cultural or historical points of interest are raised when we read works in translation.

Some Starting Principles

A: Choosing texts

All works for Part 1 must come from the list of Prescribed Literature in Translation (PLT). This is a generic list for all Language A syllabuses, and so you will see works there written in the language of instruction. This does not mean, however, that these mother tongue works can be chosen: all Part 1 works must have been written originally in a different language.

The PLT is a large and comprehensive list and it is worth reading it carefully before making your Part 1 choices. Remember that at Standard Level you study two works and at Higher Level three. These works can be from any genre and do not need to connect in any way with each other; that being said, some teachers like to choose texts that relate in some way, either directly through place and time, or more indirectly through theme or motif. Keep in mind, however, that you will need to complete two Interactive Orals, which focus on contextual issues. If you have chosen two works that are written within and focused on the same contextual circumstances, it might make it difficult for your students to find research material that is sufficiently different in nature for each Interactive Oral.

The more popular choices are found here

When choosing your works you might like to make sure that there are plenty of contextual aspects to consider, but remember that ultimately students will be writing on a topic that is explicitly literary in nature.

B: Considering contexts

The following table is designed to provide a brief guide to the kinds of contextual issues a typical work might bring into focus.

Work Country Contexts
The Master and Margarita, Michael Bulgakov Russia
  • Stalin's Russia: 1917 Revolution, Collectivization, The Great Purge, Moscow Show Trials
  • Art and Literature: Socialist realism, the Secret Police (NKVD)
  • The New Testament story of Jesus and Pontius Pilate
  • Bulgakov's biography
Hedda Gabler, Henrik Ibsen Norway
  • Dramatic realism/naturalism
  • Growth of movement for women's rights (1880s)
  • Religion: Lutheranism
  • Attitudes towards family, social class, gender and sexuality
  • Conventions of tragedy
  • Ibsen's biography
The Elephant Vanishes, Haruki Murakami Japan
  • Post War development in Japan/Tokyo
  • Japanese economic and technological development in the 1980s
  • Westernization/Globalization of traditional Japanese culture
  • Magical Realism
  • Folk Tales
  • Post modernism
Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka Germany
  • Kafka's biography - particularly his relationship with his family
  • The geographical makeup of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the build up to World War 1
  • Status of Jewish people living in Prague
  • Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche
Antigone, Sophocles Greece
  • 5th Century Athenian Society - status, 'democracy' etc
  • Religious beliefs and practices
  • The work of the 3 great playwrights -Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides
  • Sophocles' biography
  • Conventions of Ancient Greek Theatre e.g. chorus, use of masks, costume, staging - orchestra/skene etc
  • Festival of Dionysus - roots of theatre in religious practice
  • Structure of plays (prologos / episodes / stasima / exodus etc
  • Conventions of Tragedy and Tragic Hero

C. The concept of translation

Whether or not you or your students are able to understand the text chosen for study in its original language, an examination of at least some of the implications of the text in translation will yield some very significant issues, and these are worth returning to throughout your study of Part 1:

  • How important but difficult is it to translate word and sentence choices with all their associations, implications and connotations into a different language ?
  • What aspects of meaning can accordingly be lost?
  • What are the implications in terms of translating stylistic features such as imagery, rhythm, sound or figurative expression?
  • How important is the fact that texts create meaning within a social or cultural context? Does understanding of a cultural, as well as a linguistic, frame of reference affect the way a work is read and how easy is this to translate?
  • In what ways does the author of the original text remain the author of the translated work? Does the translator in a sense become the author through the linguistic choices they make?

To initiate discussion of these ideas, and even as a way to begin the whole study of Part 1 Works in Translation is to give students an extract from the text they are about to study in the original language and ask them if there is anything they can say about it - words they might know, sentences they can make an attempt at deciphering, or even a response to its structure or appearance on the page. The next stage will be to compare it with 2-3 translations as a way to open up discussion about the kinds of issues mentioned above. The following example illustrates this idea through reference to an extract from a poem by Baudelaire:

Original verse

From Paysage

Je verrai les printemps, les étés, les automnes;

Et quand viendra l'hiver aux neiges monotones,

Je fermerai partout portières et volets

Pour bâtir dans la nuit mes féeriques palais.

Translation 1 Translation 2

From A Landscape

Seasons will pass 'till Autumn fades the rose;

And when comes Winter with his weary snows,

I'll shut the doors and window-casements tight,

And build my faery palace in the night.

From Landscape

I shall see the springtimes, the summers, the autumns;

And when winter comes with its monotonous snow,

I shall close all the shutters and draw all the drapes

So I can build at night my fairy palaces.

Here is one student's comparative analysis to the two translations, in light of the prompts raised earlier:

The first translation, 'A Landscape', explains the change of season and time passing using emotive language - the idea that Autumn, personified, 'fades the rose' with time; this gives Autumn an active, living presence. 'Landscape' takes a more literal approach, using a list to present the sense of time passing through the different seasons, whilst 'A Landscape' takes on more figurative presentation of summer seemingly dying as Autumn moves in.

The main difference between second lines of the two translations is in their presentation of Winter. The first version personifies Winter as a male character with 'his weary snows', which suggests that the weather is spiteful - produced out of Winter's malice. With the word 'monotonous' the second version suggests that this winter is also unwanted, however it is presented with less of a 'character' and the relationship between the speaker and nature therefore seems more distant or detached.

The third line of these extracts take a similar stance on the translation; both have the effect of suggesting that the speaker is shutting him or herself away and the use of the personal pronoun 'I' gives the speaker a degree of assertiveness and authority. The action of shutting either the doors or the shutters, and closing the 'window casements' and 'drapes' is presented as one that is deliberate and controlled.

Differences in the last two lines of the two translations lie, once again, in the choice to make the word 'palaces' plural in the second poem, in contrast to the first which depicts a singular 'faery palace'. The spelling of 'faery' as opposed to 'fairy' suggests a sense of something more archaic and gives the translation a more traditional feel, although a similar effect is achieved in the second version with the inverted syntax.

Another significant difference between the two versions has to do with the metre and rhyme schemes. The first version sticks to the original poem's rhyming pattern of couplets and quatrains in 'rose' with 'snows' and 'tight' with 'night'. The second poem on the other hand translates the words more literally and therefore departs from the rhyme scheme.

In my opinion, whilst the second provides a more 'accurate' translation in terms of word choice, the first is a more truthful representation of its dream-like atmosphere and the speaker's sense of isolation.

Selected Pages


Teaching Part 1: lesson strategies 2 May 2017

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Written Assignment Exemplar 9 11 August 2018

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Written Assignment Exemplar 8 13 July 2018

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Marking the Written Assignment 9 May 2018

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Written Assignment Exemplar 7 5 November 2017

This is another example of a Written Assignment where a clear and purposeful literary focus has allowed a student to explore...

Written Assignment Exemplar 6 28 July 2017

This sample written assignment is focused on one of Neruda's best known poems, Walking Around. When it comes to the study...

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