What We Gain from Teaching Translated Literature - National Council of Teachers of English
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What We Gain from Teaching Translated Literature

From NCTE’s Standing Committee on Global Citizenship


This post was written by NCTE member Chase Eddington, who is also a member of the Standing Committee on Global Citizenship.


On a chilly evening in London during October 1816, two young men stayed up through the entire night poring over a newly published book. Each of them had recently moved to London and was just 21 or 22 years old at the time. In his memoir, Charles Cowden Clarke recalls this evening fondly, writing that he and his friend sat up with teeming wonderment” as they read from a “beautiful copy of the folio edition of Chapman’s translation of Homer. Illuminated by lamplight, they excitedly shared excerpts of the Odyssey, reading passages aloud until the wee hours. By breakfast the next morning, the other of these two men—a young poet called John Keats—had written a draft of his now famous sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.”

A reader of Latin but not Greek, Keats lacked any firsthand reading experience of the ancient Greeks. Access to an English translation, though, allowed Keats to discover the “wide expanse” ruled by Homer, and that discovery affected him deeply. After reading George Chapman’s English translation of the Odyssey, Keats related how his perspective changed from the experience:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Keats’s experience of reading Chapman’s translation is a transformative one, and he uses the language of discovery to communicate it. The reading of Homer for Keats is not only an exercise in reading fine poetry, it is also a volcanic event of his own personal history that laid down entirely new and fertile territory for exploration. Reading Chapman’s Homer, as Keats experiences it, is an occasion equal to the discovery of new continents whose grandeur can awe a person into silence. This poem, arguably among Keats’s finest, shares something significant about a translated text’s ability to affect us.

Perhaps Keats’s reaction to reading Homer in English seems overwrought to contemporary sensibilities. The crux of his argument, though, stands: when we read writers across borders of time and language, our own world gets larger. Thus, the feelings Keats relates in his poem demonstrate the power and the continued need for students to read translated texts. To develop a truly expansive view of the human experience and individual perspectives, teachers should feel encouraged to introduce translated novels, short stories, plays, and poetry to their classrooms.

Reading translations facilitates access to culture, language, geography, and ways of being that are different from our own. The horizon of a student’s world can be small. Their experience of life is often limited. But literature is capacious, and it contains multitudes. Translated literature, especially, provides an entrée to horizon-expanding experience. What students ultimately learn when reading the ancient Greeks, nineteenth-century Russians, the Latin American modernists, contemporary South Asians, or any number of other writers across time and place is that despite the variety of world culture and knowledge that exists, we are all still bonded by a shared humanity that is common to us all.

Yoshida Kenkō, one of the great writers of the medieval Kamakura period in Japan, writes in his Essays in Idleness (translated by Meredith McKinney) thatit is a most wonderful comfort to sit alone beneath a lamp, book spread before you, and commune with someone from the past whom you have never met.” Kenkō’s sensibility mirrors what Keats writes over five hundred years later about his encounter with Homer. These are not the ancient, out-of-touch perspectives of the long-dead; they are the thoughts and feelings of fully human people who lived and breathed as we do and whose only difference from the modern person is time, place, and language. They loved, longed, grieved, and thought precisely as we do, and the ability to recognize our common humanity despite our differences can contribute to our own peace, understanding, and sense of empathy.

Reading about the diversity of these experiences in the classroom should enrich our own lives (and our students’ lives) in meaningful ways, as these texts provide a connectedness that helps to foster community and collaboration. Teaching novels, short stories, plays, and poetry translated from other languages should be noncontroversial: translated texts work in many teaching contexts and under many pedagogical systems. Many of the foundational works of Western literature only make their way into the English classroom via a translator. Whether teaching Petrarch’s sonnets, Dante’s terza rima, or Bashō’s haiku, much of the literature favored by Classical educators or those focused on the “Great Texts” is presented through translations. Similarly, educators focused on developing an awareness of global perspectives or inclusive readings cannot properly achieve their aims without perspectives that are truly global or that hail from outside the Anglosphere. What Keats teaches us from his poem, written in his youth, is that while our own language and our own literature is like a “realm of gold” and a “goodly kingdom,” it is still only a part of the entire world. And when we see the world in its entirety, at last, we will know it for all its beauty.

Before every class I teach, I read my students a poem. While Keats is well-represented, many of the poems I teach are translated from poets from many different countries and centuries. After reading a translated poem, sometimes I ask students to guess the source language or the year it was written. Students are often shocked to find that sentiments so “modern” could have been expressed so long ago. What horizons open to them when they listen to these voices from the past who knew no English? Consider, at last, Sam Hamill’s translation of the Zen priest Mansei’s poem on the brevity of life:

If pressed to compare
this brief life, I might declare:
It’s like the boat
that crossed this morning’s harbor
leaving no mark on the world.

What mark will we leave? What ripples will we send across the waters of time and space? A deep connection—a connection between past and present, here and there, self and other—is created when students feel as though they have had thoughts like these, and that others in the world before them have thought in the ways they have. Anyway, what does an eighth-century Japanese priest have in common with a class of twenty-first-century American teenagers? Quite a lot actually. We are no different. 

And that’s the whole point.


Discover These Online Resources for Teaching International and Translated Literature

Before you go, check out some free online resources that might enrich your teaching and learning experience:


Aaron Chase Eddington is the Director of Development and Communications at the Selwyn School in Argyle, Texas, where he also teaches world literature. He serves on NCTE’s Standing Committee for Global Citizenship. He is the author of two poetry collections, including most recently A Prairie Song, from Bowen Press.


The Standing Committee on Global Citizenship works to identify and address issues of broad concern to NCTE members interested in promoting global citizenship and connections across global contexts within the Council and within members’ teaching contexts.


It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.