Kathleen Hart, Vassar College – Meaningful Translations

Kathleen Hart

Translation doesn’t always accurately convey the original writer’s intent.

Kathleen Hart, a professor of French at Vassar College, discusses the nature of creating meaningful translations.

Formerly a piano performance major, Kathleen Hart (Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania) discovered her enthusiasm for literary and cultural studies during a semester abroad. Her publications include Revolution and Women’s Autobiography in Nineteenth-Century France (Rodopi), articles, book reviews, and, with Paul Fenouillet (SUNY New Paltz), an English translation of George Sand’s 1839 novel in dramatic form, Gabriel (Modern Language Association “Texts and Translations Series,” 2010). Her current research focuses on neuroesthetics (using neuroscience to investigate esthetic experience) and the application of evolutionary, cognitive and developmental psychology to the study of literature and culture. See “Animal Humor and the Darwinian Absurd” (Contemporary French and Francophone Studies 2012: 16.4); “Strangers to Ourselves: Animality and Theory of Mind in Honoré de Balzac’s ‘A Passion in the Desert'” (Style 2012: 46.3). In 2013 she organized a panel on ecocriticism for the annual Nineteenth Century French Studies Colloquium.

Professor Hart is the recipient of two grants from the Vassar-Williams-Mellon Consortium to develop web-based exercises and teaching material using French music. Recent courses include “Music and Text” (in French), “Interpreting French Feminism” (Women’s Studies) and an Environmental Studies course she co-designed and co-taught with Professor John Long (Biology/Cognitive Science), called “Animal Metaphors.”  An article about “Animal Metaphors” appears in the January 2011 issue of Evolution: Education and Outreach.

Meaningful Translations


We expect a translation, also known as a target text, to be as faithful as possible to the meaning of the original version, called the source text.

But what if the source text is a literary work whose value depends heavily on the acoustic qualities — the sound effects – of words in the original language? In that case, the most accurate translation might lack the musical qualities that give the source text its aesthetic appeal.

I encountered this problem while translating short stories by the 19th-century French woman writer George Sand. Born Aurore Dupin, Sand was famous for wearing trousers, smoking cigars, and maintaining close friendships with leading musicians, including the composer Franz Liszt.

In 1836, Liszt dedicated to Sand his Rondeau fantastique based on a popular Spanish song about a smuggler.


A year later, Sand returned the favor when she dedicated to Liszt her short story called “The Smuggler” inspired by his piano piece

The story begins Heurtons les coupes de la joie: “Let’s clink the cups of joy.” Now the word “cups” is not the most accurate translation of the French word “coupes” literally “champagne glasses.” But the phrase “champagne glasses” drags the sentence down. On the other hand, “cups” has a crisp, upbeat sound, and the staccato repetition of the /k/ sound in “Clink the cups of joy” gives it a sharp ring, like the sound of Liszt’s piano.

Translation as an art aims to capture not just the content of the source text, but its expressive features as well.