English University Interviews - Reading Works in Other Languages

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Whilst you’re applying to study English Literature, you will be expected to have read literature originally written in other languages – and many applicants will have read works in their original language as well. The first part of this interview theme to consider is simply whether you study other languages. If you do, how have they impacted your study of English?

You might choose to highlight that learning another language, e.g. French, allowed you to develop your understanding of grammar much more than you would have been able to had you only learnt English, and that as your ability in the language developed you found yourself being encouraged to assess texts on as deep a level as you were assessing texts in English. You could highlight that different languages offer up different experiences (e.g. French opens the gateway to Existentialism and Absurdism from the 20th century, while studying Latin and Greek gives you the opportunity to understand the very basis of literature, something that has been built upon foundations thousands of years old). You could even try to link the different languages together by finding themes in works that you studied in Spanish, for example, that you could trace back to a work from Homer.

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Do you have to read a text in its original language?

You should be open minded here and emphasise that you can find worth in reading a translation, not only in reading a text in its original language. Otherwise, you’ll struggle to defend your point further unless you speak the majority of the world’s languages fluently… You might wish to point out that you do find great joy in reading a text in its original language, and that you’ve found this to be particularly enjoyable in your studies of, for example, Spanish. You might say that you always prefer to read a work in the original language if you can, and that you’ve taken this opportunity wherever possible. However, you should use this as an opportunity to assess what a translation means. You’re not reading the true original meaning, and instead you will receive, to some extent, a re-filtering through the lens of the translator. Subtle choices can have a substantial impact on meaning, hence why some translations are far better reviewed than others, and become the go-to translation of a work. One option open to you is to read multiple translations, and to read criticism that will better highlight the positives and flaws in the translation that you may have chosen.

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Does literature change how you view a society?

This is an interesting question to consider within this theme. If we can read a work in a different language, what can we learn about that society from the language, or from the work itself? Can we learn more about a society if we are able to read the work in its original form? There will always be words or phrases that cannot be readily translated, and we may well argue that we can understand more about the society that gave birth to a piece of literature if we can understand how its language is built, the types of words that it uses, and in particular any unique words or idioms that it may have.

What books do you like that aren’t written in English?

You’ll have read texts from a variety of different languages and cultures, and it’s entirely possible that your favourite book wasn’t written in English originally. As such, this question may actually be very straightforward for you. It’s worth trying to think of books across a few different cultures, and also focusing on books that you do actually truly like – avoid last minute research into especially highbrow works that you don’t truly understand, and instead focus on works that you can discuss in detail and with passion If possible, try to focus on works that you have read in the original language – which will of course stand out – although this is not necessary. You should also show an awareness of the background of any work that you choose. As an example, if you choose a work by Bulgakov, ensure that you are able to provide some commentary on the USSR and its wider political situation. Lastly, consider avoiding the most obvious other languages and works (e.g. French, Latin, Russian) and instead focusing on works in Mandarin or Japanese, for example.

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