Using Pinterest for Literary Translation Research

Pinterest-logoOne day I found myself perusing Google Images, researching something related to my translation from the French of Michele Audin’s novel Cent vingt et un jours. I can’t remember if I was looking up a medical technique, a military uniform, or a historical event, but in any case, I knew that finding an image would help me choose what word to use in my translation.

As I was scrolling through pages and pages of images, I thought, what if I could save the relevant images on their own page? And then, hey, why not use Pinterest?

Now I know you may be thinking, my fellow literary translators. Pinterest? A research tool? Isn’t it just full of wedding ideas, recipes, and designer clothes? Well, yes, in part. But you can easily transform it into a useful research tool for translation.

Why might images be helpful to translators, who work with words? I don’t know about you, but sometimes I find that, amidst a sea of monolingual and bilingual dictionaries, thesauruses, online language forums, and other material packed with words, an image can sometimes bring “the right word” to mind. If you’re working with a lot of historical or cultural references, having a collection of representative images can help you keep them straight.

So how does this work? While the opportunities (and Pinterest itself) are practically endless, I’d like to share some immediate applications I’ve used.

  • Historical references (people, places, things)
  • Cultural references (a certain painting, poem, song, food, costume)
  • Terminology reminders (a medical procedure, a type of weapon, an architectural motif)

Also, it’s important to note that, given the abovementioned overload of wedding/fashion/food content on Pinterest, many of the images you need may not be on Pinterest itself, but it’s easy enough to add just about anything to the site.

And now, for a few examples.

The novel I’m translating, Cent vingt et un jours, begins in Senegal around 1900, where one of the main characters spent his childhood. A specific type of boat called a pirogue is described. I found a postcard from the era to give me a better idea of what such a type of book might look like:


Several of the characters attend the École Polytechnique in Paris, which has a very specific uniform:


The book also mentions this particular scene from the 1942 French film Les Visiteurs du Soir (the flames licking the devil’s hands):


Two of the characters meet in front of this statue of Goethe at the University of Strasbourg:


Several references are made to Goethe’s Faust throughout the book, particularly to the character of Margaret/Marguerite/Gretchen, so I’ve saved some famous depictions of this character throughout history, such as this one:


Finally, this photograph is one of the most important images I’ve found. On the right is Gaston Julia, a French mathematician who lost his nose in World War I. One of the main characters in the book (the one mentioned above who was born in Senegal) is partially based on Julia.

Additionally, one of the chapters describes a photograph similar to this one, in which a French and a German mathematician are sitting on a bench with pipes in their mouths, petting a dog. I assume you see the striking similarities.


I hope this has been helpful for my fellow translators. I would love to hear what you think and if you have any other translation-related Pinterest uses to share!

Check out my full Pinterest board for Cent vingt et un jours here. And watch for frequent updates as I continue my way through translating the book!