Cyrus Translation Cornucopia

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Principles of Translation


"It will serve to demonstrate, that the art of translation is of more dignity and importance than has generally been imagined."
-Sir Alexander Fraser Tytler

Throughout the history of philosophy and linguistics, the essence of translation has been misunderstood. The importance of translation has been underappreciated, not only as an art form, but also as a way of expressing meaning and a method of interpreting being. Even the term translation has not been properly translated to our understanding.

Regarding translation, German philosopher Martin Heidegger remarked: "Somehow, through language, the process of translation liberates the essential from the confines of chronological time, bringing subjects into non-linear, reciprocal relationships of understanding and application. Translation brings to the fore what is hidden in language, by opening a space."

The Invisibility Of Translation
The sheer volume of texts of all kinds, both traditional written texts and new electronic ones, continues to increase exponentially and so will translation, as long as there is a need to transmit those texts over linguistic boundaries. Yet, despite this surge in world knowledge, the invisibility of translation persists.

Heidegger explains it this way: "The barrier of translation is curiously outside of the dimensions of space; in its invisibility, the good translator disappears from view, even while preserving the text. What is revealed is neither the essence of the translator as a being nor the text as a being; rather, in the contact of the translator with the text."

All reading is, in a sense, a kind of translation, a search for meanings in a text written by someone else. When reading or listening to a Shakespeare play, one can only wonder what happened to those words over the centuries, and what the different resonances of those words were for the playwright himself and for his contemporary actors and audiences.

Quite probably, the most important question in the thoughts of any author or reader is: Is translation possible? At one end of the debate, we have the idea that nothing is communicable or translatable; at the other extreme, we have the thought that everything is translatable into any language, as long as humanity recognizes that a degree of approximation is an acceptable human characteristic.

All forms of literature and speech can be accurately translated, including novels, movies, poetry, speeches, and non-fiction, obviously with different areas varying in difficulty of translation. Scholarly texts are usually translated by skilled professional translators. Metalanguage works, or works that discuss language, can be very difficult to translate usefully. Sometimes the metaphorical use of a word is more common than its literal use, idioms usually cannot be translated accurately.

Comic texts are notoriously difficult to translate, as noted by British novelist Virginia Woolf, who once said that "humor is the first gift to perish in a foreign language." Poetry too is close to impossible to translate accurately because it depends as much on form as it does on meaning. Non-fiction, on the other hand, is often very straight forward to translate, as meaning is all that is important.

"The qualities of a good translator are not few."
-Martin Luther

The Translation Process
Translation theory is the study of proper principles of translation. Based on a solid foundation of understanding of how languages work, translation theory recognizes that different languages encode meaning in differing forms, yet guides translators to find appropriate ways of preserving meaning, while using the most appropriate forms of each language. Translation theory includes principles for translating figurative language, dealing with lexical mismatches, rhetorical questions, inclusion of cohesion markers, and many other topics crucial to good translation.

Basically there are two competing theories of translation. In one, the predominant purpose is to express as exactly as possible the full force and meaning of every word and turn of phrase in the original, and in the other the predominant purpose is to produce a result that does not read like a translation at all, but rather moves in its new dress with the same ease as in its native rendering. In the hands of a good translator neither of these two approaches can ever be entirely ignored.

Conventionally, it is suggested that in order to perform their job successfully, translators should meet three important requirements; they should be familiar with:

the source language

the target language

the subject matter

Based on this premise, the translator discovers the meaning behind the forms in the source language and does his best to produce the same meaning in the target language - using the forms and structures of the target language. Consequently, what is supposed to change is the form and the code and what should remain unchanged is the meaning and the message. (Larson, 1984)

Translation is therefore a process based on the theory that it is possible to abstract the meaning of a text from its forms and reproduce that meaning with the very different forms of a second language.

"Poetry is what is lost in translation."
-Robert Frost

Types of Translators
To be a good translator, one must be not only at ease in the source language, but also a skilled writer in the target language. For this reason, most translators choose to translate into their mother tongue. Depending on these matters of language proficiency, the procedures used will vary from project to project.

There are different groups of translators. There are translators employed in companies where they do clerical work and translate or write documents in various languages. There are freelance translators who work both inside and outside the publishing industry. Freelancers are highly independent, have little organization, and work either on their own or network with colleagues.

Translators who do not work for publishers are often called technical translators, even if they do not deal only with technical texts. Translators who work for publishers are often called literary translators, even if they deal with non-fiction or scientific texts. They usually provide a collaboration whose consistency is quite variable, and from the tax viewpoint, they are equated to writers.

Simultaneous translators are not textual translators, but rather interpreters. There job consists of listening and verbally translating a voice as it is being spoken.

"We are bound in two ways: to our mother tongue and to the mother tongue of the text we are translating."
-Martin Heidegger

Types of Translations
In practice, there is also considerable variation in the types of translations produced by translators. Some translators work only in two languages and are competent in both. Others work from their first language to their second language, and still others from their second language to their first language.

Two translators may be translating from the same source text and into the same target language, and yet the results may be very different. There is not one correct translation of a given text. Reasons for this variation include:

the purpose of the translation

the translation team itself

the target language audience for whom the translation is intended

The results are three translational philosophies that fall someplace on a continuum from literal translations to idiomatic translations. Literal (word-for-word) translations follow very closely the grammatical and lexical forms of the source text language, whereas idiomatic (thought-for-thought) translations are concerned with communicating the meaning of the source text using the natural grammatical and lexical items of the receptor language. Translations that add to the source text, paraphrase, or change certain information for a specific effect - such as a commentary - are called unduly free, or free translations.

"Woe to the makers of literal translations, who by rendering every word weaken the meaning! It is indeed by so doing that we can say the letter kills and the spirit gives life."

Ad Verbum vs. Ad Sensum
Translation is an old activity that has been practiced by man since ancient times, with only very few writings on the subject in the pre-linguistic age. No theory was ever developed since those writings were mainly produced by practitioners who confined themselves to mere impressions. Such writings were devoid of a systematic approach or objective measures. Scholars themselves distinguished between words and their meaning.

The early translators maintained that translation is a process of interpreting or embellishing the original text, and sometimes inserted their own ideas, or their own commentary directly into the text whenever it was redundant, uninteresting or even ambiguous. To such an extent then, translation was based upon personal impressions and subjective inclinations.

The famous debate over translation ad verbum (according to the verbal expression) and ad sensum (according to the meaning) originated in Roman times:

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.), Roman statesman, orator and writer, translated many Greek works into Latin. Cicero's approach to translation was sense for sense and not word for word. That means a translator should bear in mind the intended meaning of the source language and render it by means of target language words, which does not sound strange to the target language readers. Regarding his own translation style, Cicero stated: "If I render word for word, the result will sound uncouth (strange), and if compelled by necessity I alter anything in the order or wording, I shall seem to have departed from the function of a translator."

Pliny the Younger (AD 62-113) practiced and propagated translating as a literary technique. Unlike Cicero, Pliny tended towards word for word translation. Regarding the importance and usefulness of translations, he wrote: "You ask me what course of study I think you should follow. The most useful thing, which is always being suggested, is to translate Greek into Latin and Latin into Greek. This kind of exercise develops in one a precision and richness of vocabulary, a wide range of metaphor and power of exposition, and moreover, imitation of the best models leads to a like aptitude for original composition. At the same time, any point which might have been overlooked by a reader cannot escape the eye of a translator. All this cultivates perception and critical sense."

Jerome in the fourth century, like Cicero before him, was a representative of the latter method. In his famous "Letter to Pammachius", he remarks that "a word-for-word translation conceals the sense, even as an overgrown field chokes the grass." Despite those powerful words, Jerome clearly advocated two different methods of translation depending on whether the original was a secular text or a sacred text. Jerome defended literal translation whenever a highly authoritative text such as the Bible was at issue.

Boëthius in the sixth century adopted Jerome's literal translation position with respect to the works of renowned philosophers such as Aristotle: he translated word for word. Boëthius' translation strategy was followed in the Carolingian Renaissance by Johannes Scottus Eriugena, who made the philosophical and religious doctrines of the Greek Fathers accessible to Latin readers.

Having an eye for detail and accuracy, and hoping to create an authoritative translation, the early translator faced the challenge of obtaining good, high quality manuscripts. It was quite normal for there to be many manuscript versions circulating.

Yet, these early translators were not introverted copyists who spent every hour of their lives dutifully translating works understandable by only an enlightened inner circle. They were true scholars who understood what they were translating and possessed the temperament and intelligence necessary to lecture and converse with the intellectual leaders of their day.

"Translation is the paradigm, the exemplar of all writing."
-Harry Mathews

The First Published Principles
One of the earliest attempts to establish a set of major rules or principles to be referred to in literary translation was made by French translator and humanist Étienne Dolet, who in 1540 formulated the following fundamental principles of translation ("La Manière de Bien Traduire d’une Langue en Aultre"), usually regarded as providing rules of thumb for the practicing translator:

The translator should understand perfectly the content and intention of the author whom he is translating

The translator should have a perfect knowledge of the language from which he is translating and an equally excellent knowledge of the language into which he is translating

The translator should avoid the tendency to translate word for word, for to do so is to destroy the meaning of the original and to ruin the beauty of the expression

The translator should employ the forms of speech in common usage

The translator should - through his choice and order of words - produce a total overall effect with appropriate tone

Whatever be the severity of the persecution of translators like Dolet, the succeeding scholars upheld certain views of their predecessors. In the late sixteenth century, George Chapman, English poet, dramatist and the translator of "Homer", reiterated Dolet's views on "how to translate well from one language into another."

The seventeenth century witnessed a spurt in translations of Greek, Latin and French classics into English. The introductions written to the translations of these works discussed various translation techniques. In 1611, King James I of England commissioned scholars to translate a text of Bible that could be authorized for reading in the Churches. The King James Version of the Bible went on to have a great influence on the English language and literature.

Seventeenth century poet and translator, Abraham Cowley, advocated freedom in translation. He treated word-for-word translation as one mad man translating another. His contemporary, John Dryden, identified three types of translation:

Metaphrase - involving 'word by word' and 'line by line' translation

Paraphrase - involving 'sense for sense' translation

Imitation - involving variance from words and sense by abandoning the text of the original as the translator sees fit

In 1791, Scottish jurist and historian Sir Alexander Fraser Tytler published his celebrated "Essay on the Principles of Translation", in which he describes a good translation to be: "that, in which the merit of the original work is so completely transfused into another language, as to be as distinctly apprehended, and as strongly felt, by a native of the country to which that language belongs, as it is by those who speak the language of the original work."

Tytler proceeds to suggest certain rules to be used to guide translators in their work and as a criterion for judging the efficiency of their translations. According to Tytler, the ideal translation should:

give a complete transcript of the ideas and sentiments in the original passage

maintain the character of the style

have the ease and flow of the original text

The ideas of Tytler can give inspiration to modern translators and scholars, particularly his open-mindedness on quality assessment and his ideas on linguistic and cultural aspects in translations.

"I do love translating; it is the pure pleasure of writing without the misery of inventing."
-Nancy Mitford

Modern Theories
With the flourish of modern linguistic studies, the literature on translation has started to become more objective and systematic. Modern translation theory has moved away from a purely linguistic perspective toward the methodology of incorporating non-linguistic disciplines, most notably Semiotics (the systematic study of signs, sign systems or structures, sign processes, and sign functions) to supplement existing theory.

In 1964, linguist Eugene A. Nida claimed to separate translation studies from linguistics, since one can translate without knowing anything about linguistics at all, in the same manner that one can speak a given language fluently without being a student of the science of language.

Knowledge of the linguistic and stylistic characteristics of language varieties, however, can be of great use in translation. With such knowledge, one can then search for the equivalent variety in the target language, find out its main characteristics, and bear them in mind in order to reproduce them, as far as possible, in the translated version. According to Nida, a translator:

analyzes the message of the text in question into its simplest and structurally clearest forms in the source language

transfers it at this simple level to the target language

restructures it at this simple level to the target language which is most appropriate for the particular type of audience in mind.

Such a summary is clearly on the right track. It encourages translators to concentrate on what is important, and to restructure the form when it is necessary to convey the meaning. Such an emphasis is especially helpful in a situation where communication is difficult, because it is better to transmit at least a minimal core content, rather than to produce a formal equivalent that does not work at all.

"The original is unfaithful to the translation."
-Jorge Luis Borges

Dynamic Equivalent Translation
Although the principle of dynamic equivalence has been in existence for a long time and has been used on rare occasions in older translations, it was first given that name and formulated as a systematic translation principle in the seventies by Eugene Nida.

According to Nida, "language consists of more than the meaning of symbols and the combination of symbols; it is essentially a code in operation, or, in other words, a code functioning for a specific purpose or purposes. Thus we must analyze the transmission of a message in terms of dynamic dimension. This dimension is especially important for translation, since the production of equivalent messages is a process, not merely of matching parts of utterances, but also of reproducing the total dynamic character of the communication. Without both elements the results can scarcely be regarded, in any realistic sense, as equivalent."

Linguists and teachers of translators developed this theory of dynamic equivalent translation to spell out in detail the differences between form and meaning, the differences between different languages, and the kind of practices that lead to sound translation. Central to the theory was the principle of translating meaning in preference to form.

Thus, dynamic equivalence, or functional equivalent translation, is one that seeks to represent adequately and accurately in good target language grammar, style, and idiom, that which the words and constructions in the source language conveyed to the original recipients.

By contrast, a formal equivalent translation is one that seeks to translate from one language to another using the same grammatical and syntactical forms as the donor language whenever possible.

"A translator is to be like his author; it is not his business to excel him."
-Samuel Johnson

The Ideal Translation
By definition, translation is the accurate rendering of a document into another language so that it is suitable for its intended purpose. Consequently, to be effective a translation must not only be complete and accurate, but must also reflect the correct use of grammar, appropriate writing style, and terminology consistent with the subject matter. In other words, the ideal translation should be:

accurate - reproducing as exactly as possible the meaning of the source text

natural - using natural forms of the target language in a way that is appropriate to the kind of text being translated

communicative - expressing all aspects of the meaning in a way that is readily understandable to the intended audience

Upon completion, the ideal translation will be accurate as to meaning and natural as to the target language forms used. An intended audience who is unfamiliar with the source text will readily understand it. The success of a translation is measured by how closely it measures up to these ideals.


  • At 8:28 AM, Blogger Pope Benedict XVI said…

    Bless you, my child.

  • At 8:56 PM, Blogger norm said…

    Oh c'mon,
    This is really serious stuff! I wanted to talk about translation for a class I'm teaching, and this is an amazingly complete article. My only real question is that it's so good, I wonder if it's original.

    If it is original research, Pope Benedict XVI shouldn't be making assumptions about the age of the author!

  • At 7:16 AM, Blogger Tikum Mbah Azonga said…


    I have found your post on translation very enriching.

    I am by training and experience a translator-interpreter (Lille-France), a journalist (La Trimouille-France)as well as a teacher of French (Besancon-France) and Spanish (Salamanca-Spain.

    Check out my blog for articles on translation, bilingualism and many other subjects.



    Currently I am an Assistant Lecturer in Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Buea here in Cameroon. I am working on a paper entitled: "Journalistic Translation and its implications for Journalism and Translation Practice in Cameroon". Any relevant pieces of information from you would be highly appreciated.

  • At 2:08 AM, Blogger zi said…

    Of course this is not original from Cyrus. This is a collection from many different scholars on translation theory, the references are missing. Norm and Tikum, you could just go into Hundreds of articles there, authors should be acknowledged though.

  • At 1:49 AM, Blogger Seffliva said…

    Thank you for this interesting and comprehensive post on translation. I am actually searching for blogs regarding this. Thanks again for sharing those information.
    interpretation and translation services


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