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Category Archives: Translation Theory

Real Translation

It’s been a busy few weeks at Mine Your Language, with not much spare time for posts or news. But things have settled as they always do, and that leaves time for some housekeeping and a few thoughts.

This is a somewhat different post to what you might normally expect to find on a translator website. So first let me explain some background. Like your typical average Australian, I don’t mind going to my local bowling club (“bowlo”) on the odd evening, just to sit and read a book amidst a bit of company and the fuzz of conversation. It’s a good chance to get away from the usual workaday environment and block out the daily noise. I had just finished re-reading George Johnston’s classic “My Brother Jack” and was searching the shelves for something while waiting for the sequel (“Clean Straw for Nothing”) from the local library. That’s when I noticed the New English Bible New Testament (NEBNT) which I had bought at a second-hand book fair I don’t know how long ago. So I figured I’d take it along to browse through for an hour or so.

Quick disclaimer: MYL is non-denominational and non-judgmental!

Religion is a touchy subject so I’d like to make it clear that I’m mentioning the Bible here for very practical, translation-related reasons that will become apparent below. That said, I find religious texts in general very interesting. Regardless of what one might think of the beliefs involved, the great faiths arose during times when human life was hardly pleasant. Your life was likely to be, as one famous expression has it, “nasty, brutish, and short” [1]. You were going to die at an age that these days would be considered quite young (40 or 50 at best), and probably sooner; death was almost guaranteed to be painful, frequently violent, and would come after a (brief) lifetime of toil, hunger and uncertainty. That was the lot of all humanity, save for a select few – and even so, wealth and station were no guarantee against disease: as an old Spanish saying graphically reminds, one could literally “spit blood into a basin of gold” (escupir sangre en bacín de oro). So you can pick up just about any of those texts and find a lot of wisdom and counsel from people for whom suffering was a fundamental component of life, yet found inspiration and energy to create the legacy of music, art and literature we can still enjoy today.

Certainly too, for translators of English, Spanish and Portuguese (e.g. yours truly), the Bible is particularly relevant because it has exerted a lengthy social and cultural influence on the speakers of those languages. It is the source of many proverbs and metaphors still invoked in speech and writing (and not always in the original sense): to harden one’s heart, kick against the pricks, put new wine into old skins, cast the first stone, separate the wheat from the chaff, all things to all men; my brother’s keeper, a land of milk and honey, a den of thieves, a voice in the wilderness, the salt of the earth, a man after his own heart, baptism of fire; he that is not with me is against me, a leopard cannot change his spots, pride goes before a fall, the blind leading the blind, tomorrow will look after itself. Whatever your personal thoughts on the Christian Bible happen to be, it is one of those things, like Shakespeare and Cervantes, that Spanish translators should at least have a passing acquaintance with, even if it’s just to spot the references.

Several years ago in Australia, there were some large billboard advertisements seeking support for seeing-eye dogs. These animals require special temperament and training, and not all make the grade. The billboard summarised this difficulty with the tagline “many puppies are called, but few are chosen”. Now imagine that you are asked to translate this into Spanish. It is of course a New Testament reference [2], and thus poses a slight dilemma. Would the biblical allusion with a canine connotation go over well in all quarters? Might it be safer to seek an alternative way of saying the same thing in Spanish without (indirectly) invoking the Bible? Whatever, the point is that the translator should ideally know where the reference comes from, precisely so s/he can flag potential concerns to a client.

The search for (textual) meaning.

So how does all this fit in with practical translation matters today? Well, what especially caught my attention in the NEBNT was the Introduction. So much so, that I have copied an extract below. It is a very elegant summary of what real translation is about.

The older translators, on the whole, considered that fidelity to the original demanded that they should reproduce, as far as possible, characteristic features of the language in which it was written, such as the syntactical order of words, the structure and division of sentences, and even such irregularities of grammar as were indeed natural enough to authors writing in the easy idiom of popular Hellenistic Greek, but less natural when turned into English. The present translators were enjoined to replace Greek constructions and idioms by those of contemporary English.

This meant a different theory and practice of translation, and one which laid a heavy burden on the translators. Fidelity in translation was not to mean keeping the general framework of the original intact while replacing Greek words by English words more or less equivalent. A word, indeed, in one language is seldom the exact equivalent of a word in a different language. Each word is the centre of a whole cluster of meanings and associations, and in different languages these clusters overlap but do not often coincide. The place of a word in a clause or sentence, or even in a larger unit of thought, will determine what aspect of its total meaning is in the foreground. […]

We have conceived our task to be that of understanding the original as precisely as we could (using all available aids), and then saying again in our own native idiom what we believe the author to be saying in his […]. [3]

For me, this distils the act and art of translation down to its essence: understanding and then rewriting for effective assimilation, without being enslaved by the original grammar and syntax, and all the while keeping words in their proper perspective as ‘clusters of meanings and associations’ that overlap but do not necessarily coincide. These are good thoughts to hold at a time when the ‘translation as utility’ industry insists on seeing texts as piles of verbiage to be shovelled around from one language to another. “Multiplying words without knowledge” if you will [4] – or as Shakespeare’s Claudius lamented, “words without thoughts never to heaven go” [5]. Real translation means true understanding and consciousness of ideas: when that is the guiding principle, the right words surely follow.

  1. Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan. Ch. XIII.
  2. Matthew 22:14.
  3. The New English Bible: The New Testament, 2nd Ed. 1970. Introduction (p. xiii). Oxford University Press.
  4. Job 35:16.
  5. Hamlet: Act 3, Scene 3.

Translation Equivalence

For anyone who is seeking translation services, I would recommend doing at least some brief research on what translation really involves. It seems that prospective translation buyers mostly shop around for price, and from there make a choice based on the qualifications or track record of the providers within their price bracket. But there isContinue Reading