“It depends…” – Some thoughts on translation

As I mature as both a reader of ancient texts and a teacher, I find myself saying a lot more, “It depends…”, as well as “You could translate it that way”, “That’s one way to render it”, and a lot of “it depends on the target audience of your translation.”


Most students who study Greek or Latin in a traditional program are taught to translate, and to translate in order to show their knowledge of the underlying grammar. That is, the goal of their translation is not ‘word for word accuracy’ or ‘literal rendering’, but ‘demonstration of grammatical knowledge in the target language’. Later on, they are told, you can use freer translation, but for the beginning stages we want to see that you know grammar like we know grammar.

Which, from that school’s philosophy, makes perfect sense. But we all know (we do all know) that translation is an intricate art and is always betrayal. Translation isn’t even simply a spectrum from ‘literal’ to ‘dynamic’ with some super-holy synthesis in the middle where the HCSB lives.

When we translate we are trying to convey something of the base text to something of the translated text. Usually that is ‘meaning’. But even meaning is a bit nebulous – do we want to preserve the meaning of words, or of phrases, or of clauses, or the gist of the whole passage, or sometimes the socio-communicative function of the text? It’s never simple.

Likewise, our translation can be familiarised, that is we can try and render elements of the socio-cultural context of the base text into immediately understandable analogues in the target language’s culture (for example, what do you do with the Good Shepherd in a culture that doesn’t have and never has had sheep?), or your translation can be alienised, preserving idioms and cultural references that won’t be immediately understandable to the reader and will require them to acquire new information about the base text’s culture, or even defamiliarised, as in taking elements of a text that are comfortable and familiar, say in an already existing translation version, and rendering them in a way that is jarring and dislocating so as to force the reader into a new act of reading.

Personally, the way I try and train readers of ancient texts is to focus as much as possible on getting htem to read what is right in front of them. Read the text “as it is”. When I bring this over to translation, my philosophy is “best represent the text as you can” – if it has ambiguities, try to render them ambiguously, if it has clarity, express that clarity, if it has foreignness, preserve the foreignness. I think of this as fidelity in translation, but I recognise that there are other ways to do that, and that even a single translator (myself!) translates differently for different contexts and purposes.

Poetry is a great place to test translation philosophy. If you accept Jakobson’s functions of language and even some modicum of structuralism, then poetry is a form of language in which the focus is on the actual code, the language used to mean is the focus. Poetry is language highlighting language (but not language talking about language, that’s the metalinguistic function!). Anyway, what do you translate in poetry? If you focus on meaning, you lose poetics, but if you focus on poetics, you must betray meaning! And even if you focus on poetics, you still face the difficult choices.


Say we’re translating classical Greek poetry into English. Do we choose an English verse form? Free verse? Alliteration? Metre? Even if you choose metre, you’re doing a ‘disservice’, since Greek metre is quantitative but English metre is stress-based. But doing so is also, and indeed has, created an English metrical traditional. Whereas the further back you go you see a more alliterative tradition in English. But if you translate into a contemporary poetic medium, you might end up with Free verse. And whatever you do, you are in fact creating as well as translating, and inevitably betraying. One could focus on meaning, but then you will betray the poetic function of the text. You have no choice but to fail! And yet translations succeed. That is the amazing thing about translations, that it’s actually possible.


What are your thoughts? How do you feel about translation and translation-philosophies?

One response

  1. Thank you for your thought provoking article. I do agree with what you have said. I too have studied translation theory a lot and I guess I have come to a place where the purpose of the translation is paramount in determining many of the other factors in translating. My whole reference point is from Bible translation.
    So there are many very good choices already in English that there is no need for me to make another translation. I just choose from what’s available. But if I am translating for another language like your saying, one that doesn’t have a clear understanding of the Biblical world maybe even a preliterate society, then my translation would necessarily be much freer and accommodating to the target audience because a misunderstood translation is worse than a more dynamic easier understood one. Well hopefully y’ll be able to understand what I wrote in my very run on sentence. My 2 cents worth…

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