Monday, September 24, 2012

On Translation

[Originally posted at Slacktivist.  Seems to have some potential general interest outside the thread.]

The question of how best to translate is both important and complex and has, unsurprisingly, been argued over for quite some time.
Generally the discussion takes place between two poles.  On the one hand you have translations that try to communicate the sense of what is being said to a culture unfamiliar with those things that would have been understood like second nature to the original audience itself.  See, for example, Amy Richlin's Rome and the Mysterious Orient which completely ignores the restrictions of literal translation and instead attempts to translate the three plays in question into a form that a modern American audience would understand as the Roman audience understood the original.
For example offensive Roman stereotypes are replaced with offensive American stereotypes of roughly equivalent value.
On the other hand you have the translation that tries to say exactly what the original text was literally saying, word for word if possible, and gives up on any hope of a modern audience understanding it as an ancient one would have unless said audience is willing to devote the next twelve years of their life to understand the cultural context in which the work was produced.
Between these two poles is where you'll find most translations, but by no means all.  The fact that these are the poles the debate usually takes place between does not mean that they represent a spectrum on which all translations fall.  There are more dimensions than just a sense-literal axis.
The problem with strictly literal translations is that it's impossible for you to understand what the original author was actually saying without doing a lot of work to understand the context, footnotes or endnotes might help with this, but generally speaking you're just going to fall short of fully understanding meaning.
The problem with things that try to translate sense is that they are extremely tied to the time and place of their own creation, and quickly become dated, are not intended for multiple cultures before they become dated, and don't leave you knowing what was actually said or done, only what the meaning behind it was and only then if you are the intended audience.  If you're not in the intended audience a sense based translation is going to take as much work for you to truly understand as a literal one because either way you have to somehow invade the mindset of a culture not your own.  That takes a lot of work.

[Added here.]

Oh yeah, best solution I know of?  Multiple translations.
If you're not going to devote your life to understanding the culture in which it is written, and are going to look at things only in translation rather than in the original, get multiple translations that fall in different places with regard to whether they value the literal meaning or the sense behind it.


  1. Yeah, I think the best method depends on one's objectives. I've studied quite a bit of Greek and I have several translations of the Odyssey - some with very literal parallel translation opposite the original Greek, some (I like the Penguin one by E. V. Rieu) which are much freer.

    Similarly, actually, with the Bible: I really detest modern translations that try make it into happy friendly simple language, because (a) the AV was vastly influential on the English language, so if you're studying it as literature that's the one to go for, and (b) if you're studying it as theology, you shouldn't be misleading yourself into thinking that it's happy, friendly or simple.

  2. You might be interested in this: Translation as Commentary (or, Commentary as Translation?)

    It covers some of the same thoughts as above...

  3. There's a REALLY good side-discussion in Rapture Ready on translations, in the chapter where Radosh talks about all the bibles. (Including golf bibles!) He lists a lot of examples, especially of idioms, and it kind of drives home the point that you're not really ... reading what was written. Just someone's idea of the best approximation of same.

    Somewhere I did a review on all the major translations (at least in my library) of the Thousand and One Nights collections. It's a difficult subject. I don't know the answer, to be honest.

    1. Hmm. Let's say there's a bunch of concepts in a particular passage. With the best will in the world, a translator is likely only to get a subset of those, the ones he understands are there - and with anything other than a determination not to do so, he's going to introduce concepts of his own as well.

  4. Multiple translations, yes!

    Every few months a recent convert shows up on my Heathen email group wanting to know what the preferred translations of eddas and sagas are, but the answer is something like "These two are kind of weak, these two are awesome but out of print, and these remaining five have the following advantages and drawbacks."

  5. This is relevant to my interests. XD

    Multiple translations ftw - I've picked up things from a very nonliteral translation that I'd never get from the more literal sorts, and would have a hard time arriving at myself from the source material, simply because that's not how I see the world.

    A professor in one of my classes put it like this: translation is always a betrayal. You can betray the source in watering down its connections to its culture, you can betray the reader in disallowing them from understanding the connotations without doing ages of research.

    I think ze missed an important thing: you are also an active agent in whatever you're translating, or reading a translation -of-. There's not two minds involved (author-translator). There's at least three (add the reader), and sometimes more (author-translator-editor-reader). This game can be played for ages.

    I find it useful to think, instead of "Genji translated by Seidensticker," "Genji as interpreted by Seidensticker." It's a small shift in language but a big one in connotation, and also gives the sense of "Seidensticker's worldview will have influenced this work."

    But that is just me. ^^

  6. Genji as interpreted by Seidensticker." It's a small shift in language but a big one in connotation, and also gives the sense of "Seidensticker's worldview will have influenced this work."

    Yes, good point.