Translation: a rendering of something written in one language into another which does not misinterpret the meaning or sacrifice the feeling of the original. So what makes a good translation? It is difficult to know where to begin in answering this question due to the multiple theories throughout the centuries, so it is important to provide a base. Definitions of a good translation include that a translation ‘Must neither be ‘free’ nor ‘literal’…faithful…a faithful imitation (not adaptation or approximation) of the original. It must be faithful both to the language of the original text and to the idiom into which it is being translated. It must be faithful both to the letter and to the spirit.’ Rees provides a definition which is quoted above but also adds that faithfulness is significant as ‘he is the best translator whose work is nearest the original.’ Knox highlights three simple rules for when creating a translation; be accurate, be intelligible and be readable, but this in some ways is too simplistic. Peyser contributes one of the more comprehensive arguments concerning what makes a good translation by stating that ‘Comparative naturalness of expression should be the first aim in a translation, and whatever mars that should be discarded. Sometimes it may be achieved by the retention of literalness, by rhyme, by metrical forms; sometimes it can be obtained only at the price of one or more of these. How best to compass it is for the translator to decide’
By looking at such definitions it becomes evident that there are many ideas of what makes a satisfactory end-product. So, is it really possible to define what makes a good translation? Through the study of different translations and theories, we see that different purposes involved in translating mean that different sets of criteria have to be issued. Many aspects are considered when exploring the idea of correct translation: content, use, the nature of the translator, cultural production, text survival and the recognisation of limitations. When looking at these aspects, we see that there is no single set definition of what makes a good translation.
When looking at theorists, Schleiermacher comes into the foreground. He highlights many of the problems faced in translation and outlines what he considers makes a satisfactory translation. Schleiermacher asserts that all translators are under the sway of the language they speak and in many cases there is little difference between better and worse renditions. The translator cannot fully understand concepts beyond the boundaries of the language he was educated in. Schleiermacher is a strong advocate of the idea that the translator, while endeavouring to keep his language sounding foreign, often fails to observe the fine line between undesirable extremes. Schleiermacher’s discussions highlight that with people understanding the concepts in what is to be translated, a satisfactory rendition can indeed be created. The idea of a good translation is fully dependent on the ideals of the individuals viewing it.
One must also consider Schopenhauer’s theories. Schopenhauer points out the difficulty in rendering an accurate translation as it is not always possible to find an exact equivalent in one language for a word in another. He states that it is almost never possible to transpose a sentence pregnant with meaning and character from one language to another so as to make precisely the same impression on a speaker of the second. The equivalence of words issue in translation can be seen even in the translation of Schopenhauer, as seen in the two examples in your handout:
It is not always possible to find an exact equivalent in one language for a word in another. Thus concepts signified by words in one language are likewise never exactly the same as those signified by words in another.
Not every word in one language has an exact equivalent in another. Thus, not all concepts that are expressed through the words of one language are exactly the same as the ones that are expressed through the words of another
Couldn’t both of these translations be seen as good, as they maintain the essence of the original? Yet there are obvious differences in the choice of words and phrase. As Schopenhauer himself says, this is the necessary inadequacy of all translations. Schopenhauer, like Schleiermacher, also explains that in many cases concepts cannot be so easily transmitted. Addressing that words and concepts cannot be transferred, it is easy to fall into the trap of accepting that there is no such thing as a good translation.
Humboldt, also presents a comprehensive analysis of translation in his work entitled ‘The More Faithful, The More Divergent,’ a title which clearly illustrates one of the more prevalent of Humbolt’s views. Like his contemporaries, Humbolt asserts that no word in one language is ever entirely like its counterpart in another, outlining a particular issue when one considers the idea of literal translation. According to Humboldt, a good translation is one which is not a commentary and contains no obscurities resulting from ‘wishy-washy’ choice, with which the translator would do violence to the text by arbitrarily clarifying and so distorting. Humboldt attempts to avoid these inadequacies himself by trying with every new revision to eliminate what was not stated equally plainly in the original text; recognising that the translator is tempted to add ‘alien trinkets.’
Nietzsche focused on the translator in relation to the historian and what makes a good translation. He states that ‘The degree of the historical sense of any age may be inferred from the manner in which this age makes translations and tries to absorb former ages and texts.’ Translations influence historians. Nietzsche pays particular attention to the idea that a good translation is one that fulfils the purpose and use set out by the translator. ‘Should we not make new for ourselves what is old and find ourselves in it?’ This was the idea of the Romans, and it remains a focus of theorists. Differences in purpose and material will affect the character of, and the process of making a translation; it is no wonder that it is difficult to define what is ‘good’. These theorists show explicitly that the question of what makes a good translation, and the act of translation itself, is subject to the opinions and interpretations of the individual and the period in which it is created and studied.
Discussion in relation to Examples
A good translation is in some ways like the concept of myth, you will know it when you see it but it is not easy to define. To better understand the theories that we encounter, we must look at various translations and forewords. Let us look at the translation of Ammianus Marcellinus by Walter Hamilton. Wallace-Hadrill comments that cuts have occurred throughout to better fit the volume of the penguin edition and to remove tedious aspects, such as Ammianus’ digressions, to better accommodate the modern reader. This embodies the idea set out as early as Jerome, who asserted that a good translation fits its purpose. Venuti makes a particularly relevant study of ‘translation to fit purpose’, explaining that it is fundamentally determined by a cultural political agenda in the present and asymmetrical relations, such as the economy. Hamilton’s translation also demonstrates the difficulty in accessibility of original texts, as Hamilton relies on a single 9th Century corrupted manuscript, which would be unreadable if a close rendering to modern English was attempted.
Literalness, Equivalence and Use
What is particularly enlightening is the comparison of two renditions of the same text. From these we can isolate the differences in style, choice and purpose set out by the translator. Beowulf, translated in 1979 and in 1995 by Michael Alexander, highlights problems and how a good translation cannot be given one definite definition. Both translations keep the content and essence of the text and attempt to maintain the concepts set out by the original author; however the 1979 version takes a non-literal approach in an attempt to maintain the epic composition. In comparison, the 1995 rendition alludes to the difficulty in cultural accessibility for the modern reader and instead gives a word by word rendition devised for those who wish to study Beowulf in old English, and to work out the meaning for themselves. Each version is translated to best suit its purpose and use. Does the difference in translation mean that one is particularly better than the other? These translations also provide an interesting case between literal and non-literal translation; and yet Alexander himself asks scholars to consider whether a literal prose version of a verse epic, is properly, a translation.
Carson and Shaw’s translation of Sophocles’ Electra provides an excellent example of what theorists may consider to be a good translation as well as illustrating many of the problems. This translation demonstrates the issues of finding English equivalents, such in the case of the verb λυπειν, as well as issues of context and diction. When translating one is frequently confronted with analogous terms; perfect equivalence after all presupposes an identity of cultural or socially shared experience between two separate ‘speech communities.’ Carson and Shaw also demonstrate that in order to make a satisfactory translation, one must know the subject explicitly; they know for instance, that it is typical of Sophoclean heroes to set themselves cosmic parameters of moral action. With such knowledge and understanding of the subject, they have better transferred concepts between languages.
Preservation of concepts and values of the original text
Prevalent theorists such as Schleiermacher assert that what truly makes a translation accurate is not so much the words that are preserved, but rather the virtues, thoughts and ideas. Bruni says that it is in understanding these that translators can reproduce accordingly. While various scholars have come to accept this idea, it is also related to several problems of translation. This is supposedly due to significant fault in the nature of the translator as seen as early as Cicero who explains that every composition is subject to one’s own individuality. Most translators want to, or unconsciously add to, the original translation, even when attempting to preserve the thoughts and graces of the original composer. As Tytler says ‘a translator uses not the same colours of the original, but is required to give his picture the same force and effect.’ With this in mind we see that the nature of the translator is significant to the colours he chooses to use.
Understanding and standing of the translator
Theorists often make the hypothesis that a good translator understands and attempts to deal with the limitations of translation. Like with the historian, the translator cannot simply create anything near an accurate account without first understanding the task ahead of them. For instance, the ideal translator should be equally proficient in the languages concerned; be bicultural as well as bilingual. Von Herder remarks that the best translator is in fact the best critic. Unfortunately, the projection of the translator into the translation can hardly be avoided. It seems that the question must be asked of where the meeting ground is between the ‘personal’ and the ‘other’ text? Batteux put it thus; languages are like men, who have one common nature which unites, and peculiarities which separate them. It is hardly likely that one can reproduce perfectly a text considering this idea; but with the limitations in mind, the translator may be able to produce the next best thing.
Much of what is translated is of cultural production; made in light of present circumstances, cultural moralities and ideologies. These determine the translation of chosen texts. Burian addresses the question ‘What possible excuse is there for new versions of texts?’ An approved answer for this is that translation is an ‘activity as fully implicated in its own world as any other form of cultural production.’ Anderson provides a valuable look into translation related to cultural production, asserting that the choices made by the translator are determined by changing goals and stylistic preferences within a cultural period. This cultural influence is seen in the many interpretations of Vergil and his views on heroism. Not only is a translation almost forced to conform with the culture for aesthetic reasons, but also for reasons of survival; no doubt that in a few generations, current translations could be considered obsolete. For further study into this area it is useful to examine the works of Anderson and Eliot.
Among the theories of what makes a good translation is the prevalent debate between non-literal and literal translation seen throughout the examples discussed. The Beowulf translations demonstrate that literal and non-literal can both be considered good based on purpose; modern scholarship though tends to sway towards the non-literal side. D’Ablancourt states that at times it is necessary to retrench one part to give birth to all the rest. Denham asserts that translations should fit the foreign text naturally and easily as fluency is impossible to achieve with close or verbal translation. No word in one language has an exact equivalent in another. It appears that what, in the minds of most theorists, makes a good translation is transference of ideas and concepts rather than literal word for word, despite earlier scholars such as Horace implying that word-for-word translation is the faithfulness of a translator.
But while these two theories of what makes a good translation are prevalent, we must also consider whether this opposition is in itself a problematic simplification. Literal and non-Literal are indeed simplistic in definition and yet are valid definitions which relate to basically all theories of translation. Unfortunately, theorists and translators often focus more on the literal/non-literal debate in general opposed to looking into why and/or how a translator has produced a rendition. In saying this, we see that that the habit of defining a translation based solely on its literalness is too simplistic because it often ignores the more integral reasons for the form of a translation.
How do the choices we make in answering this question relate to our idea of what a historian should be?
We have discussed what theorists and translators believe make a good translation, and the problems that arise, which often make constructing a faithful translation difficult. But how do the choices we make in answering this question relate to our idea of what a historian should be? In answering this question we must look back at what we have accepted as our idea of what a translator should be and ask how this relates to the historian. In this case it seems that our idea of what a historian should be relates significantly to the ideas that are confronted when one studies what makes a good translator.
The Historian, like the translator, sets out to create an account based on events, while being physically, culturally and emotionally removed from the events in question. What makes a good history and what makes a good translation are in many aspects similar. Readers and scholars deem that both should be faithful and accurate to the original. We choose to look at translations in relation to the problems that may or may not be overcome; the influence and bias of the translator, the difference of interpretation and creation based on the period, purpose and use of the rendition. The same can be said of how we approach the historian.
In choosing to look at specific theorists and translations we see various ideas of what a translation should be; the preservation of virtues, thoughts and ideas from the period, that which suits the purpose and period, faithful and accurate, literal or non-literal; and what the translator should be; understanding of limitations, extensively knowledgeable and yet still subject to the issues that face the translator. In identifying these factors it is easy to relate them to the historian who is often subject to the same factors. But much like with the question of what makes a good translation, what makes a good historian is based purely on interpretation. Here is one interpretation: What a historian should be is as faithful and accurate as possible, while recognising the limitations and influences that affect their work. A historian should attempt to avoid these issues but not to the extreme as to do more damage. Isn’t it interesting that the same can be said for the translator?