Beautiful or faithful?

February 2, 2012 by admin

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There is an old French saying ‘Translations are like women: when they’re beautiful they’re not faithful; if they’re faithful they’re not beautiful’. Is this true? It is certainly a question open for debate. A translated document (depending on its purpose) should not read as a translation. The person reading should believe that it is a document that has been written from scratch. Anything which might alert the reader to the fact that it is a translated piece of text is a sign that the translator has failed in some way to render their expression correctly.

Remaining completely faithful to a text when translating is a hard task to do especially when trying to create something that is accurate and that also flows naturally. Should the translator simply have the role of translating word for word what has been written by the original author or should they in fact become the author themselves in recreating the text in their native language? A good translator is one who is creative and has good penmanship (able to write clearly, economically and resourcefully) so that they can render a natural translation in their native language.

There are, however, different schools of thought in approaching translation. Peter Newmark, a well known linguist in the field of translation, said that we was very much a ‘literalist’- as he was an advocate for truth and accuracy in translation, and that “you should only deviate from literal translation when there are good semantic and pragmatic reasons for doing so.” Though he erred on the side of literal translation, by no means did he believe in the ‘absolute primacy of the word’, he was prepared to step away from the source text should the translation necessarily require it. There is always the choice of whether to translate the word or the meaning.

Newmark has said in his book ‘A Text Book of Translation’ that a translator must have a sixth sense to be able to translate successfully. This sixth sense is about intuition, knowledge and having a real feel for language which will help when deciding when you need to translate literally and when to break the rules and depart from being faithful. This instinctive nature will mean that a translator can produce a piece of text which is rendering the meaning of the original into a different language for the use and readership that the author intended.

The translator must translate, but doing so is not as straightforward as it seems. There are many factors that could pull the translation in different directions: the different cultures of the source and target languages, the readership, the translator’s beliefs and the conventions of the text in the different countries. There are several different levels in translating a text: textual, referential, cohesive and natural. Each must be observed to produce a ‘good’ translation. When doing a final revision the natural level comes into play- the translator must disengage himself from the source text and read through their work and make it sound like no original existed. It is easy to spot translations done by non native speakers of the language, as they simply don’t have the same feel for idiom, metaphor, expressions etc. The translations will often reveal the interference from the translator’s native language and/or the source text language if this is different.

In conclusion being faithful to a text doesn’t necessarily mean that the result will be ugly. The translator can remain faithful to the author’s intentions, the purpose of the text and the intended effect on the chosen readership and still produce a translation which is beautiful because it is an accurate, cohesive and natural piece of writing.

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