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Interlingual translation

Now we are going to adopt a broad definition of translation offered by the Russian-American linguist Roman Jakobson and look at three types of translation. The first one is translation between languages, also known as ‘interlingual translation’ or ‘translation proper’. This is what most people think about when they hear the word ‘translation’.

Within this category, we can still talk about different types of translation. One popular distinction looks at translations in terms of their proximity to the source text: a translation can be close to the original or move away from it. A close translation is likely to be relatively literal, rendering the source text more or less ‘word-for-word’. Importantly, translations that really render each word separately are very rare. Called ‘interlinear’ translations, they may be useful for scholarly or linguistic analysis. For instance, look at this English translation of a Greek passage from the New Testament (Romans 16:16):

ἀσπάσασθε ἀλλήλους ἐν φιλήματι ἁγίῳ ἀσπάζονται ὑμᾶς αἱ ἐκκλησίαι πᾶσαι τοῦ Χριστοῦ
greet one another with a kiss holy greet you the churches all - of Christ

It’s extremely literal and rather difficult to read.

Here is the same line from English Standard Version: ‘Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you’. It’s still quite literal but, like most literal translations, makes the text readable in the target language. Here word order has been adjusted, e.g. ‘a kiss holy’ became ‘a holy kiss’.

To repeat, what we call a ‘literal’ translation is rarely ‘word-for-word’ in the most extreme sense as some adjustments to target language grammar and phrasing are still made.

If literal translations are at one end of a scale, the opposite would be ‘sense-for-sense’ or ‘free’ translation. Here the focus is on conveying the sense or meaning, even if the words or ways of expression change. For example, in the biblical line mentioned above, some translations change ‘a holy kiss’ to ‘the kiss of peace’, ‘the special greeting of God’s people’ and ‘a hearty handshake’. You can see further examples here.

Let’s look at the last example from The New Testament in Modern English, translated by J.B Phillips:

Give each other a hearty handshake all round for my sake. The greetings of all the churches I am in touch with come to you with this letter.

Given that a kiss was a typical greeting in the culture of the New Testament, you can say that a handshake conveys the sense well. This argument was made by Eugene Nida (2004), an influential scholar interested in Bible translation. To some people this translation might be too free. Generally, what counts as freely conveying the sense to some people may be criticised as taking too many liberties by others. Views on what constitutes ‘sense’ depend on people’s beliefs, ideologies and ideas about the purpose of the text and its translation.

Interlingual translation can also be categorised depending on types of texts, topics, purposes and media. There is a distinction between translating written texts and interpreting spoken words, which we revisit in Week 2. Regarding translation, you can come across the term ‘specialised translation’, often referring to medical, legal and technical texts. In the legal field, some translations actually have the status of parallel originals and not translations: this happens in places with bilingual legislation such as Canada and Hong Kong.

Then there is literary translation – translation of creative writing such as novels, poetry and non-fiction, which can range from experiments in literalism to very free adaptations. Creative solutions, tailored for a new audience and locale, are often used for video games or marketing campaigns. They can be called ‘transcreation’ or ‘localisation’. For example, Ford Pinto didn’t do well in Brazil until the name was translated, or transcreated, to Ford Corcelo. Why? ‘Pinto’ may mean a horse colouring pattern in English but it’s Brazilian slang for male genitals. Corcelo, on the other hand, evokes the word corcel, meaning ‘stallion’ or ‘steed’. You can read about similar examples here.

Another interesting area is audio-visual translation, which includes subtitling and translation for dubbing. Here the priority is to capture the key message within the spatial and temporal constraints: subtitles should be on average no longer than two lines, 35-40 characters each, while dubbed material cannot take much longer to say than the original dialogue, not to mention the need to synch it with lip movements in close-ups. The original content may also be adapted slightly so that cultural references and humour work for the target audience. If you’re interested in audio-visual translation, watch The Invisible Subtitler, a 23-minute documentary by ARC Pictures, featuring subtitlers and leading scholars.

We revisit some of the translation types in week 4 on translation quality. After a quiz, you will see a video about another type of interlingual translation: translating comics.

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This article is from the free online course:

Working with Translation: Theory and Practice

Cardiff University

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