Skip main navigation
We use cookies to give you a better experience, if that’s ok you can close this message and carry on browsing. For more info read our cookies policy.
We use cookies to give you a better experience. Carry on browsing if you're happy with this, or read our cookies policy for more information.

Skip to 0 minutes and 3 secondsText on Screen: What is Translation? I feel that translation is conveying a message from one language into another language via any sort of means, be it textual audio-visual whatever it may be

Skip to 0 minutes and 15 secondsText on Screen: How else can we think about translation? a brilliant Italian translator at Paris Trois the Sorbonne, Paris three. Jean-Charles Vegliante he has a lovely definition of translation where he calls it my Eurydice and here's a picture painting by Corot and not somebody arriving and the party on Saturday night with a very large carry out, but Orpheus leading his wife Eurydice out of the underworld under strict instructions that if he looks back at her she'll turn into a pillar of salt.

Skip to 0 minutes and 56 secondsIt's a beautiful metaphor for translation because the backward gaze in translation, the staring at the text the obsessive working with the text all that it gives us as a prize is possibly a pillar of salt, something that lacks life

Skip to 1 minute and 17 secondsText on screen: What myths would translators like to debunk? The idea that you can just put a text into a machine and or google translate and you will get a perfect results it does require a lot of understanding and interpretation to get texts right. Well the classic one is that all too often we're considered sort of glorified typists who can churn things at the drop of a hat and there's no sort of mental processes you know just knock that out for me would you mind you know, got a meeting tomorrow morning that..... I think the big myth is that it's just very easy to do.

Skip to 2 minutes and 1 secondText on screen: Are there any misconceptions about what translators do? I think probably something that everybody says the standard things are do you work for the police then to go into hospitals? No I don't go anywhere,I work at home it's all by email no I don't leave the house you know and the the difference between translation and interpreting it's, it's more of a void than people realise quite often. I mean it doesn't bother me to explain that particularly but it is something that comes up time and again. I don't like the fact that sometimes the legal professionals see us as some sort of unnecessary luxury rather than the basic need that guarantees the rights of the defendant

Skip to 2 minutes and 40 secondsText on screen: What other metaphors have been used for translation? Now as I have said Lakhous writes in both Arabic and Italian and he uses self translation as a tool of narrative construction of understanding and making sense of a world made up of static sovereign borders but mobile populations he has a quote from a recent interview in which he explains that his multilingual creative ability is a way for him to break free from restrictive linguistic and geographical boundaries and you'll see his reference to his fascination with translators and mediators and this is a constant theme throughout his work.

Skip to 3 minutes and 18 seconds The metaphor that often comes up in his work is that of a journey and the translators as that of a smuggler who's bringing treasure across borders

Definitions and metaphors part 1: a pillar of salt?

In the video you heard a sample definition of translation from a translation student, two different metaphors for translation from two translation studies professors and examples of myths about translation that practising translators face in their work.

Now we are going to explore the questions ‘What is translation?’ and ‘How do we view translation?’ in more detail.

We shall begin by examining the word ‘translation’ itself because words and their histories, or etymologies, can offer an insight into how people viewed the concepts they were naming. The English word comes from the Latin verb transferre, or ‘carry across’, and its participle form translatus, i.e. ‘carried across’. The Latin word signified movement in space and across a boundary. This spatial image is evident in the Western understanding of translation as carrying something across from one language to another. What do you think gets transferred or carried across in translation?

Let’s do a little exercise to tease out a common assumption. Have a look at a French ‘translation’ of the opening lines of a popular nursery rhyme ‘Humpty Dumpty’. Here is the original:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall

You can also listen to it here.

Here comes the French translation:

Un petit d’un petit / S’étonne aux Halles
Un petit d’un petit/ Ah! degrés te fallent

Even if you don’t know French, you may be puzzled by the translation. Where is the proper name, Humpty Dumpty? If you speak some French, you can see that the lines are nonsensical, ungrammatical and certainly don’t talk about Humpty Dumpty’s fall. A literal back translation of the French may read something like this:

A little person from another little person/ Amazes himself in a hall
A little person from another little person/ Ah! Degrees need you.

Yet, I called it a translation – why? If you can, try reading out the French lines and then read out the English with an exaggerated ‘French’ accent. Or listen to a reading online here.

It’s an example of ‘phonetic translation’ from a humorous collection Mots D’Heures: Gousses, Rames by Luis d’Antin van Rooten. What has been transferred here is the sound.

Perhaps you’re not persuaded that this is a translation in the proper sense of the word. If so, that’s because we assume that something else should be carried across: the meaning, message or sense. To repeat then, the origin of the English word ‘translation’ suggests that translation is about transferring meaning in space. Interestingly, many European languages share this etymology or use other words which also mean or used to mean ‘to carry across’. The Catalan traduir and the German übersetzen are two examples. In the next step we’ll look at the words for translation in many other languages.

Scholars believe that some common Western perceptions of translation and translators correspond with this underlying image. One influential perception is that meaning can be carried over and reach the other language or culture intact. It’s as though there was some core content that you wrap in paper (i.e. express in language) and send on its way. At the border the packaging or language is changed but the content remains the same, to arrive untouched at its destination. In addition, the translator or interpreter is sometimes portrayed as a messenger carrying the content.

These images ignore the profound connection between meaning and language as well as culture, and the fact that changing the language may affect meaning itself. Consequently, they misrepresent translation as an easy automatic process, falsely promising that translations are always the same as the original. Perhaps the myths the practising translators mentioned – that translators are glorified typists, producing instantaneous work – have something to do with the idea of ‘carrying across’.

Furthermore, there is the implication that a translation is a mere copy or a mirror image of the original. This makes translators but imitators, obliged to follow the originals as faithfully as possible, and subordinates the figure of the translator to that of a creative author. The dictum that something gets lost in translation further suggests that the imitation is inevitably imperfect. Similarly, the metaphor by Professor David Johnston from the video implies an anxiety that a translation will be like a pillar of salt, lacking the life and art of the original.

One more interesting view is that translators and interpreters mediate between two sides without taking sides: that they are completely neutral and render information ‘faithfully’. At the same time, as bilinguals having access to information in both languages, translators have always been viewed with suspicion. This is captured in the popular adage Traduttore traditore, or ‘translator traitor’. The tensions between neutrality and involvement, or fidelity and treachery, mark the history of translation and interpreting until the present day and will be explored later in the course.

A survey of Western metaphors for translation can be found e.g. in Hermans 2004 (you can currently read selected pages of the article here - go to page 118).

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

Working with Translation: Theory and Practice

Cardiff University

Contact FutureLearn for Support