Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off your first two months of Unlimited. Subscribe for just £35.99 £24.99. New subscribers only. T&Cs apply.

Find out more

Definitions and metaphors part 1: a pillar of salt?

Watch a sample definition of translation from a student and two different metaphors for translation from two translation studies professors.

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).

This article is from the free online

Working with Translation: Theory and Practice

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now