Whose Translation Is It, Anyway?


J.L. Wall

J.L. Wall is a native Kentuckian in self-imposed exile to the Midwest, where he teaches writing to college students and over-analyzes Leonard Cohen lyrics.

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19 Responses

  1. There’s definitely the tension between translating literally and capturing the poetry of a particular text, but I would say the most important task for the translator is to remain unobtrusive. Few translators are able to resist the siren song of branding their translation of someone else’s work.Report

    • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

      I agree, I’m always afraid that something I’m getting from a translation is really from that translator rather than the orginal author.Report

  2. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    Recently, I translated quite a bit of Nerval for my dissertation and my dissertation director said I should redo them. Her explanation, which I agree with incidentally, was, “these translations say exactly what Nerval is saying, but I remember being struck by the magic of his writing in French and you haven’t captured that”. I think the basic goal is to say what they’re saying, but the next goal is to make it clear why the writings were worth reading and rereading in the original.Report

  3. Avatar tarylcabot says:

    I would suggest not ‘reading’ any of them. Recently I listened to the Iliad on my daily commute and enjoyed the work quite a bit more than i had in high school when reading Homer. The same held true for Odyssey – listened to it on my iPod. It hit home after i finished both works, that Homer created them both as audiobooks not written works, so should be appreciated in that fashion.

    Sorry, do not recall who translated – for they Odyssey, a co-worker lent me the CD’s just for the 1 day it took to transfer them over to my PC (he also lent me the Aeneid in the same fashion), so wasn’t paying attention to incidental details.

    Years ago, i read some Norton anthology of literature that had 1 section of the Illiad translated by 5-6 different translators – very dramatic seeing the differences all next to each other. An excellent exercise by norton.Report

    • Avatar J.L. Wall says:

      I *almost* got a copy of the Iliad/Odyssey on audiobook or whatever it’s called now a few months back — I was very tempted, because it seemed like it would make for great car rides, and still might. In the end, I settled for buying the audio version of Eric Foner’s Lincoln biography on iTunes, because I tend to use my car for books I know I’ll never otherwise get around to reading.Report

  4. Avatar stuhlmann says:

    If you are agonizing over which Greek translations to use for poetry, what about which translations to use for religious texts? The earliest written forms of some Jewish and Christian texts were written in Greek. So what is the best way to translate these texts – literally word for word or trying to capture the nature of the whole? Consider all that rides upon your decision.Report

    • Avatar J.L. Wall says:

      Yeah. I’m always in an interesting position, because of how bad my Hebrew is.

      I’d suppose my attitude toward Biblical translations reflects, in part, my attitude, as a believer, toward Biblical criticism: I see multiple voices running through the text, in a way that makes it what it is rather than undermines it. So a literal translation might focus on one voice, and a poetic on another, and I’d read either (or both) to see which aspects they throw light on, and which they ignore. Though I do think my inclination to use translations as a means of investigating and interrogating the original text has annoyed (at least) one or two people. They find it tedious and think I should just get around to learning Hebrew well.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        *yawn* it’s a bit of both, and it’s fun using translations. It’s more fun to just sit and ask people “what are the most egregious mistranslations from the bible?”
        Had one from a rabbi — “G-d ordered Adam to bugger all the animals in the Garden of Eden. And because he didn’t know sin, it wasn’t wrong.” [the “know” is the same word as used for carnal knowledge everywhere else in the bible.]Report

  5. Avatar Kimmi says:

    Parsimony and Accurateness tend to be my criteria in fansubs. If it takes you half a page to convey what someone said in three words, BAD (not the least because it requires pausing the video to read). If your translation does not make good english, BAD Translator (this can be poor connotation, like “slimy” in a theoretically positive thingy… or simply “do you know english” stuff).

    I’ve had perfectly translated Italian that was quite frankly Dangerous, because in Italian it was said in a humorous tone, and that didn’t translate over well to English. The takeaway quote from that manual was “every time you make an Americano, G-d kills a kitten”Report

  6. As one who has grown up in church and who continues in the faith I have encountered this question as it pertains to different bible translations more than I would like. In my view you have the New American Standard Bible to one extreme and the The Message on the other. With the NASB being more word for word and The Message a more thought for thought based translation while taking greater liberties with individual words. Of course there are many other translations, more everyday it seems, that cover the middle ground.

    I prefer word for word translations but I do not neglect other types either. If there is something that does not make sense to me in the NASB I will turn to the Message, laugh at the childish wording, for example psalm 1:1 in the Message (http://bible.us/Ps1.1.MSG), and then try to figure out what I’m reading.

    Of course you will always have your adherents to a particular translation. There are still some who remain steadfast to the Old King James because (and I don’t know how serious they are it is hard to tell) that it is the bible that Jesus used.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi says:

      Those people get on my nerves. It’s not that I mind someone else, in a different religion, using the King James, it’s that when I say, “Its Thou Shalt not murder, not thou shalt not kill” they say I’m Wrong!Report

  7. Avatar E.C. Gach says:

    I had a “Great Books” seminar and we were always involved in extremely close readings of the text.

    This invited the uneasy problem of devising new and interesting interpretations that were based on the text rather than a subjective authorial choice on the part of the translator.Report

  8. Avatar Jaybird says:

    I have a handful of books in a box somewhere that have the translated English on the one page and the Original Greek (or Latin or Italian or German) on the opposite page.

    For the most part, the translations of these texts are dry as hell because they go for accuracy rather than the poetry/flow.

    How can you translate “obit anus, abit onus” into English and get the same “DAMN HE DIDN’T HE DIDN’T HE DIDN’T” thing going on? You’re stuck translating the one or the other.Report

  9. Avatar Ryan Bonneville says:

    I taught Lattimore’s Iliad in grad school (and I also learned on Lattimore’s translation), so it was really odd to me the first time I actually read some of Fagles. It’s so much more… emotional. It raises the prominence of all the things I think people get wrong about the Iliad, but my goodness is it an invigorating read.Report

    • Avatar J.L. Wall says:

      I think “invigorating” is one the best words to use when talking about Fagles’ Homer. Probably his Aeneid, also — which, I’ll admit, saved the work for me after I’d spent several years hating it because I burned out while reading it in AP Latin. Good ol’ “pius Aeneas” still gets on my nerves pretty often, but it reminded me that there’s just a lot more that’s vital in that poem than dead and dry and dusty.Report

  10. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    Translation, understood etymologically, is an act of carrying across.

    That is impressively meta.Report

  11. Avatar Jeff says:

    In my edition of The Complete Lewis Carroll, the author of the foreword (Martin Gardner, I believe) comments on the extra difficulty of translating puns. Consider this exchange:

    Mock Turtle: Our teacher was a turtle, but we called her a tortoise
    Alice: [WTF?]
    MT: Because she taught us, of course

    One translator used this for the French version:

    Mock Turtle: Our teacher was a turtle, but we called her a tortoise
    Alice: [WTF?]
    MT: Because, to look at her, you would have said “What a nose!”

    This works because the French for “What a nose” is close to “tortoise” and one way to tell the two critters apart is by their nose.


    Psalm 1:1 is totally bizarre!!! I can see where they came up with their translation, but dayummmmmmmm!Report