Fidelity vs Intelligibility

The age old problem.

Should the translator focus on being as faithful to the original as possible or should his/her job be to make the translation as comprehensible as possible? The translator’s path, which might be elegantly rendered into Japanese as 訳道 (yákù-dō), is a difficult route fraught with danger but at the same time littered with gleaming jewels and precious stones. The path is narrow and is often bisected by what appear to be easier, more well-trodden roads. Sometimes other routes run parallel to our path but we must always stay true and keep on our path. The glittering jewels we sometimes find are priceless gems that need to be collected and cherished but more often than not they are cheap baubles that may seem beautiful at first glance but are of little worth and merely spoil the view.

The yákù-dō is not easy. Most of the time the way is hard to spot, is overgrown or littered with debris and only the more experienced travellers will be able to find the correct path. Initiates and novices of yákù-dō are taught to find the path using a variety of methods and tools so that in later life the yákù-dō master is able even to find his/her way blindfolded. Yákù-dō requires many years of training, dedication and learning and no one ever attains perfection.

Experience is crucial. Only with experience can the translator be sure that he/she has the correct balance, the yin-yang harmony of translation that is fidelity-intelligibility. Only then can the decision be made, depending on each text, which way the balance should be tipped – towards faithfulness or comprehensibility.

15 Responses to “Fidelity vs Intelligibility”

  1. Arthur Says:

    Fascinating post. Makes me think of something almost mystical – ancient martial arts and the suchlike. No doubt, there is a specific reason why these are called the martial ARTS.

  2. transubstantiation Says:

    Yes, yes. Arts in more ways than might seem apparent.

  3. Eric Says:

    From my point of view, as someone who actually translates novels and poems, translation is not a mystical corner of the martial arts, or a trodden path through exotic jungles and steppe, strewn with coruscating jewels, but an everyday activity practised all over the world – in this world.

    In Britain and the United States, relatively few people ever do any translating – because they know no foreign languages. This unfortunately gives translation – especially the literary variety – an aura of exoticism that it doesn’t deserve.

    As Transubstantiation rightly points out, experience is crucial. You don’t get experience by going on a Translation Theory course and dissecting a few poems in the classroom. You get an adequate amount of experience by translating whole books. For several years.

    For me, people like Hadewych, Simone Weil, the Sufis, Ruusbroec, etc., are mystics. But translation is alarmingly banal. You build up intuition, and a quick memory over the years. And you must have an excellent knowledge of the language into which you are translating (aka the target language, usually your native-tongue). This latter point is very important, as you will be no good as a literary translator if you are out of touch with the living version of the target language. Some language freaks forget this point and concentrate solely on the language out of which they are translating (aka the source language).

    So, go easy on the mysticism and you will understand translation better. It is a craft, not a cloud of unknowing.

  4. transubstantiation Says:

    Eric,
    Translation IS an activity practised by tens of thousands of people daily. No doubt. However, there IS something magical about the process in the same way that there is something magical about writing/authoring, communicating and speaking.

  5. Magda Pietkiewicz Says:

    I think that translator should not be to faithfull to the original text. We can very often meet so called “calques” in the written translations. In my opinion the most important thing is to keep the style, mood, atmosphere of the translated text. It is obvious that we cannot go too far (adding or omitting to many words) so as to avoid misinterpretations. We should make the translation as comprehensible as possible.

  6. Anna Araszkiewicz Says:

    I think that experience is very very important, however it takes time to gain it so we should be patient and we should always observe the progress we make. The more we translate the better translators we are, because “practice makes progress”!

  7. Weronika Miernik Says:

    I agree that a translator should try to find a balance between being as faithful to the original as possible and making the translation as comprehensible as possible. Well, it’s easy to write about this but how we can do it… I think that the more translations we do, the better translators we are. And after some practice we are going to “feel” which is more proper. Definatley we can be more flexible while translationg books or stories because we sholud make them easy to understand by Polish readers.

  8. Agata Kowalczyk Says:

    Being too faihful to the original can make translated text awkward in reading and of course it is wasting of time. It may often happen while proofreading that we change a text to be more readable in target language so our translation loses its fidelty anyway. However, I think that fidelty is very important in translating e.g. jokes or texts with specific language.

  9. transubstantiation Says:

    What is the balance between the two?

  10. Marzena Says:

    I think that translator should not translate literally. He should be faithful to the text, but not too much. He should translate the text in such a way to make it comprehensible for the target readers. Experience is very useful.

  11. Agnieszka N. Says:

    Sometimes it is hard to translate text literally. I think that translating literally make the text very often articial. Maybe it is better to focus on the sense and premise that words.


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