Continuum of Impossibility

Translation is a thankless task and one which sometimes even has negative repercussions for the translator. Why are translators, especially those taking their first steps in this enlightened career, so utterly preoccupied with the quality of their work, perhaps more so than in other professions? There are two reasons for this. First of all, the translator is frequently working under the pressure of time. Being creative is difficult when the translator is constantly aware of the fact that the sands of time are fast trickling away. The second reason is key to translation itself and is fundamentally interwoven with the very concept of translation.

In essence, translation is an impossible exercise. We are never able to perfectly transpose the ideas of one person in one language embedded in one particular culture into another language and culture. It simply cannot be accomplished, much in the same way as recapitulation, reformulation or rephrasing is never an ideal match. Take, for example, “The heathens were still all avid worshippers of the Sun God Ra”. This is not the same as “There are still pagans who worship Ra, the Sun God”.

There are several phenomena at work here. Firstly, the very nature of linguistic multiplicity lends itself to multiple interpretations. Secondly, the overt and covert meanings of the author/speaker of a given text will very rarely ideally match the interpretations of the reader/listener. Every text has a clear and open meaning (overt) but also a deeper truth (covert) hidden between the lines. Expecting a reader/listener to know both these meanings is fanciful. Expecting thousands of readers/listeners to do so is simply inconceivable.

Translators are faced with thousands of glittering and shimmering signifiers whose light sometimes keeps us from seeing the distant, yet constant, glow of the signified. We are sometimes like lost children not able to see the forest for the trees, preoccupied with the details and often missing the whole.

Translation is an impossible task. The hope of creating the Perfect Translation is akin to the quest for the Holy Grail. The quest is tangible and very real, yet the Perfect Translation itself is illusory and unattainable, just like the Holy Grail. Translation theorists discuss at length concepts such as equivalence, translatability and untranslatability but these can all be boiled down to one concept – how near or far the translation is from the original. In effect, the translator moves along a continuum of impossibility gauging the quality of each translated text by the distance from the original. What we are discussing is not the apparent fidelity of fluency of a text but where this text figures on the continuum of impossibility.


10 thoughts on “Continuum of Impossibility

  1. Speaking of impossiblity, on a post at the Gits blog , we were talking about the different fields of translation (technical, advertising, literary) and wondered which of them offer the most creativity and might be classified as art, as opposed to craft or science. I commented that you may want to offer some thoughts, too.


  2. I like dual way of thinking. I also love poetry. And this seemingly simple, dua(e)l process of translation (detecting the discrepancies, later translator undoes the syntactic structure, etc… ) is also the neverending art. Inside, the work is infinitely complex. The worst thing is to feel that everything is perfect and the translation is complete. If we feel it, the translation is definitely incorrect. I have tried to find a measure, but I cannot find any. Now I know some things for sure – it is IMPOSSIBLE to estimate the exact threshold to which mistakes can be acceptable. Accuracy will always fight vs beauty of the text, and I really envy the one who one day will bring the two together. Moreover, the actual measure of translability remains unknown forever. And…the worst thing a budding translator can do is to go into self-admiration:) I know that. I’ve been there before:)

  3. Being under the pressure is not in the favour of a translator. The whole process needs time and space. I think that exaggerated precision can be fatal for the final results of translation..

  4. The problem of untranslatability is omnipresent in each translator’s work. Translators cannot neglect their duty to do an in-depth research of the subject and to consult their collegues and native speakers of the source language. It is an obligation to both the author and the reader of the text.

  5. Sad but it is our reality. The true is that people do not realize how difficult is preparing a good translation. Majority of them think that it is very simple to give equivalents in the target language. However, we all know that it is almost as a sin to translate word for word!
    “The hope of creating the Perfect Translation is akin to the quest for the Holy Grail.” I love this comparison to the Holy Grail. Translation is like never ending task such as searching for the Holy Grail. Here is the point and nothing more needs to be added

  6. A good translation in my opinion should also be time adapted,that is,in each particular period of history peole should be able to read and understand the translated text as a perfect equivalent of the original version. Such a fine example could be modern versions of middle aged stories( “Cantenbury Tales” i.e.). Works which are masterpieces of literature ought to be communicative and enjoyable regardless of time-epoch.

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