When is a Translation not a Translation?

A common misconception among many people who have little to do with translation (and even, surprisingly, among many translators themselves) is that any piece of text that is ‘shifted’, ‘moved’ or ‘transformed’ from one language into another is a translation. Nothing could be further from the truth. John Dryden, the poet, playwright, literary critic and translator eloquently divided the types (or problems) of translation into three categories:

metaphrase, where an author/translator translates word for word
paraphrase, where an author/translator translates sense for sense
imitation, where an author/translator abandons the original text

Additionally, Roman Jakobson distinguished three types of translation, although he focused more on the systemic nature of language and symbol systems:

intralingual translation, or interpretation of verbal signs by means of others in the same language
interlingual translation, or interpretation of verbals signs by means of some other language
semiotic translation, or interpretation of verbal signs by means of a non-verbal sign system

Translation is often used as an umbrella term for all these different phenomena, which makes a discussion of translation extremely difficult. We can safely say that most of the work undertaken by the majority of translators is Jakobson’s interlingual translation, however, it is not as easy to make the same clear-cut distinction when it comes to the categories put forward by John Dryden way back in the 17th century.

Most translators would like to think that their work is a type of paraphrase but more often than not it includes large chunks of imitation or even metaphrase. A wonderful oft-quoted example is the subtitling mistake found in several comedy programmes that had been translated from English to Polish in the 1990s. “you’re pulling my leg” was translated (literally) as “ciągniesz mnie za nogę” much to the bewilderment of English-speaking Poles.

A ‘translation’, therefore, is not always a translation.


17 thoughts on “When is a Translation not a Translation?

  1. Very interesting post. Of course, as a translator, I mix many of these types of translations, depending on the case and whether idioms, syntax, context, etc. also work in the target language. It’s great to see such an insightful post on the complexities of our profession. Now, if clients only stopped insisting that their gardener can easily translate this flyer into Spanish… Translation, in any form, is a complex professional service.

  2. This post perfectly illustrates how cautious a translator has to be. As it was written here, the methods of translation are different, but I think that word for word (metaphrase) is not a proper technique if somebody wants translation to sound natural and to have sense. Such translation method doesn’t work in the case of idioms and proverbs. Imitation, despite it is considered as a disgrace to the original, is very useful while translating puns and jokes.So, after all, different types of texts require seperate methods of translation.

  3. I agree with the person above me. I think the most important thing is to know how to balance these methods of translation. A translator cannot help but use all three: metaphrase, paraphrase and imitation, he or she just has to know how to mix them all together in such a way that the translation is.. not perfect, because 100% perfect translations do not exist… but really good.

  4. Very interesting, as far a I know “Translation is impossible!” 🙂 So we may say that term “translation” is not appropriate for the process of transforming one language into another. Complicated but fascinating 🙂

  5. I think it is important to know how to use metaphrase, paraphrase and imitation in order to translate a given text. Undoubtedly, it is a very difficult task with which all translators have to deal.

  6. It is sometimes difficult to guess what does the author of the source text want to say (espetially when the source text is written with mistakes). And then we have to decide weather to correct the author’s mistakes in the target text or to translate the mistakes. this of course also depends on what the text is about (there may be a situation where tranlslating mistakes is necessary) Translating is a tough job that requires creativity.

  7. I used to have contact with sign language interpreters in the US (stop me if you’ve heard this) who have a pretty strict code of ethics developed in accordance with the preferences of the great majority of their clients and with the goal of making the process as transparent as possible.

    One of the pillars of the code of ethnics is that an interpreter is not a negotiator, diplomat, or therapist. Their task is to transmit signed messages into speech and spoken messages into sign as faithfully as possible with no editing in terms of tone or factual accuracy. They also don’t IME frame messages with ‘he says’ or ‘she wants to know’ but simply speaks or signs the message (this can take some getting used to in social situations).

    The situation of sign language interpreters (working in two languages* but in the same broader cultural context) is different from that of spoken interpreters (though maybe court interpretation might be close sometimes) and translators. If a translator faithfully reproduces mistakes from the source to the target language they’re liable to be blamed for them (instead of the author of the original) and most people most of the time are ….. not good writers and sometimes texts cry out for basic editing.

    *nb. American Sign Language (ASL) is very different from English in terms of word-order and morphology.

  8. in additionally,in order to carry out a faithful translation the translator should be initiated.otherwise,the translation that he will carry out will likely be wrong.
    by yannick mwaoka juy 4th,2012 at 11h03 pm

  9. From Darcy Carvalho, Sao Paulo, BRAZIL Thank you very much for your lessons on translations, metaphrases, paraphrases and imitation. I found this extremely learned discussion when trying to explain, and endorse, the Hamilton ,Locke, Clark´s method for reading and learning Latin through interlinear translations of hard Latin classical authours, a method based in verbo ad verbum translation from Latin into English. As the authors of the method translate from Latin or Greek, into an extremely analytical language, in the case of Latin, at least, it is necessary to put the classical text in a new syntactic order, as if Latin had not inversions, in order to make intelligible their [preliminary] translations. I learned from your discussion that for the proposed method of literal translation of Latin into Engllsh James Hamilton, John Locke and Thomas Clark were perfectly aware of all the tricky problems that you explore and so clearly explain. Anyway the modality of translation we adopt depends on our final objective. By DARCY CARVALHO 19/08/2013

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