Myths of Translation I

Krzysztof Lipiński of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland puts forward a thought-provoking series of ideas in his 2004 book Mity Przekładoznawska (Myths of Translation/Translatology). He posits seven common myths which have clouded the minds (and work) of translators. These are:

1. the myth of literalness
2. the myth of untranslatability
3. the myth of the ‘ugly duckling’
4. the myth of one solution
5. the myth of machine translation
6. the myth of the descriptability of the world
7. the myth of only one truth

The first myth is often seen in the translation of religious texts wherein we are tempted to copy and shadow the source text vocabulary and structure. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Ciceronian motto non verbum e verbo, sed sensum experimere de sensu sums up perfectly what translators should focus on, that is the sense and not the words.

The second myth is often seen as the ‘final frontier’. Some texts are seen as untranslatable, far too linguistically- and culturally-entrenched to make it possible for their rendition into another language. However, translations of works such as Adam Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz or even Julian Tuwim’s Lokomotywa show that this is blatantly untrue.

The myth of the ‘ugly duckling’ is often found amongst writers and scholars. The idea is that a translation is not (and should not) be better than the original. The premise being that translations are not original, creative works but simply copies of the source text. Anyone reading Irena Tuwim’s Kubuś Puchatek, her translation of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, would realise that this is not the case. Kubuś Puchatek has become such an important work in Poland that certain neologisms, for example, Małe Conieco (not present in the original) are now firmly part of Polish culture and even the Polish literary tradition.

The fourth myth, or myth of one solution, suggests that when translating only one possible solution is ‘correct’ and that all other suggestions are ‘incorrect’. The problem here is that terms such as ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ cannot in any way be quantified. Adam Mickiewicz’s Rękawiczka, his translation-cum-reworking of Friedrich Schiller’s 1797 masterpiece Der Handschuh, has become canonical. In fact, it is regarded as a work of Polish literature. Other translations are seen to be poorer but, on inspection, we would find that much of Mickiewicz’s translation is extremely loose and more a re-interpretation than a translation. There is never only one possible solution in translation.

More to follow

23 Responses to “Myths of Translation I”

  1. Michael Farris Says:

    While I broadly agree with his point about literalness, the opposite danger exists too.
    Too often it seems (to me) that original metaphors and unconventional collocations or other novel usage in the original is translated into banal set expressions in translation.

    I’m not sure to what extent this is because the translator doesn’t recognize that the usage in question is novel and/or original (I certainly don’t trust myself to recognize quirky or original turns of phrase in Polish). There’s also the problem that original usage might not be translatable for other reasons but I think a lot of the time that not enough effort is made.

  2. transubstantiation Says:

    Michael,

    Anti-literalness has become a mantra, and rightly so, but that does not mean that slack and slovenly translations should prevail. Whilst I understand what you are saying I believe the problem is not with clichéd expression or slack translation but the lack of editing nous, discipline and attention to detail.

  3. Kami Łysiak Says:

    Hello, quiet interesting conclusions and what is more important true or should be true, especially the one about A.A. Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh” and its Polish great translation. However, I must disagree with the statement that religious texts, for example the Bible should be translated only by sense. I have heard somewhere that the official position of the Church is that the Bible can be transleted only word by word. In other cases they will call such text an author’s interpretation.

  4. Kami Łysiak Says:

    Of course I fully agree with Krzysztof Lipiński and his idea of translating religious texts by sense. This would allow people to understand such texts better.

  5. transubstantiation Says:

    Kami Łysiak,
    If the church’s position was word-for-word we would still be in the Stone Age of translation. Solely word-for-word translation is extremely rare and not particularly intelligible.

  6. Marta Kotkowska Says:

    Very interesting topic. There are a lot of views of translation. For example, some people may think that those myths are true. For instance, there are texts that are untranslatable. However, for other people there could be translatable but it requires more free ways of translation – translator have to create something new. In this case, translation is possible, but the question is – Can we still call it translation?

  7. transubstantiation Says:

    Do you really believe that some texts are untranslatable?

  8. Marta Kotkowska Says:

    It depends on that what we call translation. If free interpretation of translator is translation, then untranslatable texts don’t exist. But if translator has to keep to more strict rules, then untranslatable texts exist.

  9. Kasia S. Says:

    In my opinion the theory of one solution can be easily refuted. If we ask a few professionals to translate the same text, they will come up with many interesting ideas. One may prefere a particular translation, but could not say which one is correct or incorrect.

  10. transubstantiation Says:

    Precisely. The whole point is that these are myths and they can (and should) be refuted.

  11. n. Says:

    All these suggestions are enormously amazing and accurate. I thought about Winnie the Pooh and the phrase małe conieco. It is puzzling for me, because I think that is not a translation any longer but an excellent adaptation (in this case)

  12. Merlin: Translation News, Services & Directory » Blog Archive » Myths of Translation II Says:

    […] from the previous post, we can look at the next three myths of […]

  13. Henry Grodsk Says:

    Does anyone really believe “that computers are able to produce accurate and appropriate translations”?

    The existence of thousands of working human translators, for a start, would suggest that computers are not yet up to the job.

    As myths go, this is not a terribly difficult one to overturn and I am not particularly impressed by Lipiński’s heroic crusade against ignorance.

  14. transubstantiation Says:

    Henry,
    Thank you for commenting. Just because thousands of human translators translate does not mean we are not getting closer to better computer-based translators. As for Lipiński, perhaps his work is not incredibly revealing but it is good to see a scholar try and attempt to organise and enumerate these so-called myths.

  15. FAHD EID Says:

    Machine Translation started out with the hope and expectation that most of the
    work of translation could be handled by a system which contained all the information
    we find in a standard paper bilingual dictionary. Source language words would be
    replaced with their target language translational equivalents, as determined by the
    built-in dictionary, and where necessary the order of the words in the input sentences
    would be rearranged by special rules into something more characteristic of the target
    language. In effect, correct translations suitable for immediate use would be
    manufactured in two simple steps. This corresponds to the view that translation is
    nothing more than word substitution (determined by the dictionary) and reordering
    (determined by reordering rules).
    Reason and experience show that ‘good’ MT cannot be produced by such delightfully
    simple means. As all translators know, word for word translation doesn’t produce
    a satisfying target language text, not even when some local reordering rules (e.g. for
    the position of the adjective with regard to the noun which it modifies) have been
    included in the system. Translating a text requires not only a good knowledge of the
    vocabulary of both source and target language, but also of their grammar – the system
    of rules which specifies which sentences are well-formed in a particular language and
    which are not. Additionally it requires some element of real world knowledge.

    FROM THE ADVANCED RESOURCE BOOK

    • FAHD EID Says:

      Machine Translation started out with the hope and expectation that most of the work of translation could be handled by a system which contained all the information we find in a standard paper bilingual dictionary. Source language words would be replaced with their target language translational equivalents, as determined by the
      built-in dictionary, and where necessary the order of the words in the input sentences would be rearranged by special rules into something more characteristic of the target language. In effect, correct translations suitable for immediate use would be
      manufactured in two simple steps. This corresponds to the view that translation is nothing more than word substitution (determined by the dictionary) and reordering (determined by reordering rules).
      Reason and experience show that ‘good’ MT cannot be produced by such delightfully simple means. As all translators know, word for word translation doesn’t produce a satisfying target language text, not even when some local reordering rules (e.g. for the position of the adjective with regard to the noun which it modifies) have been
      included in the system. Translating a text requires not only a good knowledge of the vocabulary of both source and target language, but also of their grammar – the system of rules which specifies which sentences are well-formed in a particular language and
      which are not. Additionally it requires some element of real world knowledge.

      ”FROM THE ADVANCED RESOURCE BOOK”

  16. Ahmed Fasih Says:

    transubstantiation, can you elaborate more on the impact that the Winnie the Pooh adaptation/translation by Irena Tuwim has had on the Polish language? This is a really interesting idea and I’d love to know more (what little I know of Polish language I admire).


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