Shadows of Ideal Translations

Many of us have had professional schooling, undertaken some form of linguistic training or scholarly preparation to become translators. Some of us have become translators by accident, through our love of languages or downright (non-academic) hard work. Whatever the path towards becoming a translator has been, we all have strong views about what translation is or rather should be.

When we sit down to translate all of us have some sort of concept in our heads, some sort of idea. What is interesting is finding the connection between this idea, this form, and the reality of the translation act, the matter. We can use this terminology (in the Platonic sense) and talk about an ideal translation that exists somewhere perhaps beyond our reach and the material translation that is the result of our work.

If this is the case then in each translation situation, for each translation event, there should be an ideal form where there are universals which we can somehow trace and attempt to reach. But are there such universals? Can we, in fact, talk of an ideal translation? Experience shows that ambiguity exists even at the word level, so what possibility is there for postulating the concept of an ideal translation?

The answer, perhaps, lies again with Plato and his allegory of the cave. If the translations that we produce are shadows, poor reflections of some sort of ideal, then, in a sense, the search for a better version is a worthwhile endeavour in itself. Woe betide the translator who is satisfied! We should always be attempting to produce a better text, a more polished translation, a clearer document.

The translation that we produce is a constantly-flickering shadow of nether-text, always moving, always bending. Our aim is to pin it down, flesh it out, make it whole. What could be more rewarding? The knowledge that our final text is simply a twisted shadow is the first step in the search for the ultimate signified which can be found (perhaps) at the end of a long and shadowy chain of signifiers.


35 thoughts on “Shadows of Ideal Translations

  1. How about the German “four eyes principle”? Don’t you think that if at least two translators proceed a certain piece of writing they’ll always do it better than only one? Wouldn’t two craftsmen who put their minds together get closer to the ideal?

  2. Firstly, is this actually ‘German’?
    Secondly, what happens when two poor translators come up with a similar translation? Does this means two heads are better than one. Quantity has little to do with quality.

  3. No matter how many people are engaged in translating a text, it will never be an exact copy of the original. It is simply because some items are untranslatable.
    And what about the sense of responsibility? In my case, it is a sense of responsibility in the first place that motivates me to do my best. Thus, I have translate a text (or its part) alone. I’m always grateful for comments, advice, and criticism concerning the FINAL product of my work. I can’t imagine, however, someone sitting next to me and telling me what to write.
    Besides, I’m not so sure if the ones involved in translation are appropriate people to evaluate their own work and decide whose version is better.

  4. I remember a paper by Salman Rushdie on translation, where he said that, just like some things are lost in translation, other things can be won. I am thinking for example about Cortázar translating Poe into Spanish.

    For me translations are independent texts, aimed to achieve a goal (which is not necessarily the same as the source), and as such are not a shadow of the text, but have a life of their own.

  5. I really don’t think there’s any such thing as an ideal or perfect translation (in the absolute sense).

    I’m actually an entusiast of the idea that more often than not the solution is multiple translations.
    This is obviously not realistic or doable a lot of the time, but for certain classics, the more translations the better as the differences and similarities between them can help the reader understand the work better.

    1. That is what happened to the Bible, multiple translations.
      And now we are stuck with nobody knowing which is the right translation……and all of them thinking theirs is the best of all.
      We have to try and find the best way to translate, with as much as possible of the ideas behind the source-text brought across to the readers of our translation.

  6. Translators can be put into two categories – ‘mercenaries’ and ‘missionaries’. The first crank out the translation as quickly as they can to get the cash. The second will toss and turn and obsess over ever word, nay, comma, until they get the work exactly as they feel it should be. When it comes down to zlotys (or whatever) per hour, they could have earned more flipping burgers. But it’s the satisfaction.

    Do YOU care about what you’re doing?

    Depends, I answer. If it’s three pages of legal translation – and the senior partners charge €500 per hour – then I’m a mercenary. When it’s a military history concerning Poland – then I’m a missionary.

  7. Michael, wonderful categorisation of translators and probably very true. It’s also a point in case that no one falls into one of the categories because every ‘translation moment’ is different.

  8. Hello everybody.

    I agree with Michael Farris that there is no perfect/ideal translation.

    Even if try to reflect the original text in the same way in the target language, it will change somehow. We should take into account that sometimes there is not an appropriate counterpart in the other languages. Some languages are broader in their vocabulary range (e.g. English than Polish). English as a global communication system possess words from languages such French, Latin, Dutch, and German etc.

    Considering this fact we should pay attention to the fact that when translator, whose mother tongue is no so rich as English one, transfer text, he/she needs to display as if an artistic talent to reflect the content of the document. In such situations it is to make a mistake, which probably an employer will point out.

  9. In my opinion any kind of translation is a work of art itself. No matter what its topic is or the number of people engaged in it, it should always be done in the best way possible. However, i think that too many people involved in transation can be very detrimental and may result in its poor quality. I believe that translation is a solitary occupation in the end. It is always me versus blank piece of paper or computer screen. When i have finished translating i give my work for the evaluation to other translator who has not been involved in any way in my work. I think they have perspective that i do not have as i am too engrossed in my translation during and after it. I am grateful for their input and insight. I also think that time, if possible of course, is my best advisor. Returning to my translation after couple of days may miraculously elevate the translation onto a new clearer level.

  10. What does the ideal translation mean? Is it the exact transfer of the original text into the target? Or maybe it is expressing the message of the text in the target language?
    Translator is like an artist who is creating a new text but with the message of the one already written in foreign language. It is obvious that some elements will be lost but others, sometimes better, can be gain while translating. Translator is the one who has to decide how the text will look like in the target language. He has to understand it, so that will create one easily understand by the others. Understanding the artists` way of thinking is essential to compose the ideal translation.

  11. I think that there won’t be an excellent translation of the original text, its just impossible. There will be as many translation versions as translators on the whole world and probably every translation would be in different is some sense. There was a time in my life when I started to translate German texts into Polish and English, although my knowledge of German wasn’t as good as it should be, but thanks to people who told my how to translate some things, that I didn’t kwon, gave me advices ad sometimes even criticized my, made that I try to work harder on them, since I was satisfied with the final effect.

  12. I think that it is important to have in the mind the ideal translation of a particular text while translating it since as we as translators say at the very beginning that such a thing as the ideal translation does not exist we at the same time as if give ourselves an excuse that if we are unable to translate something, it is not our fault. What is more, having this established goal, i.e. the translation which we consider perfect motivates us to reach it. Of course, this is not easy because there are many difficulties such as deadlines, differences between cultures, badly-written source texts and so on, and there will always appear somebody who will not like our translation. However, it is always worth trying…

  13. I agree that it is rather impossible to create an ideal translation bacause, in my opinion, a term “ideal translation” is more subjective than objective and in large measure depends on the reader and his requirements. Each version of translated text will be different. Although it always can be improved, it will be only another version of the original text. It is obvious that translator should search for the best solution, but certainly his text will not be the same as original.

  14. According to translating experts, ideal translation does no exist; moreover, translation is only finished because it is determined by the deadline. It is believed that one could endlessly improve translated material in order to accomplish even better results.

  15. I really like what Agata has written about the endless possibilities of improving- or rather changing- the translation. However, it is disputable whether the corrected text would always be better than its previous version. Moreover, in our attempt to pursue a shadow we may go too far and create a completely new object, outshining the original.

  16. #12 – Marcin said – On October 10, 2009 at 4:04 pm
    In my opinion any kind of translation is a work of art itself. …

    #13 – Kate Stanek said – On October 10, 2009 at 6:28 pm
    What does the ideal translation mean? Is it the exact transfer of the original text into the target? Or maybe it is expressing the message of the text in the target language? …

    I once coined a phrase for a friend who asked me about translation: “A translator is an author without a subject of his own.”
    By that I mean that I believe translating to be the creation of a message in a language but in which the subject is not the author’s, it came from someone else.
    Also, I believe that the original subject of a message passes through several “filters”, until it reaches it’s final destination. My home page ( says it in this way:

    “What makes a professional translator

    Whenever someone, as an author, tries to “communicate” something to someone else, the resulting message is a combination of the author’s ideas, intentions, opinions, prejudices and emotions, including desires, neuroses and fears, all these factors being influenced by the environment, family and culture the author was raised and lived in.

    A translator, as a human being him/herself, should be aware of his/her own mind’s workings when receiving the original message, in order to avoid, as much as possible, contaminating the message with his/her own truths and opinions. Receiving a message from an author is such a complicated process, given all the aspects which have influenced its original creation, that any contribution introduced by a not-so-cautious translator will tend to produce a sometimes disastrous result.

    No wonder the Italians say “traduttori, traditori”.

    In view of the (almost?) impossibility of finding a “perfect” translator, one which would be capable of receiving the author’s “message” in its entirety, with no distortions, the true professional is distinguished from people who “can speak the language” by the awareness and care with which he/she approaches the task of translating.

    Respect for the source message and experience translate into quality (intentional).”

    Sorry for the long post … ;o)

  17. I have to agree with Jose Carlos.
    To transfer a given text into another language, that is not too difficult.
    To Trans Literature-ate a text is a different story. We have to understand the source-text first of all. And we have to bring across our understanding into the target,in such a way that the readers will understand it as well.
    Do not forget that the text is usually not meant for the translator.

  18. I think that the “ideal translation” varies from person to person – what is ideal to one might not be ideal to another. As ania and marta said – it is a question of subjectivity since everyone is individual, and no one can ever please everyone.

    Almost everyone said something that I agreed with though; thanks a lot for all your intelligent contributions – they are helping me a great deal in a project on translation I am doing! 🙂 Translation is currently my favourite potential career – I love languages and want to pursue them, whatever it is I finally choose this summer before uni…

    Anyway, thanks again! =]

  19. I remember the lecture on Relativists and the way they perceive translation. They claim that exact translation is impossible and to some extent they are right as different cultures view the world through conceptual schemes that might not be reconciled. But on the other hand there would be no point doing this job if we knew that reaching ideal translation is beyond our capabilities. I strongly believe that it is possible. A good translator will be able to overcome cultural and religious differences, if he explores the subject in greater depth and tries to understand what the author of the original text meant. After years of experience in this profession ideal translation may be achieved.

  20. Urszula and all,
    Please search Google for the text “Shakespeare in the Bush” by Laura Bohannan, an American anthropologist set out to study the Tiv of West Africa, where she was taught the true meaning of Hamlet.
    Even if you do not agree with her, the story is delicious and worth reading.

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