Best Translation Quotes

Quoting Translation

Quoting Translation

One of the joys of translation and our discussions on translation and translation theory is that there are so many voices, so many opinions about our craft (art? science?). The art of translation is oft compared to a wide array of people, products and paraphernalia: translation has been likened to a (beautiful) woman, a mirror, a ghost to name but three. Below are fifteen of some of the most interesting quotations about translation. We have attempted to avoid the more memorable and famous quotations (although some are included here), and have tried to focus on selecting some which are a little less known. Consider which is closest to your idea and concept of translation and which is not. All fifteen are presented below for your enjoyment.

“Many critics, no defenders,
translators have but two regrets:
when we hit, no one remembers,
when we miss, no one forgets.”

“The word ‘translation’ comes, etymologically, from the Latin for ‘bearing across’. Having been borne across the world, we are translated men. It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately to the notion that something can also be gained.”
(Salman Rushdie)

“In antiquity , for instance, one of the dominant images of the translators was that of a builder: his (usually it was him, not her) task was to carefully demolish a building, a structure (the source text), carry the bricks somewhere else (into the target culture), and construct a new building – with the same bricks.”
(Andrew Chesterman)

“Either the translator leaves the author in peace, as much as is possible, and moves the reader towards him: or he leaves the reader in peace, as much as possible, and moves the author towards him.”
(Friedrich Schleiermacher)

“Translation is one of the few human activities in which the impossible occurs by principle.”
(Mariano Antolín Rato)

“A translator, caught in the space between two tongues. Such people tend to come a little bit unglued from the task of trying to convey meaning from one code to the other. The transfer is never safe, the meaning changes in the channel — becomes tinted, adulterated, absurd, stronger.”
(Elena Mauli Shapiro)

“Translation is the art of failure.”
(Umberto Eco)

“Poetry is what gets lost in translation.”
(Robert Frost)

“All translation is a compromise–the effort to be literal and the effort to be idiomatic.”
(Teo Savory)

“There is no such thing as translation.”
(J. May)

“In translation language facility is not enough; blood and sweat are the secret.”
(Samuel Putnam)

“Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.”
(Roland Barthes)

“Translation is at best an echo.”
(George Borrow)

“Western Europe owes its civilization to translators.”
(Kelly Louis)

“Translation is that which transforms everything so that nothing changes.”
(Günter Grass)


Genetic Linguistics & Translation

The bane of so many students of language and translation is often the subjects of “History of Language”, “Etymology” and the suchlike. Many language/translation students would rather eat their hats then have to study the history of English/Polish/Japanese/Spanish (delete where appropriate) in much the same way that students hated having to learn Latin and Ancient Greek.

There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the way in which the subject is taught leaves much to be desired. So-called ‘text-book’ teaching often turns a fascinating story of the growth, development and metamorphosis of a language into a dry history lesson stuffed to the brim with meaningless dates, odd facts and strange figures.

Secondly, it is often difficult to teach a language which, to all intents and purposes, is dead. Part of the reason for the grand failure of teaching Latin and Ancient Greek in years gone by was the fact that students had no real point of reference and were unable to put their theoretical know-how to use in a practical, real-life setting.

However, genetic linguistics, comparative linguistics, comparative philology, etymology are subjects that (unlike the languages under study) are very much alive. We are all aware of the practical uses of Latin and Ancient Greek. Even a little knowledge of these languages can be of great use to translators working with Indo-European languages.

Aside from the vast amount of linguistic knowledge that can be gleaned from the study of a language’s history, how it grew, developed and changed, it can also open a window into that language’s culture. As we are all aware, culture and language are of course two sides of the same coin.

A case in point is the curious example of the Lemba people in southern Africa (who can be found in Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe). The Lemba speak various languages (depending on location) but are generally known as speakers of Bantu languages. However, for someone wanting to translate a Lemba, knowledge of Venda and Shona (Bantu languages) may not be enough.

A study of the history of the Lemba, their now extinct language, Venda, Shona as well as a genetic analysis of the Lemba people would tell us that they have a great deal in common with not only their closest neighbours, but with the Jews of Israel. Their customs include many elements of Judaism, and DNA analysis reveals that many Lemba share a Y-chromosome carried by many Jews.

Interestingly, the priestly Buba clan of the Lemba share common genetic elements also carried by the priestly Jewish Kohen clan. As obvious as it seems, any linguist or translator working with the Lemba needs, of course, to be aware of facts such as these and also the Lemba’s use of the Star of David, refraining from eating pork and use of ritual slaughter.

Study of a language does not only concern the analysis of the current functioning of a language (in temporal terms) but also concerns the historical context of a language which helps reveal important cultural elements. A language is a repository of  words, words with old meanings, history and, of course, culture.

Translator Trainees and Translator Cognition

The longer one translates, the more obvious it becomes that translation is a craft, like any other, which, like wine, matures and improves with age. What for many a novice translator is confusing and complicated may be second nature or not need a second thought for the experienced linguist.

This becomes especially apparent in translation training and, in particular, when one notes the cognitive and procedural problems faced by translator trainees in the learning and training process. Trainee translators often approach a text differently, they actually ‘see’ a text with seemingly different eyes.

The chief problem for translator trainees is the fact that they find it difficult to view a source text holistically. What is more, they are often not aware of the integral relationship between the semantic network of the original with that of the translation. They focus mainly on words and collocations not on ambience and function.

However, the facility to see a text differently, often possessed by up and coming trainee translators, is not always a bad thing. The ability to see a text anew is a valuable skill for all translators, young or old, novice or master – a fact a recent post emphasises.

The translator should, therefore, be able to view a text in several dimensions and at a variety of levels. In other words, every reading should be multi-dimensional. Rather like a satellite picture, the more angles available to the camera, the more detailed the picture.

To summarise, it may be useful for the translator trainee to focus on the ambience and function of a text. It may also be a good idea for the trainee to first read the original text whilst looking for elements of ambience and then a second time looking for functional elements (i.e. to whom is the text addressed and what purpose does it serve?).

Successive readings should focus on other elements – lexis, grammar, style – so that with each reading a new level of detail (and perhaps even ‘magnification’) is gleaned. In this way, the trainee translator regiments not only the procedural part of the process but inadvertently the cognitive part also.

In Praise of Grammar-Translation

The teaching of foreign languages has come on leaps and bounds in the period following World War II. Advances in applied linguistics, psychology, education and technology have all combined to make the late twentieth century one of the most exciting times for foreign language teaching (FLT). English teaching and the field of Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) benefited most from these new approaches to teaching. The Grammar-Translation Method was the predominant method for a long period of time. It focused on the use of translation as a route into the foreign language as well as the memorisation of grammatical rules.

The Direct Method was developed in opposition to Grammar-Translation. No translation was used here and neither was the mother tongue. Other methods included the Silent Method, the Audio-Lingual Method and Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) which has gained ground in recent years and is perhaps one of the most popular approaches nowadays. It was itself a response to the Audio-Lingual Method. In the communicative approach the focus is interaction and the use of authentic texts. This approach led to Task-based Language Learning which has also become extremely popular. In this approach grammar and linguistic elements are not the focus, but rather the task that needs to be realised in the language interaction situation.

With the foundation and strengthening of applied linguistics as a genuine academic discipline and the growth of TEFL as a truly marketable business (including the publication of foreign language learning textbooks), Grammar-Translation became marginalised and forgotten by many. Some of the key terms in FLT now include communication, task realisation and learner autonomy. No place for grammar or translation. Many of the criticisms directed at Grammar-Translation were genuine; there was too great a focus on authenticity (rather than fluency) and the mother tongue (rather than the target language).

However, as with all trends, CLT has perhaps swung too far. Many believe that regimented language learning which is often not highlighted in CLT (but is present in Grammar-Translation) is particularly useful for beginners. Learner autonomy is valuable in language learning but guidance and periodicity is equally important, also present in Grammar-Translation. The early twenty-first century has seen some call for a more hybrid (mix-and-match) approach to foreign language learning where the best ‘bits’ of various approaches are utilised.

Another point is the teaching of translation proper. Is is possible to use a purely communicative approach in translation training? Task-based Language Learning certainly can be used to teach translation but can we use it exclusively? Many teachers are lauding these new hybrid approaches which combine Task-based Language Learning with short ‘doses’ of Grammar-Translation which not only present authentic foreign language texts to students and trainees but also highlight the differences between languages and cultures. Thankfully, the old Grammar-Translation Method has left us. Perhaps it is time for a new one.

Out with the old, in with the new…?

Linguistic Intelligence

In 1983 Howard Gardner put forward his theory of multiple intelligences which sent shock waves through the educational system in the 1980s and 1990s. The repercussions of Gardner’s theory are still being felt today. What was this theory? In short, Howard Gardner believed that there was more to an individual’s intelligence than one single ability or skill. In his Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences he put forward several different types of intelligence. He refined his ideas over the years concluding that there are seven forms of intelligence.

These include:

An individual with heightened bodily-kinaesthetic intelligence might be well coordinated, have a keen sense of balance, be strong, flexible and sporty. People with high bodily-kinaesthetic intelligence may become sports-people, dancers, actors, doctors or soldiers.

Someone who has interpersonal intelligence is typically able to interpret other people’s moods and intentions, they are sensitive to other people and are often natural leaders, successful speakers, sales people, managers and teachers.

Intrapersonal intelligence is marked by introspection. Individuals with this types of intelligence are self-reflective and are able to understand their own emotions, desires and limitations. Such people make good philosophers, psychologists, and scientists.

Logical-mathematical intelligence, as the name suggests, can be defined as the ability to understand numbers and logical concepts, be able to reason, and think abstractly. Mathematicians, scientists, economists and programmers fall into this category.

Individuals who possess musical intelligence can understand and express musical forms, they are sensitive to rhythm and have a keen sense of hearing. Those with musical intelligence may be most suited to careers as musicians, singers, DJs, composers and even writers.

People who have heightened spatial intelligence are extremely sensitive to shapes and colours and are able to easily visualise objects. People gifted with spatial intelligence often make good architects, artists, map-makers and engineers.

Last but not least comes linguistic intelligence; a key factor, one would think, for linguists, translators and language specialists. Interestingly, actors, lawyers, philosophers, teachers and politicians are also thought to have this form of intelligence in abundance. People with linguistic intelligence are often said to notice grammatical mistakes, they enjoy word games, puns, learning foreign languages and often have large collections of books.

Is this really the case? Do all linguists and translators share a common level of linguistic intelligence? Is there a level of linguistic intelligence above which one will always be regarded as linguistically skilled? Must one posses this level to become a linguist and/or translators? More importantly, can the other intelligences be important to the work of a translator?


Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences

Bilingualism – Blessing or Curse?

There are a thousand and one ‘myths’ about what needs to be undertaken to become a good translator. One of these is the opinion that the ideal translator needs to be bilingual. But is this really the case? Is the mark of a great translator the fact that he or she is bilingual (or even multilingual)? In order to answer this question it is first necessary to try and understand what is meant by the term bilingual (or multilingual).

Generally speaking, a bilingual can refer to someone who fluently speaks two languages. This definition itself poses certain problems. Firstly, how do we define fluency, and secondly, does speaking also include writing? We can assume that fluency is the ability to speak (and write) effectively, skilfully, articulately with smoothness and ease. Obviously, knowing two languages fluently is most certainly a key element in becoming a translator. But is it enough?

Translation is by some seen as a gift, by others it is seen as a craft which can be understood, learnt and perfected. What relation does bilingualism have to these approaches to translation? Should the ideal translator be a ‘native’ bilingual who has learnt both languages since childhood? Or does it matter if one language is learnt later in life, as a second language? Some believe that only childhood bilingualism is the only real way forward, although experience tells us this is not always the case.

This seems to be the main sticking point in discussions of bilingualism vis-à-vis translation. Those who believe translation to be a gift often see bilingualism as a ticket to translational competence and, as such, bilingualism is equated with a ‘gift for translation’. However, it is naive to think there is a one-to-one relationship between bilingualism and translational competence. Although being bilingual is certainly vitally important for the translator, being bilingual does not mean that one will become a translator.

The other side to the story is the common belief that someone who is bilingual is automatically a translator. Bilingual (non-translators) are perplexed by questions from monolinguals who ask them to translate a word, phrase or text. “But I’m not a translator,” is the most common reply, often followed by the retort, “But you speak two languages fluently…” In these situations, blingualism can often be seen as more of a curse than a blessing…

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.