The Imperfection of Translation

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The Imperfection of Translation

The essential problem with translation is an obvious one. A word has more qualities than just its denotation. For one, a word has a sound, an attribute which has great importance in poetry (though we should not underestimate its significance in prose, as well). Also, a word consists of various connotations, meanings which only rarely cross over from language to language. Complicating matters is the nature of literature itself. Writers and poets put pressure on the language; they often choose words because of their rich variety of meanings, complicating rather than clarifying their subjects. Unfortunately, then, for the translator of literature, the currency of words is not as easy to exchange as the other kind of currency.

E. V. Rieu recognizes the inherent difficulty of translation. Perfect translation may be impossible, so the best we can hope for, he writes in the following, is a translation of the spirit of the work: "I call it the principal of equivalent effect and regard it as signifying that that translation is the best which comes nearest to creating in its audience the same impression as was made by the original on its contemporaries" (55). Rieu criticizes the translators of the King James Version of the Bible for remaining stubbornly faithful to the original language. Here he presents a parable, the moral of which is undoubtedly weakened by awkward translation.

St. Luke in xvii. 8 reports Jesus as imagining a scene in which a master says to his slave, "Get something ready for my supper." The Greek is colloquial and the master is not represented as speaking politely. Yet the authorized translators put into his mouth the words: "Make ready wherewith I may sup." (55)

In that example the superiority of Rieu's plain-spoken translation is obvious, but it begs the question of how much freedom does one give a translator. Rieu's ideal that a translated work must cause "the same impression" as the original seems to give scholars license to embellish.

Werner Winter believes that, regardless of the degree of embellishment, translation cannot avoid altering the work. Try as we might, Winter writes, "Meaning and form cannot be dissociated from one another" (70).
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