Literal and Literary Translation

In just about every translator’s note I’ve ever read, the wrangling and inner angsting over just how literal a translation should be seems obligatory – and with good reason. When translating, just about everyone’s first instinct seems to be trying to produce a word-for-word analogue in the target language, an instinct partly driven by the desire to reproduce the text faithfully and partly driven by years of teaching that literal translation is the way to go, particularly when you’re younger; in my French class I was pretty shocked at my teacher telling us not to translate literally. Then again, she’s a native French speaker and French teaching is not as old-school as the teaching of Latin is…

…You can probably see my conservatism coming out here when I say that there’s still a place for literal translation. This place is where getting a message across matters more than aesthetics, for example in technical writing or in providing assistance understanding a text. The Loeb Classical Library is a very good example, as its literal translations are designed to make Greek and Latin texts accessible to everyone and are often very useful when trying to make sense of a tricky passage.

However, despite old fogeys like me (I’m 18, does that make me ancient yet?) complaining about how the youth of today don’t read enough, people still read for pleasure. And when people read for pleasure, how pleasing the text is to the eye and the ear matter just as much as its clarity. This is where literal translations stop being useful.

As any translator knows, languages work in fairly different ways. I can do things in French that I can’t do in English, things in English that I can’t do in Latin, and things in Latin that I can’t do in Hebrew. This makes trying to do a completely literal translation futile, because there will be some constructions in the original language that simply do not exist in the target language (gerundives) or that sound unnatural if translated literally. This is a major cause of garbled translation when not done by machines – and it’s been around since people have had different languages. For example, in ancient Rome most schoolchildren would learn Greek (indeed, most educated Romans were bilingual, partly because they were taught by Greek slaves from a young age). Thanks to them leaving rather a lot of…well…stuff behind them, we now have wax tablets showing children’s attempts at prose composition in Greek and a teacher’s correct version below, and they made the exact same mistakes that people learning languages make today when translating. Some things never change.

Languages are also idiomatic. This is fantastic when you want to express certain ideas without being literal and rubbish when you’re translating, because you’ve then got to try and find equivalent idioms. By “try”, I mean “frantically scrabble for the closest thing to the idiom in your target language and possibly end up having to put explanatory notes at the end of your translation”. Otherwise, you end up with such wonderful phrases as people losing their freedom twice a week.

Besides, particularly with older texts, there’s no shortage of literal translations out there; it can be fun to explore different niches. There are some very fine translations of Homer and Ovid that take a lot of liberties with the texts in bringing them up to date with the 21st century while still keeping the spirit of the poetry.


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