By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Thinking About Translation

The old cliche is that, if the original is in color, then the translation must be in black and white. Yet, translation is unavoidable if the target audience does not know the original language or is not skilled enough in the original language. In addition, most of us who have studied a foreign language end up mentally translating most of the time--although deep immersion in reading the original language allows us to skip this step even with the so-called "dead" classical languages.

When thinking about translation, we usually struggle with the choice of literal or fluent--for "fluent," you can substitute "sense-for-sense" or "dynamic." Both Cicero and St. Jerome favored sense-for-sense translations. How can we avoid this frustrating dichotomy? Let's see.

1. What is the purpose of your translation? Your target audience? If your purpose is to teach the grammar of the language, then literal is better. If you are targeting the general reader, then sense or dynamic translation is the way to go.

2. Yet, even when you choose to go for the fluent or more dynamic translation, you still have the issues: how fluent? how literal?

Classicist Sarah Ruden, in a foreword to her translation of the Aeneid, gives these recommendations:

1. Favor simple English words over Latinate words (e.g. use "hard" over "difficult");

2. Yet, also try to reflect the mind of the author by seeking to communicate the style of the author. Well, to communicate style, you have to give a sense of the grammatical structure in the foreign language. Hence, you end up with a more literal approach even within an overall fluent translation project.

I like Ruden's common sense suggestions. As a result, I phrase my own developing translation philosophy as follows. (I refer to Latin since that is the language I translate the most in my own work.)

A fluent translation should aim to use effective English idioms and words, as opposed to overusing Latin cognates or slavishly imitating certain idioms. In Latin translations, this approach means splitting overly long sentences, making some passive or impersonal Latin constructions active or inserting a personal subject, or transforming participial clauses into simple, independent sentences.

At the same time, there is another cliche--albeit a true one: that in classics, and in the humanities in general, we are trying to communicate to the reader the otherness of another culture and time. So we cannot always use vocabulary that is simply ordinary English. For example, for the Roman army, unit standards, as ways to gather different formations of soldiers, are just that, standards, an ancient tool of warfare that we no longer use. We need to keep this word to reflect the cultural difference we see, for example, in Caesar's Gallic War. (I can't use "flags" for "standards" because the Romans distinguished between standards and flags.)

Likewise, the translator may justifiably choose to keep a Latin idiom that sounds awkard in English to give the reader the flavor of the original style. I think of the Latin idiom for banishing someone: "to cut them off from fire and water." I am tempted to translate the idiom literally and add a footnote for the reader so the reader gets the archaic sense of this Roman punishment. I also think of Cicero's famously long sentences. Does a Cicero translation that sounds like Ernest Hemingway do justice to Cicero?

As in most of life, translation, as you can see, is a balancing act, an art, based on judgement. Being aware of the choices and the issues helps us make a more informed and fruitful judgement. My current view is that a desirable translation in almost all cases is a fluent or dynamic translation giving us the sense of the Latin in English, but it also has to give us a sense of the otherness of an ancient culture and a sense of the style of the original text. It's a tall order.

(Image of St. Jerome the translator in public domain)