History of theory


Discussions of the theory and practice of translation reach back into antiquity and show remarkable continuities. The distinction that had been drawn by the ancient Greeks between metaphrase(«literal» translation) and paraphrase was adopted by the English poet and translator John Dryden (1631–1700), who represented translation as the judicious blending of these two modes of phrasing when selecting, in the target language, «counterparts», or equivalents, for the expressions used in the source language:


When [words] appear… literally graceful, it were an injury to the author that they should be changed. But since… what is beautiful in one [language] is often barbarous, nay sometimes nonsense, in another, it would be unreasonable to limit a translator to the narrow compass of his author’s words: ’tis enough if he choose out some expression which does not vitiate the sense.


Dryden cautioned, however, against the license of «imitation», i.e. of adapted translation: «When a painter copies from the life… he has no privilege to alter features and lineaments…»


This general formulation of the central concept of translation — equivalence — is probably as adequate as any that has been proposed ever since Cicero and Horace, in first-century-BCE Rome, famously and literally cautioned against translating «word for word» (verbum pro verbo).


Despite occasional theoretical diversities, the actual practice of translators has hardly changed since antiquity. Except for some extreme metaphrasers in the early Christian period and the Middle Ages, and adapters in various periods (especially pre-Classical Rome, and the 18th century), translators have generally shown prudent flexibility in seeking equivalents — «literal» where possible, paraphrastic where necessary — for the original meaning and other crucial «values» (e.g., style, verse form, concordance with musical accompaniment or, in films, with speech articulatory movements) as determined from context.


In general, translators have sought to preserve the context itself by reproducing the original order of sememes, and hence word order — when necessary, reinterpreting the actual grammatical structure. The grammatical differences between «fixed-word-order» languages (e.g., English, French, German) and «free-word-order» languages (e.g., Greek, Latin, Polish, Russian) have been no impediment in this regard.


When a target language has lacked terms that are found in a source language, translators have borrowed them, thereby enriching the target language. Thanks in great measure to the exchange of calques and loanwords between languages, and to their importation from other languages, there are few concepts that are «untranslatable» among the modern European languages.


In general, the greater the contact and exchange that has existed between two languages, or between both and a third one, the greater is the ratio of metaphrase to paraphrase that may be used in translating between them. However, due to shifts in «ecological niches» of words, a common etymology is sometimes misleading as a guide to current meaning in one or the other language. The English actual, for example, should not be confused with the cognate French actuel (meaning «present», «current»), the Polish aktualny («present», «current») or the Russian актуальный («urgent, topical»).


The translator’s role as a bridge for «carrying across» values between cultures has been discussed at least since Terence, Roman adapter of Greek comedies, in the second century BCE. The translator’s role is, however, by no means a passive and mechanical one, and so has also been compared to that of an artist. The main ground seems to be the concept of parallel creation found in critics as early as Cicero. Dryden observed that «Translation is a type of drawing after life…» Comparison of the translator with a musician or actor goes back at least to Samuel Johnson’s remark about Alexander Pope playing Homer on a flageolet, while Homer himself used a bassoon.


If translation be an art, it is no easy one. In the 13th century, Roger Bacon wrote that if a translation is to be true, the translator must know both languages, as well as the science that he is to translate; and finding that few translators did, he wanted to do away with translation and translators altogether.


The first European to assume that one translates satisfactorily only toward his own language may have been Martin Luther, translator of the Bible into German. According to L.G. Kelly, since Johann Gottfried Herder in the 18th century, «it has been axiomatic» that one works only toward his own language.


Compounding these demands upon the translator is the fact that not even the most complete dictionary or thesaurus can ever be a fully adequate guide in translation. Alexander Tytler, in hisEssay on the Principles of Translation (1790), emphasized that assiduous reading is a more comprehensive guide to a language than are dictionaries. The same point, but also including listening to the spoken language, had earlier been made in 1783 by Onufry Andrzej Kopczyński, member of Poland’s Society for Elementary Books, who was called «the last Latin poet».


The special role of the translator in society is aptly described in an essay that was published posthumously in 1803 and that had been written by Ignacy Krasicki — «Poland’s La Fontaine», Primate of Poland, poet, encyclopedist, author of the first Polish novel, and translator from French and Greek:

[T]ranslation… is in fact an art both estimable and very difficult, and therefore is not the labor and portion of common minds; [it] should be [practiced] by those who are themselves capable of being actors, when they see greater use in translating the works of others than in their own works, and hold higher than their own glory the service that they render to their country.


Religious texts


Translation of religious works has played an important role in history. Buddhist monks who translated the Indian sutras into Chinese often skewed their translations to better reflect China’s very different culture, emphasizing notions such as filial piety.


A famous mistranslation of the Bible is the rendering of the Hebrew word קֶרֶן (keren), which has several meanings, as «horn» in a context where it actually means «beam of light». As a result, artists have for centuries depicted Moses the Lawgiver with horns growing out of his forehead. An example is Michelangelo’s famous sculpture. Some Christians with anti-Semitic feelings used such depictions to spread hatred of the Jews, claiming that they were devils with horns.


One of the first recorded instances of translation in the West was the rendering of the Old Testament into Greek in the third century B.C.E. The resulting translation is known as theSeptuagint, a name that alludes to the seventy translators (seventy-two in some versions) who were commissioned to translate the Bible in Alexandria. Each translator worked in solitary confinement in a separate cell, and legend has it that all seventy versions were identical. TheSeptuagint became the source text for later translations into many languages, including Latin, Coptic, Armenian and Georgian.


Saint Jerome, the patron saint of translation, is still considered one of the greatest translators in history for rendering the Bible into Latin. The Roman Catholic Church used his translation (known as the Vulgate) for centuries, but even this translation at first stirred much controversy.


The period preceding and contemporary with the Protestant Reformation saw the translation of theBible into local European languages, a development that greatly affected Western Christianity’s split into Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, due to disparities between Catholic and Protestant versions of crucial words and passages.


The Luther Bible in German, Jakub Wujek’s bible translation in Polish, and the King James Bible in English had lasting effects on the religions, cultures and languages of those countries.


Fidelity vs. fluency


Fidelity (or «faithfulness») and fluency are two qualities that, for millennia, have been regarded as ideals to be striven for in translation, particularly literary translation. Sometimes, especially in inexperienced hands, the two ideals are at odds. Thus a 17th-century French critic quipped about «les belles infidèles» to suggest that translations, like women, could be either beautiful or faithful, but not both at the same time.


«Fidelity» pertains to the extent to which a translation accurately renders the meaning of the source text, without adding to or subtracting from it, without emphasizing or de-emphasizing any part of the meaning, and otherwise without distorting it.


«Fluency» pertains to the extent to which a translation appears to a native speaker of the target language to have originally been written in that language, and conforms to the language’s grammatical, syntactic and idiomatic conventions.


A translation that meets the first criterion is said to be a «faithful translation»; a translation that meets the second criterion, an «idiomatic translation». In the hands of an expert translator, the two qualities need not be mutually exclusive.


The criteria used to judge the faithfulness of a translation vary according to the subject, the precision of the original contents, the type, function and use of the text, its literary qualities, its social or historical context, and so forth.


The criteria for judging the fluency of a translation appear more straightforward: an unidiomatic translation «sounds wrong», and in the extreme case of word-for-word translations generated by many machine-translation systems, often results in patent nonsense with only a humorous value (see Round-trip translation).


Nevertheless, in certain contexts a translator may consciously strive to produce a literal translation. Literary translators and translators of religious or historic texts often adhere as closely as possible to the source text. In doing so, they often deliberately stretch the boundaries of the target language to produce an unidiomatic text. Similarly, a literary translator may wish to adopt words or expressions from the source language in order to provide «local color» in the translation.


In recent decades, prominent advocates of such «non-fluent» translation have included the French scholar Antoine Berman, who identified twelve deforming tendencies inherent in most prose translations, and the American theorist Lawrence Venuti, who has called upon translators to apply «foreignizing» translation strategies instead of domesticating ones.


Many non-fluent-translation theories draw on concepts from German Romanticism, the most obvious influence on latter-day theories of «foreignization» being the German theologian and philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher. In his seminal lecture «On the Different Methods of Translation» (1813) he distinguished between translation methods that move «the writer toward [the reader]«, i.e., fluency, and those that move the «reader toward [the author]«, i.e., an extreme fidelity to the foreignness of the source text. Schleiermacher clearly favored the latter approach. His preference was motivated, however, not so much by a desire to embrace the foreign, as by a nationalist desire to oppose France’s cultural domination and to promote German literature.


For the most part, current Western practices in translation are dominated by the concepts of «fidelity» and «fluency». This has not always been the case. There have been periods, especially in pre-Classical Rome and in the 18th century, when many translators stepped beyond the bounds of translation proper into the realm of «adaptation».


Adapted translation retains currency in some non-Western traditions. Thus the Indian epic, theRamayana, appears in many versions in the various Indian languages, and the stories are different in each. Anyone considering the words used for translating into the Indian languages, whether those be Aryan or Dravidian languages, will be struck by the freedom that is granted to the translators.[dubious – discuss] This may relate to a devotion to prophetic passages that strike a deep religious chord, or to a vocation to instruct unbelievers.[citation needed] Similar examples are to be found in medieval Christian literature, which adjusted the text to the customs and values of the audience.




The question of fidelity vs. transparency has also been formulated in terms of, respectively, «formalequivalence» and «dynamic equivalence». The latter two expressions are associated with the translator Eugene Nida and were originally coined to describe ways of translating the Bible, but the two approaches are applicable to any translation.


«Formal equivalence» corresponds to «metaphrase», and «dynamic equivalence» to «paraphrase».


«Dynamic equivalence» (or «functional equivalence») conveys the essential thought expressed in a source text — if necessary, at the expense of literality, original sememe and word order, the source text’s active vs. passive voice, etc.


By contrast, «formal equivalence» (sought via «literal» translation) attempts to render the text literally, or «word for word» (the latter expression being itself a word-for-word rendering of the classical Latin verbum pro verbo) — if necessary, at the expense of features natural to the target language.


There is, however, no sharp boundary between dynamic and formal equivalence. On the contrary, they represent a spectrum of translation approaches. Each is used at various times and in various contexts by the same translator, and at various points within the same text — sometimes simultaneously. Competent translation entails the judicious blending of dynamic and formal equivalents.


Common pitfalls in translation, especially when practiced by inexperienced translators, involve false equivalents such as «false friends» and false cognates.




A «back-translation» is a translation of a translated text back into the language of the original text, made without reference to the original text. Back-translation is analogous to reversing (or inverting) a mathematical operation; but even in mathematics such a reversal frequently does not produce a value that is precisely identical with the original. In the context of machine translation, a back-translation is also called a «round-trip translation.»


Comparison of a back-translation to the original text is sometimes used as a quality check on the original translation. But while useful as an approximate check, it is far from infallible. Humorously telling evidence for this was provided by Mark Twain when he issued his own back-translation of a French version of his famous short story, «The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County»; he published his back-translation in a single 1903 volume together with his English-language original, the French translation, and a «Private History of the ‘Jumping Frog’ Story,» the latter including a synopsized adaptation that Twain tells us had appeared, without attribution to him, in a Professor Sidgwick’s Greek Prose Composition (p. 116) under the title, «The Athenian and the Frog,» and which for a time, Twain tells us, was taken for an independent ancient Greek precursor of Twain’s «Jumping Frog» story.


In cases when a historic document survives only in translation, the original having been lost, researchers sometimes undertake back-translation in an effort to reconstruct the original text. An example involves the novel The Saragossa Manuscript by the Polish aristocrat Jan Potocki (1761–1815). The polymath polyglot composed the book entirely in French and published fragments anonymously in 1804 and 1813–14. Portions of the original French-language manuscripts were subsequently lost; the missing fragments survived, however, in a Polish translation that was made by Edmund Chojecki in 1847 from a complete French copy, now lost. French-language versions of the complete Saragossa Manuscript have since been produced, based on extant French-language fragments and on French-language versions that have been back-translated from Chojecki’s Polish version.


Similarly, when historians suspect that a document is actually a translation from another language, back-translation into that hypothetical original language can provide supporting evidence by showing that such characteristics as idioms, puns, peculiar grammatical structures, etc., are in fact derived from the original language.


For example, the known text of the Till Eulenspiegel folk tales is in High German but contains many puns which only work if back-translated into Low German. This seems clear evidence that these tales (or at least large portions of them) were originally composed in Low German and rendered into High German by an over-metaphrastic translator.


Similarly, supporters of Aramaic primacy—i.e., of the view that the Christian New Testament or its sources were originally written in the Aramaic language—seek to prove their case by showing that difficult passages in the existing Greek text of the New Testament make much better sense if back-translated into Aramaic—that, for example, some incomprehensible references are in fact Aramaic puns which do not work in Greek.