Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

I’ve been doing a fair amount of research on translation theory recently, and it’s really a fascinating field. There are as many facets and complexities as colors in a sunset, but at its core, it does have any number of interesting and easily understandable aspects. Since I’ve been looking around at different sorts of translation, I think it’s time to discuss one of the more basic choices that translators make (and one of the ones that most affects the readers): source and target language bias.

So, let’s say that I wanted to translate a modern Spanish novel into English. For the purposes of this article, I’ll be using the terms “source text/language” to refer to the Spanish version, and using “target language/text” to refer to the English translation. Translation would be far more simple if all languages were identical, abstract sets of words, used identically by everybody. If this were the case, every word construction, tense, or framing would have an exact duplicate in every other language in the world. The English word ‘Table’ would be exactly the same as the Spanish ‘Mesa’, and every time you saw ‘Table’, you could just switch it out with ‘mesa’. So, ideally, I would sit down with my dictionary and my reference grammar and start replacing English words, sentences, and paragraphs with their Spanish “equivalents”. Once this substitution was complete, I would have a perfectly accurate copy of the original text which was completely understandable to a speaker of the target language.

As convenient as that would be, it’s not remotely true. Even in our quick example, ‘Table’ in English has a number of different meanings, and not all are covered by the Spanish ‘mesa’ (ranging from a Data Table, to “tabling” a resolutions). No two languages are exactly equivalent, and although some words might have quick and easy equivalents in both the source and target language, the vast majority of words and constructions will require the translator to make some decisions.

When these decisions start being made, there’s an opportunity for bias. Let’s say I come across the Spanish phrase “Mas vale pajaro en mano que ciento volando” in the novel. I need to make a choice here, as to how to translate it. Literally, it means “A bird in the hand is worth more than a hundred flying.” However, English does have a very, very similar expression, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”. So, I can translate literally, and favor the Source Language (Spanish) phrasing, or I can translate using the English idiom, and favor the Target Language.

In this case, the main difference will be in terms of native target language speaker’s perception. Using the literal Spanish would be what translators often refer to as a “difference” preference or “favoring the source language “, the choice to use different phrasing and, even through the translation, emphasize that the source language and the author’s words are different than how an English speaker might have written things. On the other side, using the English idiom might be referred to as “identity” preference (or “favoring the target language”), where the translator tries to make the target language text as accessible, understandable, and familiar as possible to target language readers.

This example is fairly simple, in that really, a native English speaker will understand what the phrase means even if it’s translated literally. However, imagine you’re given an idiom like “Estar como perro en barrio ajeno”, literally, “to be like a dog in a neighbor’s yard”. If one were to translate that literally, the target language readers might understand the words, but miss the meaning entirely. However, Ii one translated it (more accurately) as “to be like a fish out of water”, the target language reader would have a much easier grasp on the meaning behind it.

There are always other factors at play in the decision of translating certain phrases. I’ve been learning about translation theory with one of the professors in my department, and he recently made a very interesting comment about the translation of Native American stories and literatures. We were going through one of his translations of an Arapaho speech, and we stumbled across a particularly colorful phrase (along the lines of “walking into the other group’s camp”). He translated it literally for me, but he put it into the English version as a single English word, “assimilation”. When I asked why, he explained that he didn’t want to make it sound like the stereotypical, disney-style Native American speech. He said that although the Arapaho often do use metaphors related to the Old Ways, hunting and nature, he often chooses not to translate them literally, because he feels it really just reinforces the stereotype of how their language sounds, rather than the actual message of the story or speech.

So, every translation has a bit of bias. However, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This is a choice, and a tool in the hands of a skilled translator, and very seldom is a translation done favoring ONLY the target or source languages. Although translation theorists will likely argue this point, I suspect that the most accurate translation will likely fall somewhere in the middle, with a mix of difference and identity. Sometimes, you need to favor the target language, to make the book clear, understandable, and readable to the readers, but sometimes you need to favor the source language, if for no other reason, just to remind the reader that the original work wasn’t written two weeks ago in Des Moines.

Suggested Readings:

Introducing Translation Studies by Jeremy Munday : A good primer on translation theory and many of the issues discussed here (albeit with a generalized target language bias)

_The Brothers Karamazov _by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Pevear and Volokhonsky translation: A great book, and a more Target language biased translation.

_The Brothers Karamazov _by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Constance Garnett translation: The same great book, but this is a more source language favoring translation.


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