Lost and Found in Translation

Studying literature in Spanish, Latin, and English at A Level inevitably presents, at some point, the conundrum of translation. ‘What makes a good translation?’ is a question one in this position has to ask themself constantly; the classroom invariably demands enough fidelity to prove understanding, but enough liberty to provide fluidity. In walking this linguistic tightrope, I have found there is actually as much to be gained as there is lost in translation. What follows does not purport to be writing which contributes to or draws on the extensive and complex range of academic and philosophical writing on the matter, but simply an articulation of what strikes me as the most coherent view on the act of translation, which is in part inspired by Mark Polizzotti’s fantastic article and Johanna Hanink’s post on eidolon.pub.

None of greatest of literary translators (John Dryden, Matthw Arnold, Dante Gabriel Rossetti to name but three) voice the same ethos in translation. There is no consensus, despite centuries of thought, on what the role of the literary translator truly is. Surely it cannot be to replicate the words in another language, i.e. simply to transform the basic information carried by every word into another tongue. I would argue that to do so is to lose sight of the essence of literature: meaning. Nobody reading a GoogleTranslate copy of García Lorca’s Romancero Gitano will access the ‘meaning’ of the original, though they may indeed be reading a concatenation of similar words. There lies, therefore, an elusive substance between the collection of individual words that is a text: a literary text could be said to be ‘more than the sum of its parts’.

We must therefore inquire where this meaning actually lies if not in the basic layer of information which exists in a series of words. One spring from which additional meaning flows may well be the relationship between language and culture (if these are two separate entities at all). The connotations words possess evolve by usage (both oral and literary), and an acute sensation of this subtlety of meaning can only derive from cultural experience of the language. A language is an organic entity, and can never be fully ‘known’, but only wrestled with by participants of varying competency. There thus exists between two languages an apparently impermeable membrane, in that a text is a collection of words which work together to generate meaning by means of an unquantifiable nexus of human experience, as opposed to a fixed set of objective standards.

It is futile, therefore, to qualify translation by ‘fidelity’ or ‘similarity’ alone. To pursue this unattainable goal is to place translation within a straitjacket. When we set aside these criteria and view a translation as an artistic product per se, we beget an exciting creative realm. In trying and failing to traverse the bridge between to languages, we necessarily ask questions of culture, identity, and meaning. Translation, therefore, offers the translator a rich resource in exploring the differences between two cultures. To translate Latin into English is to identify what has changed across centuries in history, and what has remained startlingly consistent. These questions have inherent value, and are, from experience, rewarding ones to answer.

Literature in translation only ‘falls short’, therefore, of the original in a very narrow and demanding sense. Once we accept that a translation is a product of paradox, I believe there is so much to be gained from translation on a human and academic level. There is a lot to be said for literary translation as a creative exercise. It is this which I have to tell myself whenever translation is another task to ‘gain marks’. Lamentably, the way ancient and, though less so, modern languages are taught at an early stage is so dependent on the perverse search for ‘fluid fidelity’ that many will never see translation as anything but a test of literal comprehension.


A few of my own translations (contributed to The Classical Anthology) can be found at the links below:

Catullus IIa: ‘Lesbia’s Sparrow’

Catullus CI: ‘A Fraternal Farewell’

Lucretius de rerum natura I.62-79: ‘Lucretius’ Devotion to Epicurus’

Sulpicia IV: ‘On Adultery’

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