To translate: What does it mean exactly?

What is translation? This question seems to resonate in the minds of all translators. Shortly, we could say that translating is “the activity or process of changing the words of one language into the words in another language that have the same meaning”.

What is translation? This question seems to resonate in the minds of all translators. Shortly, we could say that translating is “the activity or process of changing the words of one language into the words in another language that have the same meaning”.

The English word “translation” derives from the Latin word translatio, which comes from trans-, (“across”) + -ferre, (“to carry” or “to bring”). Thus translatio is “a carrying across” or “a bringing across” – in this case, of a text from one language to another.

The translator’s activity consists of two phases: the first, the phase of understanding of the original text, in which the translator tries to capture or understand the content of the text that they are going to translate, and the second, the phase of expression of the same content in the target language.

In the first phase, the activity of the translator is not essentially different from the activity of the reader whose own language is the language of the original text. Understanding is necessary and essential for translation, but it is not translation yet.

It is in the second phase, in the process of reconstructing the text in the target language, where the translator has to choose, among the words with more or less similar content or semantic nuances, the most suitable for reproducing the values of the original text.

Throughout history, several translation theorists have given their own definitions of this “literary art.”

According to Alexander Fraser Tytler (1747-1813), in his Essay on the Principles of Translation (London, 1793), there are three fundamental laws about translation:

  1. It is crucial that the translation fully captures the ideas in the original text.
  2. The writing and style must preserve the distinctive characteristics of the original text.
  3. The translation must maintain the naturalness and fluidity of the original text.

Furthermore, according to this theorist, the perfect translation is achieved when the merit of the original work is transferred to another language so that the translated work is easily understood and resonates strongly among both native speakers of the foreign language and those who are fluent in the original language.

According to the vision of Peter Newmark (1916-2011), translation is perceived as a process that combines science and art. This process represents the attempt to replace a message written or expressed in one language with a message equivalent in another language. Newmark proposed two translation approaches. The semantic approach focuses on the author, implying respecting what they expressed in the original language. On the other hand, the communicative approach seeks to transmit the message from the source text to the translated text, considering not only what was written by the author, but also the type of reader who will receive the text.

Among the most controversial theories, we find the proposal of Eugene Nida (1914-2011), known as Dynamic or Functional Equivalence. This translation approach has as its main purpose to reflect the intention and idea transmitted in the original text, if necessary, at the cost of literality, of the original order of the words or of the grammatical voice of the source text. This theory prioritizes readability over strict fidelity to the original text.

Finally, in his book The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation (1995), Lawrence Venuti (1953) first introduced the concepts of “domestication” and “foreignization” as opposing translation strategies. Venuti talks about the concept of the invisibility of the translator, which creates the illusion in readers that they are reading an original work rather than a translation. Venuti considers this practice as negative, since it reduces foreign elements by incorporating terms, expressions and grammatical structures common in the target language, seeking to provoke a feeling of transparency and fluidity in the reader. Furthermore, this domestication increases the risk of altering the meaning of the message. On the contrary, foreignization, according to Venuti, encourages cultural diversity and challenges the aesthetic values of the receiving culture. By preserving the syntax and semantics of the source language, the resulting translations are more direct, less fluid but more faithful and authentic.

Nida and Venuti have demonstrated the complexity of translation studies. They emphasize that the translator must not only interpret the text itself, but also unravel its internal context and decipher its cultural references, idiomatic expressions and figurative language. This allows us to understand the original text and undertake the translation not only to convey the literal meaning in a given context, but also to recreate the impact of the original text within the translator’s linguistic system.

And what do you think? Is translation an art, a science or an intercultural exchange?

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