Friday, January 10, 2014

Evaluating Translation: Why Translation is Like Women

A painting suspected to be of Gilles Ménage.
One of the great unsolved mysteries in linguistics is the issue of translation itself. Evaluating the quality of translation is an incredibly difficult and arduous task, and literal translation versus free translation is always a point of contention.

Long before the field of Translation Studies even existed (that is, if we take its inception as when it was formalised in the 1950s as comparative literature, before being renamed), a French philosopher named Gilles Ménage was quoted as saying in reference to translation that "they remind me of a woman whom I greatly loved in Tours, who was beautiful but unfaithful". What he was really saying was that translations can be either faithful or beautiful, but never both. Whilst inherently sexist, he was, after all, a 17th century French philosopher.

His take on women may be outdated, but his take on translation could be said to hold true. The issue of faithfulness versus transparency runs very deep. For many years, the two have been divided as if they were mutually exclusive.

Though these terms seem sufficient to explain translation, you could argue that translation theorist Lawrence Venuti effectively recoined them as domestication and foreignization. Where domestication replicates the target text in the style of the target language and culture, foreignization prefers for the translation to appear like it was written in a foreign language and usually by a foreign author. Though neither translation style is a one-size-fits-all solution, this uncertainty has plagued the study of translation, and it seems that nobody can find a perfect answer.

Sadly, whilst Ménage knew the complicated nature of translation, his take on women was definitely wrong. There are women who are beautiful and there are women who are faithful. Beautiful women can be faithful and the not-so-beautiful women can be unfaithful. Guess this mystery will remain relatively unsolved.

What is your opinion of transparency versus faithfulness? Tell us about it in the comments below.