Translation: Staying Faithful To The Original

via Daily Prompt: Translate


When it comes to translation there is the eternal dilemma between fidelity to the original text and transparency, that is, how easy it is to understand the translation in the target language and how natural it sounds. Fidelity to the original is sometimes called literal translation, but it doesn’t have to be the case. It is literal only if the grammatical structure of the original is exactly recreated and copied in the translation. On the other hand, more transparent and free translation is much more popular, even when it isn’t very faithful to the original.

My own approach is to give more importance to fidelity: not in the literal word-for-word sense, but in sense of recreating original meanings in the translation, as much as possible. So, the task of translator is to find equivalent meanings in the target language for the given meanings from the original text. Why do I think that free translation approach is wrong? It is not necessarily wrong, but it can be very easy and convenient for translators and it doesn’t require much effort. If you can’t find the good substitute for a given word or phrase, you simply omit it, give some paraphrase, or give an imprecise substitute. As long as it sounds nice in the translation, it’s OK, right?

Wrong. A lot of shades of meaning can be lost if someone gives up trying to find the perfect substitute for some words too quickly. Of course I am not arguing for literal translation, but I want to emphasize the need to put enough effort in the quest for precise, yet beautiful translation, before giving up and accepting some imprecision.

Another reason why I am in favor of fidelity, more than transparency is because I think that readers should be moving closer to the original, approaching it, so that they discover different cultures, different ways of thinking, different linguistic structures, and enrich themselves in such way. They should be ready to enter the foreign realm and they should know and feel that it is foreign and appreciate its foreignness. The approach of free translation is different, it moves the original text closer to the readers, by adapting it to their language and culture sometimes more than is necessary, to the point that a story which clearly has foreign origins sounds as if it’s written by a writer from the same country in which the translation is published.

For example, if you’re an English speaker, and you want to read an Italian novel in translation, would you prefer it to sound the same as an English novel, or to maintain its distinctive Italian character? I suppose most of the readers would prefer it to maintain its character, because otherwise, it would be just like another English novel.

Now I will give some examples of the translation of idioms and realia, that is things from the real world, present in a certain culture, but not necessarily present in the culture of the target language. Through those examples, I will show the result of translation approach focused on fidelity vs. translation focused on transparency, and you decide which one is better.

  1. Original Serbian: Nemoj se nervirati oko tog ispita, to ti je mačiji kašalj.
    1. Fidelity: Don’t worry about that exam, it’s a cat’s cough. (In the footnote, the explanation of the Serbian idiom: mačji kašalj = a cat’s cough = something very easy, a piece of cake)
    2. Transparency: Don’t worry about that exam, it’s a piece of cake.
  2. Original Serbian: Ma pusti njega, on gleda Žikinu šarenicu.
    1. Fidelity: Don’t take him seriously, he watches The Žika’s Iris. (Explanation in the footnote: Žikina šarenica – Žika’s Iris is a TV show on Serbian National TV, that is aired each Sunday morning, and it’s known for its bad taste and is mainly oriented towards less educated and rural population)
    2. Transparency: Don’t take him seriously, he watches The Jerry Springer Show.
  3. Original Serbian: Znaš kad će on oboriti Petrov rekord? Kad na vrbi rodi grožđe.
    1. Fidelity: You know when he will break Petar’s record? When grapes grow on a willow tree (footnote: never).
    2. Transparency: You know when he will break Peter’s record? When pigs fly.
  4. Original Serbian: Normalno da te boli stomak kad samo ždereš te pice i bureke.
    1. Fidelity: Of course you have upset stomach when you only eat those pizzas and bureks (footnote: burek is a very popular type of pie in Balkan countries, filled with minced meat, onions and spices… together with pizza and ćevapi, it is one of the staples of Balkan junk food, but it is also considered a type of delicacy, and many cities are famous for their burek)
    2. Transparency: Of course you have upset stomach when you only eat junk food.

I think these examples show that translations focused on transparency are indeed neater and make for an easier reading experience, but they lose a lot of their original flavor, as well as some part of the original meaning, sometimes significant parts. The only problem with fidelity approach in translation is that it sometimes requires too many footnotes, but as a general principle, I would suggest, whenever possible opt for it.

Of course sometimes it is not possible, even with the best efforts, so there’s no need to be exclusive in one’s approach. Yet this opens another topic, that will be covered soon: the untranslatability.



4 thoughts on “Translation: Staying Faithful To The Original

  1. It is a fine line between translation and interpretation. I think your 1. examples are of translation (the literal, word-for-word kind) and interpretation is what makes the sense of a language come alive in another. Just my own experience. 😉 xoM

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Margarita! I agree that fidelity isn’t always the best approach and can make for a tough and clumsy reading, but I still believe it’s something to be aimed for, even if it’s very difficult to achieve without sounding clumsy. Otherwise, we can give an impression to our readers that in the whole world it’s just Jerry Springer that’s a synonym for bad taste, or that everywhere it’s the flying pigs that are a synonym for impossibility. In my own translations, though I use adaptations and interpretation quite often, but I still aim, whenever possible, to move the readers closer to the world of the original text and to stay as faithful to it as possible. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible. My examples were a bit extreme cases, I just wanted to illustrate the difference between two approaches.

      Liked by 1 person

      • In my experience, Zlatko, language as a means of communication is always subject to interpretation. We can only ever approximate a guess at an author’s meaning without their feedback as to whether or not we understood their intention as well as their words. That said, fidelity to the author’s words and intentions, are a laudable goal! 😉 xoM

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Yeah, it’s just that – a goal. I am not saying that I am able to decode the all the meanings or intentions of the author, but I will do my best to try. 🙂 I wrote this post mainly because I see that free interpretation and adaptation can sometimes become too free, which IMO is not a good thing. For example in a realistic text, I would probably translate Serbian idiom with English idiom without explanations, so I would just put “when pigs fly” instead of Serbian idiom, but in some other cases I would try to find a way to explain the real, original thing, instead of finding an equivalent in the target language. For example, if a Serbian guy is called Jovan, there’s no need to call him John… as that would be excessive, he’s a Serb after all, and not an English guy, or if some dish is mentioned like burek, which might be important for a story, or even just to enlighten the readers about culture of a certain country, I think it would be bad to just say “junk food”. American junk food and Serbian junk food are totally different things, and they even have different connotations, different times and ways when they are eaten etc. In America, for example junk food has mostly negative connotations, while in Serbia some meals that are considered junk food are at the same time delicacies, like chevapi. They only become junk food when eaten in specific ways and places (like in the street) or when your whole diet consists just of that types of food.


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