Translation theory: the past and present

Translation in the past

According to certain Italian writers of the early Renaissance, translations are like women: ugly if they are faithful, and unfaithful if they are beautiful. Without entering momentarily into the controversy that has already been overcome by literal versus free translations, and not much less in the fidelity of women, we want to point out only that translation has a very long history and, therefore, some of the concepts that we are going to discuss are not new. What is perhaps new is the approach to certain old problems.

Despite the antiquity of translation, the figure of the translator has not always been sufficiently valued. It seems that in Europe it currently enjoys more prestige than in the United States, where it evokes the image, according to one author, of a person of middle age, poorly dressed, who speaks English with a pronounced accent and is probably an immigrant. Even in Europe the cultural contribution of the translator is sometimes not recognised, and it is very common that her name does not even appear in the translated book (perhaps owing to prudence in some cases, given the poor quality of certain translations on the market). However, translation has been fundamental in the history of culture, facilitating the dissemination of works that, otherwise, would have had a much more restricted audience.

The ancient Babylonian civilization used translators (to create certified translations, among others) and, in more modern times, there is the role of translation in the Renaissance. Consider also the case of the Bible, which is currently translated (in whole or in part) into 1,109 languages. The vast majority of these biblical translations have been made in the last two hundred years, since at the beginning of the nineteenth century there were translations in only seventy-one languages.

Sometimes the translation is not limited to transmitting a message, it can even have a decisive influence on the development of the language, as in the case of Luther's translation of the Bible (1522) into German or that of the King James's Bible (1611) into English.

If we consider more recent works, we can ask ourselves if the thought of Saussure, for example, would have had the same influence had not been translated into other languages. French, it can be argued, is a language so well known that, in any case, Course in General Linguistics would have reached a large audience, but what would have happened to the work of Hjelmslev that was published in Danish in 1943? Ten years passed until it was translated into English as Prolegómeno to a Theory of Language.

Let's also consider the case of the linguists of the Prague Linguistic Circle. Given the international nature of the group that included the Dutchman AW de Groot, the Austrian Karl Bühler, the Englishman Daniel Jones, the Yugoslav Aleksander Belic, the Frenchmen Lucien Tesniére and André Martinet and the Russians Karcevski, Jakobson and Trubetzkoy, they had to choose a common language, in this case French, for the dissemination of their work. One or the Russians, Jakobson, would later become more widely known through his works in English. In some cases, the delay in translating a work may considerably delay the dissemination of ideas, as in the case of Vygotsky's Thought and Language, which was published posthumously in Russian in 1934, withdrawn by the Russian authorities in 1936, reappeared in 1956 and was not translated into English until 1961. Despite this lapse of almost thirty years between the publication of the work and its translation into English, luck was on his side since the topics dealt with by Vygostky are still relevant and there are several English-speaking philosophers and linguists who are currently dealing with issues that he raised in the thirties. Translation in the present

Nowadays, many works are released onto the market simultaneously with their translation into a great variety of languages. The issue is not only about literary works but also about techniques. The fame of a large number of writers rests in part on the translation of their works, especially if they write in a minority language. Translation can also help authors who write in non-minority languages. According to some rumours, Gabriela Mistral’s Nobel Prize was owed in part to the fact that all of her works were quickly translated into Swedish. In terms of technical translations, the European Union currently employs some 1,600 translators and other international organizations also have significant numbers. In 1967, some 80,000 scientific journals were translated every year and the number is constantly increasing.

At a national level, any firm of a certain size, be it engineering, patents, trade, let alone multinational companies, have a permanent staff of translators. In fact, the translator's office is one of the best opportunities for graduates in modern languages.

Translation and teaching

The use of translation in the teaching of languages ​​has enjoyed greater or less popularity at different times. In England during the Renaissance the so-called "vulgars" were studied in schools. They were prayers in English that dealt with various aspects of daily life that the students translated into Latin, taking special care of the style. Learning modern languages ​​did not become popular until the nineteenth century, although cases are found before that date. In the eighteenth century, for example, a French professor at the Royal Military School of Avila, Pedro Nicolás Chantreau, published a French grammar for Spaniards in which he draws attention to the dangers of literal translation.

The danger that Chantreau sees of imposing the structures of the mother tongue onto the second language when translating is recognised today and in fact there is a tendency towards the suppression of translations “into” foreign languages precisely to avoid it. Nowadays it is a basic understanding of the industry that translators only translate into their mother tongue, or “from” foreign languages.

Despite his doubts, Chantreau thought that translation has its place in teaching and advises the study of a text in the original with "some good translations" to contrast them with, and to draw conclusions about the rules of the second language. Perhaps the fact that Chantreau recognized himself as highly indebted to the grammarians of the Port Royal School and insisted repeatedly on their grammar in the cognitive process for the learning of languages ​​is what leads him to consider translation as a good auxiliary method of reaching understand the structures of the new language. In recent years the role of translation in the teaching of languages ​​has been reassessed, since the structuralist methods have been gradually replaced by others based on the knowledge provided by the theory of transformational grammar. In the nineteenth century the method known as the "Grammar Translation Method" was based on translation as a system for learning modern languages. Therefore, even texts of the classics were provided to non-advanced students for translation. Well into the twentieth century, translation continued to be included in many manuals. In English Lessons after S. Algés Method by Sophie Hamburguer, for example, we find in the 13th edition of 1919 a selection of texts to translate including "The boy stood on the burning deck" or the poems of Longfellow, Wordsworth and Charles Kingsley, while The New British Method, in its 1925 edition, suggests the translation into Spanish of a series of phrases that include: “Alas! I have lost all my fortune. Hark! how it thunder! Behold! what a beautiful landscape! Pooh! do not believe it. Fie! what a gloomy scene. Farewell, my dear old country! Hurray! our master has just arrived.”

Translation in British and Spanish Universities

Direct and reverse translation has a long tradition in the departments of Modern Languages ​​of British universities. In spite of this, the classes are usually exclusively practical without trying to address the numerous theories of translation that have been developed in recent years. Often the teacher in charge of these classes is one of the young teachers newly incorporated into the department. The most experienced professors tend to devote themselves to "more important" teaching tasks. This attitude is changing but translation is almost always oriented towards the literary branch, which is considered "superior" or "more difficult" than the scientific or technical one.

In Spain, translation is not officially taught at middle school level, but many textbooks include pieces for translation. In 1982, the question of whether French and English were included in the entrance examinations for university access was raised. There were meetings between the representatives of secondary education and the coordinators of the University and in one of them, which we attended, a lot of controversy arose when it was suggested that the examination was going to consist of a translation from English to Spanish. The rumour spread that this type of test had been chosen due to the shortage of English teachers to correct the exams, and the correct version (the "solution") in Spanish was going to be provided to teachers with scarce or no knowledge of English, as if there were only one correct version of a translation. This rumour, which could not be confirmed, caused much discomfort among the faculty, and, whether true or not, the fact is that English has still not entered the selectivity tests. In the Spanish university translation usually has its place in the departments of English philology but, with some exceptions, it is not given too much importance. In fact, many graduates in English philology are forced to enrol in special translation courses when they begin to take exams for high school English professorships because then translation is required in the entrance exams. We thought that it would be necessary to decide if the University is the appropriate place for teaching of translation or if this task should depend exclusively on translators' schools. We are of the opinion that it should be taught at University. An in-depth study of the different styles and types of translation: literary, scientific, legal, commercial, etc., would greatly expand the students' linguistic knowledge, but in addition these practical classes should be accompanied by theoretical classes in which they study not only the basic techniques of translation, which are not always taught systematically, but also some of the theories developed by linguists such as Nida, Mounin, Cary and Jumpelt or Vinay and Darbelnet, among others. Of course, the certified translation is often what is most important on daily life, and the rules and regualtions for this can indeed also be taught at university level.

Translation theory can form a part of applied linguistics, although some place it in comparative linguistics. Nonetheless, the student who studies translation theory finds that it has links with many disciplines such as psychology, semantics, sociolinguistics, ethnoligistics, and even philosophy, since a serious study of translation inevitably leads to philosophical considerations about the relationship between mentality and language or between language and reality, among other issues.

In any case, we share Newmark's opinion that, even if there were no other reason to teach translation in the university, the large number of poor translations in the market would be sufficient reason to train the students of modern languages ​​in the art, trade and science that is translation. The certified translation would also be an important part of this training, since these must be accurate, and there is more at stake when they fail. Translation theory

Both linguists and philosophers have contributed to the development of various theories of translation that have proliferated in recent years. The American philosopher C. S. Peirce, with his theories of meaning, which underline the communicative aspect of signs, has contributed directly to the development of certain theories of translation. Charles Morris (Writings on the General Theory of Signs) is another key figure. Morris has had a special influence on the so-called Leipzig School, formed by a group of researchers who worked on the elaboration of the theoretical bases of translation. The linguist and translator of the Bible, E. A. Nida, has dedicated several works to translation and we will consider his theory of component analysis later on. Nida once raises the question: is translation possible? He recognises that there is always a loss of information when a text is translated from one language to another but this, he maintains, is true, not only of the translation but in all types of communication. He suggests that the best translation is always the one that enables the recipient to respond to the message, both in form and content, as the original reader would respond. For this it is very important that the translator knows what type of reader the original text was directed at and what their reactions were. If the role of the reader becomes increasingly important in current literary criticism, it must also be important for the translator. The sociolinguistic theories of translation put special emphasis on this aspect and emphasise that the translator must have knowledge of the author, the historical background of the text and the conditions in which it was written.

Another theory, that of semantic translation, tries to translate the semantic and structural aspects of the original as faithfully as possible. It is quite a literal way of translating, but it does not become what is usually understood by "literal translation", that is, a word for word translation. It tries, above all, to preserve the exact meaning of the original text and produces very detailed translations. He can even be accused of "overtranslating” because it creates a more detailed text than the original.

Communicative translation, on the other hand, is more interested in the reader than in the fidelity to the original text and strives to avoid "strange" elements. It searches for an idiomatic style, plain and simple, and tries to carry out the transmission of cultural elements that may exist in the original and replace them with terms that are specific to the culture of the reader. A communicative translation, unlike semantics, tends to "undertranslate”, producing a simple version, in generic terms, of complex pieces.

There is another type of translation called "cognitive translation". It is a pretranslation method and consists of analysing the original text and, in the original language, dividing the components so that the meaning is as clear as possible. For example, the adjective "honey-sweet" would be expressed as "sweet as honey". This technique is used especially for very complex or ambiguous sentences in order to get to the meaning of the sentence before trying to translate it. There is not usually a complete cognitive translation, rather, it is applied to those parts of the text that offer special difficulty. Other theories are philological and linguistic. The philological is especially concerned with aspects of style, predominantly analysing literary texts. It is the type of translation traditionally carried out in universities.

Linguistic theories, on the other hand, are based on a comparison of the linguistic structures of the text to be translated and those of the language to which it is translated. The comparison of literary genres or styles, so important for philological theory, is of lesser interest. The application of linguistics to more and more fields, such as the teaching of languages, anthropology, semiotics, etc., explains its rise in part, as does the interest in developing a computer translation system, which, until recently, had very limited success.

There are several philosophers who have directly or indirectly influenced the development of translation theories. Wittgenstein, for example, in his analysis of the relationship between language and thought, which for him are intimately linked, considers several issues that are of interest to the theory of translation. For him, understanding is something different to the expression of that understanding. Understanding is not exhibited, it is something internal and spiritual. The expression of the understanding, even in the mother tongue, is always incomplete, according to this philosopher, because there is something "inexpressible". For example, you can’t teach anyone a toothache and you can’t prove that you have that pain because there is something inexpressible that language isn’t able to transmit. The words, moreover, are inserted in a system that is only relevant in a certain society. Wittgenstein offers the example of the coronation of a king, which would normally be understood as a scene of great dignity and importance, but could mean the opposite, he says, in a society in which gold is the cheapest metal, its brightness considered distasteful, the fabric of the king's mantle is very cheap to manufacture and the crown is considered as a parody of a hat that is a highly respected item of clothing. For the American philosopher W. V. Quine, there is an "indeterminacy of translation". That is, it can be translated from one language to another in various ways and all versions can be equally compatible with the truth. Despite this lack of a single translation, says Quine, we must continue to translate. The concept of indetermination means that there are many paths and we can develop any of them. There are many paths, there is no one right answer, except perhaps in the case of the certified translation. Otherwise, all we can do is keep on translating to the best of our knowledge and ability.


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