A Brief Introduction to Translation

In his essay titled “Miseria y esplendor de la traduccion” (Misery and Splendor of Translation), first published in 1937 in the newspaper La Nacion of Buenos Aires, Jose Ortega y Gasset said that to translate “is without any doubt, a utopic endeavor,” which according to him is due to the fact that “human endeavors are unfeasible. The destiny – privilege and honour – of man is never to achieve what he intends to do and to be pure pretending, a living utopy. He always starts towards defeat and before getting into the fight he already bears a wounded temple. This is what happens in this modest occupation which is to translate. In the intellectual order there is no humbler task. However, it ends being exorbitant.”

Throughout the course of his learned essay, however, he gets more and more to the conclusion that to translate is not only possible, but that it also represents a very important task because thanks to it a “transmigration” is produced in the reader towards and into the foreign author he is reading, even while “making use of a quite irritating apparatus”, as he puts it.

In fact, we know that the translator’s job is a very complex occupation. To make a living we usually begin by translating commercial, legal, technical and scientific texts. Considering that these use a “sui generis” terminology that is more or less the same in most western languages, just as Ortega y Gasset also verifies in his essay, such translations are more feasible when the authors master the grammar of their own language, a matter, as translators also know, is really exceptional. However, all translators wish to enter into the literary field and, once they have tried their luck within this specialty, any other kind of work lacks interest for them. Although struggling with technical manuals, commercial documents and legal contracts will have to continue in order to earn our daily bread, even if they sometimes are interesting and we learn a lot from them, I do not know in our profession another more gratifying intellectual satisfaction as that of going back to a literary text, to learn about its author, to the effort of getting to the bottom of the deepest meaning of its words, and to clearly express it in our own language without lessening or distorting its original concepts.

In general it is held that a translator should only translate into his or her mother tongue. We speak about a “source language”, which is the foreign language from which we translate, and of a “target language”, which is our own language, into which we translate the foreign text. In fact, people who speak only their own language, especially when they have academic studies, usually master their mother tongue perfectly; they know its most hidden secrets, its variants and the different nuances one word may express according to the context it is used in. They acquire the foreign language in school or at the university, but usually do not achieve to actively master it, but can only understand it in a passive way that enables them to read specialized books they need to consult. People who study a foreign language thoroughly and get to master it in depth are very few, except in case they want to become foreign language teachers or …translators! These educate themselves as bilingual professionals, whose handling of their own language must be perfect. In addition they must have that profound knowledge of the “source language”. This is a “conditio sine qua non” for the translator because otherwise he would never be able to achieve a reliable version in his mother tongue.

I would like to cite Ortega y Gasset again. He says that the “theologist Schleiermacher, in his essay ‘On different methods of translating’ states that the version is a movement that can be tried in two opposite directions: either the author is brought to the reader’s language or the reader is taken to the author’s language.” According to Ortega y Gasset, “only when we pull the reader out of his linguistic habits and force him to move within those of the author, there exists real translation:” According to him only one translation of Plato’s work is really faithful, and that is precisely Schleiermacher’s, “because he deliberately renounced to produce a translation that is beautiful …”, but instead kept all elements that conform the platonic style to render a truthful version. Therefore, translation must be complete and as exact and faithful as possible, even if it sounds ugly.

Undoubtedly Ortega y Gasset’s statement that a translation must mainly be complete and correct, but necessarily ugly because it pretends to take the reader to the author’s language, remains more or less valid to this day when dealing with translations of ancient Greek and Roman authors, just as it is true for scientific and technical texts that have to be accurate, but don’t need to be beautiful. In translations of classical Greek and Roman authors, a geographical and temporal transmigration occurs because the reader must go far back in time and imagine the environment and culture of those peoples to understand their life and undertakings. They are very far removed from our present life and endeavors, which makes our comprehension somewhat difficult.

However, a translation must not necessarily be ugly from the literary point of view as it would have to be if done in the direction of the movement Schleiermacher wants to give it. On the contrary, it is possible to produce correct translations that also show great beauty in expressing the author’s ideas with utmost faithfulness and, at the same time, to adapt them in their form to the “target language”.

In the history of languages several examples of great translations exist that have been considered models of correctness in their respective language. One of these is Martin Luther’s Bible translation into German. Certainly there have been Bible translations earlier than his (after 1466 there already existed fourteen translations into High German and after 1480, three versions into Low German). But those translations were based on the Latin Vulgata and not on the original Hebrew and Greek texts. The latter were made accessible thanks to the truly unique philological feat of Erasmus of Rotterdam, who in1516 published the original Greek text of the New Testament. This text served Martin Luther as his source, and he began to translate some Psalms in 1517. In 1522 the first version of the New Testament was published in German; in 1523 the Old Testament was printed and finally, in 1534, after a great philological effort, the whole oeuvre was completed. Thus, Martin Luther rendered a work of great importance because, just to put it this way, he first had to create the language he needed for his German Bible.

He achieved to combine objective exactness with internal religious riches and popular speech. Luther wished most of all to be comprehensible for the common people. “It is necessary to ask the mother in her home, the children on the little neighbour streets, the common man on the market place and look at their mouth to see how they speak, and then interpret them based thereon. This is the way they can understand us and realize that one is speaking to them in German.” These are Luther’s own words (Sendbrief von Dolmetschen = Message on Interpreting, 1530). He liked to express himself in a very graphic way. On the one hand he was familiar with the religious language of mysticism and the rhythm of the humanistic style and, on the other, he found in the written and juridical language of the central-eastern German territory the phonetics that was most understandable in that time’s Germany, which was divided in multiple dialects. Anyway, his remarkable linguistic talent and his profound comprehension of the living spoken language that is born naturally, has a rich psychological content and directly reaches the heart of the reader, had an enormous influence on his work’s success. Thus, his intimate union with the people, his profound religious feeling, his instinct for the precise word and the suggestive strength of expression gave birth to this biblical language of Martin Luther’s that became the basis of modern High German.

The case of the Holy Scriptures’ English translation known as “King James Version” is very similar. Although it was not the first English book proper because that honour is reserved for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Bible translation was ordered in 1611 by King James to the best English scholars, who also translated directly from the Greek and Hebrew originals.

Another remarkable example of a correct translation and also a beautiful one from the literary point of view is the translation of Shakespeare’s works into German made by A.W. Schlegel and Ludwig Tieck during the nineteenth century. According to German experts, this version is even more beautiful than the English original.

When working on the translation of classical books, from which we are separated by one or more centuries in time, it is usual having to face some problems when adapting those works to our present time. Thus, for example, when translating Goethe’s Werther into Spanish, I had to solve a dilemma: Did I have to use in Spanish a language that would be closer to the times when the German story was written or was it more convenient to express its thoughts in a modern Spanish? After thinking it over thoroughly I decided to focus on the readers this book was intended to reach. In this particular case the issue was a budget edition, intended to be broadly spread and, therefore, a somewhat arcaic language could have been too difficult to understand for a large number of readers. Thus, I decided not to use a refined and very academical language, but instead a very correct modern language, but in no way colloquial.

As a conclusion we can see that translation is an art and a demanding profession, not only a banal occupation accessible to anybody who thinks he can translate just because he reads a foreign language fluently. It is not by chance that really good translators have been very few in the history of mankind.