Monthly Archives: November 2013

Literary Translation, a Labyrinthine Activity

If you are familiar with the Labyrinth as a spiritual growth tool (, you will understand why I use it here as a metaphor for literary translation. The Labyrinth leads the walkers to its centre through a number of turns. Translation also guides the translator through a series of turns from the source text to the target text. I will mention only three of these necessary turns here.

Of course, translation requires the knowledge of two languages, not only a verbal, but also, and most importantly, a writing knowledge, especially of the target language. For example, it is very common in verbal English to neglect the relative pronoun that : “I think I will go with you.” This would be qualified as informal English. Formal English, and in general written English, requires the pronoun: “I think that I will go with you.” The translator would not do well to write the target text in a verbal style, unless, evidently, the source text adopted that style. And even then, the translator has to know the specifics of both verbal and written styles to create a target text as faithful as possible to the source text.

Any writing is rooted in the culture it was created in. The same story written in England, let’s say, will not have the same tone as if it had been written in Australia, or Canada. They are all English speaking countries, but each has its specific culture that the writing will reflect. The translator needs to be sensitive to the characteristic cultural traits showing in the source text. And then the translator needs to be familiar with the culture of the language he is writing in. Consider French for example. The culture in France differs greatly from that in Canada or Haiti. A French text will certainly hint to those different cultures. The translator needs to catch those hints and let them show in the target text.

This is very close to culture but factoring in the time when the text was written. A language is not the same from one century to another, or even from one decade to another. Think of the various words that become very popular for a few years and then practically disappear from use: cool, awesome, bad (in the sense of good), etc. The translator needs to be knowledgeable of the specific meaning of those particular words at different times. Only then can the translator produce a target text respecting the special traits of the source text.