Can and should you ever give an accurate translation?

One of the most beautifully interesting and astoundingly annoying aspects of translation is its complexity: a single word can have a thousand meanings depending on your intentions with it, and a word in one language can morph into a sentence in another because there isn’t an equivalent of it which captures its essence so perfectly. It’s moments like this when you begin to wonder whether you can actually translate a text accurately – will you always lose some of its original spirit along with the original content? – or, perhaps more intriguingly, whether you should ever translate a text accurately. Things that make linguists go ‘hmmm’…

Tackling the lexical gap

Part of this magnificent intricacy is a thing which I brushed over above called a ‘lexical gap’ – when there is no word in a language to describe a certain concept. There are, of course, instances when you can leave the phrase in the original language because it is so well-known, like ‘déjà vu’ – if I said that to you, you would know exactly what I meant, but if I said to you ‘already seen’ you’d have almost no idea what I was talking about.
However, in other instances there can be one little word or phrase in a language which can hold so much meaning in so few letters, but when you try to translate it you find yourself grasping at single words which you will never reach or find. To overcome this problem, the concise meaning collected in this word is often drawn out through a long sentence, which, personally, I find chips away at the original beauty. There seems to be a way in which one word hits you harder than a sentence, and in losing this you have perhaps lost the original impact of the text. Other times you can do your best to describe the meaning of the word, but emerge from your endeavour fruitless because it really needs to be experienced to be understood, like with the Dutch word ‘hygge’ – the literal translation of the concept is close to ‘cosiness’, but really it is much more than that: think of a warm evening relaxing with your friends while enjoying great food and drink. You can probably see how this might be a problem when it comes to accurate translation.

Literal or liberal?

But sometimes the inhibitor of an accurate translation isn’t the content, but the translator. The question of whether you should give an accurate translation appears here, and the answer is that… it depends.
There are various pros and cons of the two extremes of translation: literal and liberal. Literal translation may seem like the way forward because you stay so close to the original meaning that you are almost hearing it from the original author, and it’s very nice and tidy if the two phrases are synonymous (in that the literal meaning of each word overlaps); but, these sorts of translations can result in it not really sounding like the target language, and if you translate word-for-word, you can miss all sorts of intricacies. For example, the Spanish idiom ‘arrimar el ascua a su sardina’ literally means ‘to put the coals next to your sardine’ – when translated this way it sounds ridiculous, but if you take coals from a fire and use them to cook your own fish as opposed to those of others, you’re being selfish, which is what it means.
Positive and negative connotations of words can also be misplaced: the Spanish word ‘llamativo’ (an adjective which comes from the verb ‘llamar’ – ‘to call’) has English equivalents like ‘showy’ and ‘garish’, but all of these imply a negative feeling. However, if you’ve placed this word in a marketing campaign for a product, you want it to have positive connotations, like the word ‘striking’ – literal translation ignores these differences.
So then there’s liberal translation, which, unlike literal, can accommodate word-play and bend to fit the conventions of the language, but it can sometimes stray so far from the original meaning that it is lost entirely.
The way most people seem to overcome this is by finding the middle ground, where you use your own judgement, creativity and the context to determine whether it is appropriate to be literal or liberal. How you translate it may also depend heavily on your intentions: if you are marketing, you want to phrase things in a way that is concise and appeals to the reader; if you are translating a fiction novel, you want to convey the imagery, the nature of characters and the beauty of the writing without making it sound clunky, so you may want to be more poetic; however if you are doing technical translation, you want to be as literal as possible without sounding clunky. You always need to look at the context, on both a small scale and a big one.

Considering cultural influence

But in the same way that you cannot translate a sentence without knowledge of its context, you cannot translate a passage without knowledge of its culture. The way people communicate varies hugely depending on which country you’re in, as I discovered first-hand when I went to Greece and was told that a single sharp nod of the head did not actually mean ‘yes’, but ‘no’, which made me re-examine all the encounters I’d had with Greek people that week…
You can even see the communication differences between cultures in just the way that people converse. Northern Europeans tend to like more distance between them and the other person when holding a conversation, whereas southern Europeans like to be up close and personal; so, when you watch a conversation between the two, you see the former unconsciously edging away with the latter continuing to advance.
The way this manifests itself in writing is through the language and phrasing used. For example, an Italian letter may begin with ‘gentilissimo/a’ which literally means ‘very kind sir/madam’ (or even ‘egregio/a’ – ‘illustrious’) and use all sorts of flowery language, but when you translate it into English you cannot provide its literal meaning unless you want some very bewildered (if slightly sneering) responses. Instead, you have to take the cultural context into account and recognise that ‘gentilissimo/a’ is really the Italian equivalent of the English ‘dear’ (which confusingly in Italian is literally ‘caro/a’ and only used with informal letters…). A few months ago I stayed with a lovely French family in Brittany for a couple of weeks, and I was trying to figure out a way of saying ‘would you mind if…?’ only to come to the conclusion that this sort of stepping-on-eggshells polite phrase does not exist in French in much the same way that queuing does not exist anywhere south of the UK – what is considered polite and appropriate is subjective. So in this way, translation may not necessarily convey the accurate meaning of the word but instead an accurate interpretation of the feeling behind it.

And that’s exactly what you have to consider when answering the question ‘can you ever give an accurate translation?’ – the meaning of ‘accurate’. If you mean accurate meanings of words, then the answer is probably not: there’s going to be an instance when you come across a word or phrase that just has to be changed for it to make sense in the target language. But if you mean accurately conveying the sentiment implied in the original text, then the likelihood is that you can, and it’s this that people try to achieve more often than the former. Whether you should also seems to balance on this unsteady meaning, as well as what your intentions entail, whether creative or technical. But while all these complexities can seem exasperating sometimes and appear to just generally make things more difficult, I feel that language, like life, would be dull without them, and in the end it is all the more incredible and fascinating because of them.


About the author: Heather Rothney is a 17 year old student at Truro High School for Girls where she currently studies French, Spanish, Latin and Classical Civilisation for AS Level. She is also learning Ancient Greek in her free time and is planning to apply at Oxford to study Classics and a Modern Language.

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