Paradoxes of translating

Translating is an intricate and enchanting task.  There are many paradoxes in this particularly complex human practice. Below is a brief note from Language, Culture and Translating, the masterpiece of Eugene Nida, the theoretician of translation, father of dynamic equivalence theory.

It is popularly assumed that close and literal translation equals faithfulness to the source text. But the fact is that literal renderings are often misleading. Because there are many discrepancies between meanings and structures of different languages. Interestingly, while some people, who are concerned with figurative language and complex poetic structures, insist that translating is impossible, more and more translations are done and done well.

There is some contention about the validity of paraphrase (or adaptation if you well) when it comes to translating. Some argue that translating is valid but paraphrase is wrong. In fact, all translating involves differing degrees of paraphrase. It is out of the question that one can successfully translate word for word or structure for structure. The truth is that languages do not differ essentially in what they can say, but in how they say it. Therefore, paraphrase is inevitable. The key point is to ensure the semantic legitimacy of the paraphrase.

Another paradox holds that stylistic editing should be proceeded by a somewhat literal rendering – first produce a literal translating of the source and then improve it stylistically. However, style is the hard core which must be built into the translation from the very beginning. It can be put in this way: A few errors in the correspondences of lexical meanings are more excusable than missing the spirit and aesthetic quality of the source.

Then there is a paradox about translators themselves. It is true that translating is a skill which can be taught and then mastered by considerable practice. However, exceptional translators are born rather than made. They need to have outstanding aptitudefor the creative use of language. Well, this can be categorized into “Nature VS. Nurture”.

As the descending and thriving of computers and Internet, some people find it paradoxical for the existence of human translators. Modern technologies help human a lot, but when it comes to creative contents, such as advertising brochures and lyric poetry, computer printouts are basically useless. Human translators will always be indispensable as long as the text is stylistically appealing and semantically complex – which carry the essential message that is worth communicating in the target language. Human brain is not only digital and analogic but also has an established system of values which gives it a componentially incalculable advantage over machines.

Another paradox of translating is that there is never a completely perfect translation. Both the language and culture are in the process of change. Furthermore, language is an open system with overlapping meanings and fuzzy boundaries. Mostly, the biggest problem in translating is not to find the right equivalent in the target language but to thoroughly understand the designative and associative meaning of the source text.

A further paradox of translating is the general assumption that a bilingual person equals a translator or interpreter. The truth is that knowing two languages is far from enough. It is essential to be familiar with the respective cultures. Besides, the capacity to write well is another important quality to become a good translator. As for becoming a competent interpreter, it is imperative to have a quick mind to organize andformulate a response.

There is also a paradox of the language itself. Language not only represents reality but also distorts it. Sunsetand sunrise are the perfect examples of the parallax between language and reality – we all know the sun doesn’t set or rise. Unfortunately, people often don’t recognize such parallax in language and even are accustomed to accept verbal formulation as being the absolute truth. 

In general, the paradoxes of translating are basically the paradoxes of language and of culture.

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