History of Translation Theory [Part 1]

History of Translation Theory [Part 1]

Discussions of the theory and practice of translation reach back into antiquity and show remarkable continuities. The distinction that had been drawn by the ancient Greeks between metaphrase ("literal" translation) and paraphrase was adopted by the English poet and translator John Dryden (1631-1700), who represented translation as the judicious blending of these two modes of phrasing when selecting, in the target language, "counterparts", or equivalents, for the expressions used in the source language:

When [words] appear... literally graceful, it were an injury to the author that they should be changed. But since... what is beautiful in one [language] is often barbarous, nay sometimes nonsense, in another, it would be unreasonable to limit a translator to the narrow compass of his author's words: 'tis enough if he choose out some expression which does not vitiate the sense.

Dryden cautioned, however, against the license of "imitation", i.e. of adapted translation: "When a painter copies from the life... he has no privilege to alter features and lineaments..."

This general formulation of the central concept of translation — equivalence — is probably as adequate as any that has been proposed ever since Cicero and Horace, in first-century-BCE Rome, famously and literally cautioned against translating "word for word" (verbum pro verbo).

Despite occasional theoretical diversities, the actual practice of translators has hardly changed since antiquity. Except for some extreme metaphrasers in the early Christian period and the Middle Ages, and adapters in various periods (especially pre-Classical Rome, and the 18th century), translators have generally shown prudent flexibility in seeking equivalents — "literal" where possible, paraphrastic where necessary — for the original meaning and other crucial "values" (e.g., style, verse form, concordance with musical accompaniment or, in films, with speech articulatory movements) as determined from context.

In general, translators have sought to preserve the context itself by reproducing the original order of sememes, and hence word order — when necessary, reinterpreting the actual grammatical structure. The grammatical differences between "fixed-word-order" languages (e.g., English, French, German) and "free-word-order" languages (e.g., Greek, Latin, Polish, Russian) have been no impediment in this regard.

When a target language has lacked terms that are found in a source language, translators have borrowed them, thereby enriching the target language. Thanks in great measure to the exchange of calques and loanwords between languages, and to their importation from other languages, there are few concepts that are "untranslatable" among the modern European languages.
Samuel Johnson

In general, the greater the contact and exchange that has existed between two languages, or between both and a third one, the greater is the ratio of metaphrase to paraphrase that may be used in translating between them. However, due to shifts in "ecological niches" of words, a common etymology is sometimes misleading as a guide to current meaning in one or the other language. The English actual, for example, should not be confused with the cognate French actuel (meaning "present", "current") or the Polish aktualny ("present", "current") or Russian актуальный ("urgent, topical").

To read part 2 of this series please click here.

Tags: History of Translation Theory, Translation Theories, History of Translation, Translation History, Translator Training.