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Degrees of Translation

One can divide translation topics into five broad categories:

  1. Transcultural translation.
  2. Information translation, or translation of facts.
  3. Social translation, or translation of social science texts.
  4. Literary translation.
  5. Poetry translation.

In respect of method, as I shall attempt to show, one category begins where the previous one finishes, and there is a gradation from 'detached' to 'close'.

1. In transcultural texts (which include dramatic adaptations, much publicity and propaganda, public notices) where equivalent effect is envisaged, source language cultural expressions and discourses are replaced by target language cultural expressions and discourses.

2. For information texts, the facts are all-important, which suggests that the words can be juggled around at the translator's will. However, if the text is well written, the descriptive and qualitative words that modify the facts, and the syntactical structures and word-order that indicate priorities and emphasis have to be respected. A sentence such as Grâce à cet ordinateur et son logiciel personnalisé, les médecins disposent désormais du premier fichier médical confidentiel could be translated as 'Doctors now have their first confidential medical files due to computers and personalised software' or 'The first confidential medical files are at every doctor's disposal thanks to computers and personalised software' but it would be much better left alone as 'Thanks (also) to the computer and personalised software, doctors now have their first confidential medical files'. If on the other hand, an information text is poorly written, the translator has to rewrite and restructure it. Mon propos ici vise à récuperer la parole qu'ils ontperdue . . . 'I intend here to redress their inability to express their views'. (Illustrations adapted from Beverly Adab's Annotated Texts for Translation: French-English.)

3. For social texts, where I include texts ranging from texts close to the sciences to texts about the arts and the humanities, psychological and cultural nuances cannot be regarded as less important than the facts. These are the texts which require, as their aim, a full denotative translation. A scrap example would be: L'apparence physique joue un rôle essentiel pour guider l'opinion que nous avons des individus que nous ne connaissons pas. Tous les racismes se nourissent d'ailleurs de ces formes primaires d'identification. 'Physical appearance has an essential role in guiding the opinion we have of individuals we don't know. Besides, all forms of racism feed on these simplistic means of identification.'

4. Literary translation. The translation is based on denotations, but these are dominated by connotations where they appear. There are other new important factors: the allegorical and symbolic nature of the language; sound (in general terms); personal and emotional language, the shapes of sentences and paragraphs; concision. Scrap example: Je désirais fortement de toucher terre et n 'y parvenais point, faute de savoir où la terre se trouvait. 'I longed to touch the earth and could not do so, because I did not know where the earth was'. (Le Défi, P. Sollers, translated by Jean Stewart. Penguin Short Stories, pp. 216-7).

Note that in literary and dramatic criticism texts, the full literary vocabulary may appear, but the other 'new' factors in literary texts such as sound, may be missing.

5. Poetry translation. Poetry calls on all the resources of language, and, in parallel, these become the factors that the translator of a poem has to consider and hierarchize or prioritize differently for each poem, depending on its specific nature. Thus metre, rhyme, rhythm, assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia (all) relate to meaning, sound and form. The struggle to reconcile the semantic with the aesthetic (in a natural style as well as in sound and form) is at its most intense and can sometimes only be maintained for single lines.

Un brouillard sale etjaune inondait tout l'espace
Je suivais roidissant mes nerfs comme un héros
Et discutant avec mon âme déjà lasse
Le faubourg secoué par les lourds tombereaux.


Foul yellow mist had filled the whole of space:
Steeling my nerves to play a hero's part,
I coaxed my weary soul with me to pace
The backstreets shaken by each lumbering cart.

(Les sept vieillards. Charles Baudelaire; translated by Roy Campbell).

Note the brilliant correspondences here, also in sound: roidissant, 'steeling'; mon âme déjà lasse, 'my weary soul'; tombereaux, lumbering; cf.fourmillante cité, 'ant-seething city' in the first stanza. The poem is a wonderful translation, but close only by the standards of poetry translation.

Ironically, information texts, which least need close translation, can be translated most closely, particularly if they are not tied to the culture of the original text; poetry, which is so packed with meaning at the level of syntax, words and sound that it requires the closest translation, is in fact the loosest, usually owing to the conflicting demands of rhyme, metre and sense. (Relatively, it is easier to translate 'free' verse such as Celan's, but in comparison with prose literary translation, this too is more difficult.)


Peter Newmark (1998) More Paragraphs On Translation, Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, pp. 137-139.