Literary Translation

An engrossing conference on literary translation, confronting authors with their translators (Claude Delarue and Vivienne Menkes; A. S. Byatt and Jean-Louis Chevalier) was held at the London French Institute in January. The following conclusions possibly emerged:
  1.  Ambiguities are more common in fiction than in other texts, since the language is connotative.
  2.  French is restricted to a smaller vocabulary and a stricter, narrower word-order and grammar than English.
  3.  French is more philosophical and metaphysical (i.e. more abstract and opaque) than English.
  4.  The gulf between written and spoken language is greater in French than in English. (It is partially bridged in English by phrasal verbs.)
  5.  The English translator tends to break up long French sentences (particularly relative clauses).
  6.  The more explicit the sentence, the fewer the options (possible variations) for the translator.
  7.  Incomplete sentences, being connotative, are the hardest to translate.
  8.  All language is provisional. When author meets translator, both parties change their minds, have second thoughts, are not sure or forget what they originally meant. But the word in print gives the translation a certain permanence. (Je crois à l'imprimé. J-L. Chevalier). In any event this apparent fluctuation, which appears to challenge the status of translation (Sarah Marsh), is greatly restricted in its scope, and should not go beyond the deficiencies of the source language text, the grammatical and lexical gaps of the target language, and the tastes of the translator.


Peter Newmark (1993) Paragraphs on Translation, Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, pp. 149-150.

The Monolingual National Gallery

The titles and details of the fascinating paintings in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery are all in English. I think these should additionally be given in the language of the painter, throughout the Gallery, out of respect, to facilitate identification of titles in some cases, and to avoid the invidious dilemma of selecting a second world language. The (few) English paintings should have translations in French. This would require a rolling financial plan. I do not know how long the Gallery can continue to be free to visitors, but if a charge is made, I hope all who are in full-time education will be exempt.

Peter Newmark (1993) Paragraphs on Translation, Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, p. 121.

Two Museums

In the Mauritshuis at the Hague (den Haag or 's-Gravenhage (Du); la Haye (F); laHaya (S): l'Aia (I); der Haag (G)), the paintings are marked only with the names of their painters and the dates on their frames. The more important ones in each room can be identified by reference to cardboard-backed printed sheets in Dutch, English, German and French, which give their titles, small photographed reproductions and brief useful analyses, which are pleasingly closely translated from the Dutch. (An interesting 'howler' was the translation of deugdzamheid (Tugendhaftigkeit (G); Vertu (F)) as 'virtuosity' (from 'virtuoso') instead of 'virtue' or 'virtuousness'.)

I think this is a good translation service, superior to the usual monolingual and bilingual systems, which should be a thing of the past, but it is a pity that the remaining paintings cannot at least have their titles translated at the bottom of the sheets. (Some of the finest Dutch paintings are hung in this museum, such as the Vermeer 'Head of a young girl'.)

At the Stedelijk Museum of 19th and 20th Century art in Amsterdam, all paintings have brief details in Dutch and English only, which is regrettable, particularly in the case of the 'third country' paintings, but which is the way things are going in a country where shop-window signs are in English as often as in Dutch.

Peter Newmark (1993) Paragraphs on Translation, Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, p. 111.

More on French Economic Translation

1. Top heavy sentences. Sentences that begin with long noungroups, premodified and post-modified by groups or clauses, appear to be typical of some French academic styles:

Instituéi par un décret du 9 janvier 1967, ce système de réserves obligatoires, déjà utilisé dans de nombreux pays étrangers, visait à . ..

(Literal translation: 'instituted by a decree of January 9 1967, this system of obligatory reserves, already used in numerous foreign countries, aimed to . . .')

(Close translation: 'This system of obligatory reserves, which was already widely used abroad, was introduced by a decree of January 9 1967. Its purpose was to . . .')

I suggest that translators should consider recasting top-heavy sentences.

2. Long sentences. Instinctive 'sourcerers' and 'immediate' translators like myself always have to reconsider and be prepared to recast long sentences in non-authoritative texts.

3. Key-words. The repetition of key-words within a TL sentence can sometimes help to 'ease' and clarify the translation:

A l'origine, le montant de ces dépôts non-remunérés était calculé en appliquant au volume des seules exigibilités de chaque banque un pourcentage fixé par la Banque de France à l'intérieur de limites définies par le Conseil National du Credit.

Literal translation: 'Originally, the amount of these non-remunerated deposits was calculated by applying to each bank's liabilities alone a percentage fixed by the Bank of France within limits defined by the National Credit Council.'

Close translation: 'Originally the amount of these non-interest bearing deposits was calculated by applying a percentage of the volume of each bank's liabilities, a percentage which was fixed by the Banque de France within limits defined by the Conseil National du Credit'.

(Acknowledgements to Jenny Marty, one of the awfully increasing 15%, i.e. the students who are brighter than the teacher.)

By analogy, a key word can conveniently be referred to (in the same sentence) by a hold-all word:

Le chômage engendré par la substitution du capital au travail accélerée par la hausse des coûts salariaux.

Literal translation: 'Unemployment engendered by the substitution of capital for work accelerated by the rise in wage costs.'

Close translation: 'Unemployment created by the substitution of capital for labour, a process which is accelerated by the rise in the cost of labour (or 'wage costs').'

4. Words ending in -ble. Generally, adjectives ending in -ble, -bar, -bile, -bil, etc., are intertranslatable, though Slavonic languages only appear to have a dual purpose past participle plus -yi suffix. If the TL equivalent is not as common as its SL correspondent, it can be replaced by 'which can be plus past participle'. (Ressources mobilisables, 'resources that can be called on'.) When -ble words are used in one of the two possible senses, they may have to be clarified in the translation. ('Unreadable' as 'illegible' as illisible, or as pénible à lire. )

Compare also: l'alibi dune zone de libre-échange soluble dans le marché mondial. Close translation: 'the excuse for a free exchange zone which can merge with the world market'.

5. The force of abbreviation. Who would think that an 'inaugural' meant 'inaugural lecture' (leçon inaugurale or d'ouverture)? Similarly, effets are effets de commerce, 'bills' or 'bills of exchange', and un commerce is un fonds de commerce, a 'business' unless it is 'goodwill'.

Translators sometimes have to look out for compounds with missing components.

6. Selecting the basic component of meaning. Faced with la datefétiche assignée au commencement du grand marché, I think the best one can do is to review the components of fétiche, viz. religious, symbolical, magical, beneficial, charismatic, obsessional. Here perhaps 'the charismatic date assigned to the opening of the single market'.

7. Vogue words. I don't think translators should encourage the diffusion of vogue-words like espace. Thus for ce que l'on est convenu d'appeler l'espace social européen, which is slanted who has agreed? and in which languages? I would translate as 'what we may refer to as the social aspect of the European Community'. Note also that liberal has become a vogue-word in the sense of 'free-market' rather than 'conservative' or 'right wing' (compare Thody and Evans's invaluable Faux-Amis and Keywords):

L'emprise de l'idéologie dite libérale sur l'esprit public ira s'affaiblissant: 'the hold of free-market ideology on main stream opinion is about to weaken gradually'. (N.B., to my critics, this text is far from authoritative; if de Gaulle had written it, my translation would have been different.)


Peter Newmark (1993) Paragraphs on Translation, Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, pp. 85-86.

Limits of Literal Translation

This on the back of a postcard from Chiavari on the Italian riviera:

Lungomare e porto
Promenade along the sea and harbour
Promenade le long de la mer et port
Promenade den (sic) Meer entlang und Hafen.

'Along the sea' appears unnecessary in the English, and le long de la mer possibly in the French, as the Promenade des Anglais is not far away in Nice. In German, Promenade is perhaps not so common in this sense, so dem Meer entlang (alt. Strandpromenade) is justified. 'Esplanade' is available in English, but has a different meaning in French and German.

Peter Newmark (1993) Paragraphs on Translation, Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, p. 65. 

Art Galleries

It is time all reputable art galleries and museums added at least one translation to the titles of their exhibits. The Kroller Müller has English translations (the Van Goghs not always consistent), but the Prado is as monolingual as the National Gallery and the Musée d'Orsay. The Prado should finally determine the correct title of the only painting which (in the Prado, not in repro), in my experience, has the power, the impact and the humanity of the greatest music and literature, - the confrontation of the terrified animal humans with the faceless mass machine - Goya's El Tres de Mayo de 1808, en Madrid: los fusilamientos en la Montaña del Principe Pio. ('The executions shootings? - of the Third of May'.) Again, the Prado should issue a standard translation of the title. The painting is popularly referred to as Los Fusilamientos.

Peter Newmark (1993) Paragraphs on Translation, Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, p. 57.

Metaphors in Economic Texts

A Revue des Valeurs ('securities review') article in Le Monde opens: Après avoir soufflé trois semaines, le vent de la baisse, à l'image des bourrasques de l'hiver, s'est éloigné ces derniersjours des rives de la Bourse de Paris, non sans s'être retourné, comme à regret, pourfaire encore unpeu plier la cote.

As for all metaphors, there is a choice, in principle, of two translations:

1. 'In the last few days, the wind of price falls (financial decline?), (like the squalls of winter?), after blowing for three weeks, has moved away from the Paris Bourse, but has returned (rather reluctantly?) and slightly brought prices down again.

2. 'After a three weeks decline in prices, the market stabilised, but recently there has been a slight downturn.'

Although the metaphor is prolonged and may be considered picturesque, I think it is rather daft, so I prefer the second version.


Peter Newmark (1993) Paragraphs on Translation, Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, pp. 51-52.