Some Images and Analogies about Translation
Become a member of TranslationDirectory.com at just
$8 per month (paid per year)
Published in Volume V
of the ATA Scholarly Series, 1991
A piece attempting to explain what translators
in terms of well-known devices and processes.
Over several decades I have sometimes reflected
that writings about the theory of translation can
be too theoretical. By which, I probably mean I
have found them too wordy, too complex, too unreadable
for my taste. Others may choose to differ, but it
has always seemed to me that writing about language
or linguistics or translation ought by its very
nature to qualify as an absolute model of good and
clear writing. If this is not the case, then what
after all is our work about? And so, over these
same decades, I have also sought out every clear
and concrete image or analogy I thought might possibly
help me to explain what translation is to those
in other language-related fields, to those teaching
or learning translation, and to those totally outside
The result has been a collection of my own notions
which, if they do not perfectly explain what translation
is and does, at least may point in the right direction.
They range from simple comparisons with rather homespun
processes to a fairly detailed comparison with a
major art form and finally an exotic assertion that
translation may not exist at all except as an illusion.
Here are some of these notions, more or less in
the order I acquired them and more or less in the
order of their complexity. Where possible or appropriate,
I have suggested some empirical steps for verifying
the validity of these ideas.
SIMPLE IMAGES: Meshes, Grids and Gauges
I started with the somewhat far-fetched
idea of the translator as a fisherman casting a net.
Depending on the mesh of this net, both the size and
shape of its openings, which I hoped might resemble
the resolving power of the translator's mind and his
experience with language, s/he would either successfully
"land" the fish in that stretch of water
or would fail to catch those very same fish, which
would then swim safely away, just as the true meaning
of a phrase can sometimes elude the unwary translator.
This idea began to expand in my mind until it became
an entire fishing fleet casting giant nets across
a broad expanse of ocean for days on end until all
the crewmen imagined they had fished that whole area
out. Then, lo and behold, another fishing fleet hove
to, threw out differently meshed nets, and captured
an equal number of lively semantic fish, quite different
in size and shape. The comparison between the work
of the merely mechanical translator who works by rote
and a more accomplished colleague who attempts to
reproduce the true form of the original need not be
belabored. For those who might prefer less blood-thirsty
pursuits, a version of the analogy that used fruit-sorting
machinery, once again differentiating between both
size and shape, also crossed my mind.
My next foray into image-capturing led me to wonder
if there could be other mechanical devices which on
one level or another emulated translation tasks and
problems. Almost immediately a rather close analogy
hit me, one that even reproduces the potential for
international misunderstanding translators seek to
resolve, namely the differences in gauging and tooling
which divide American auto mechanics from their European
colleagues. Due to arguments over metric and US measurements,
there is really no way precise dimensions in one system
can be replicated in the other, surely a close mirror
of what happens with translation. I also began to
wonder how one might "translate" technical
processes from the year 1900, based on their technology,
into modern technological terms, something like what
translators of nearly any procedure from an older
era are regularly called upon to do, whether or not
the material is explicitly technical.
Time measuring devices also caught my eye, and for
a while I imagined I had embarked on a journey into
science fiction as I tried to speculate on how one
might "translate" time on Mars or on the
planet of some distant star into "plain old"
Earth time. Then I realized this line of inquiry might
not be fictional at alluntil quite recently,
the most common Chinese measure of moderate duration
was not the week but the "chu," an Ur-decimal
period lasting ten days. It is hard enough for scholars
to match the dates for Chinese years with western
ones, since the Chinese almost invariably refer to
an event by the year of a certain Emperor's reign,
and their lunar calendar usually begins in February.
But translating the significance of the "chu"
into a Westerner's sense of time boggles the imagination.
Since translators can't help being curious about matters
that bother few others, I also found myself going
the other way and wondering how one might translate
such film titles as Saturday Night Fever, Sunday,
Bloody Sunday, or Thursday's Child into
classical chu-conscious Chinese.
Devices for measuring the weather next attracted me,
and I quickly recalled that we Westerners already
have at least three different standards by which to
measure temperature. Although we have all learned
(and just as frequently forgotten) the five-ninths
and nine-fifths plus-or-minus 32 formula for going
between Centigrade and Fahrenheit, not all conversions
among these scales are equally easy, and errors of
the type translators might recognize can occur easily
enough. But as someone born into a family of map publishers,
I had now moved on to what at that time seemed my
richest and most natural image. Long ago during his
semanticist days, S.I. Hayakawa had warned his followers,
as had Ogden and Richards before him, "not to
confuse the map with the terrain."1
This view held that language should be seen essentially
as a map, continually to be verified by looking at
the actual landscape about us. But what did this mean
for us as translators, in some ways almost doomed
to look only at the map and recreate it as another
I was naturally also seized by the realization that
all purportedly three-dimensional maps of the world
are necessarily a lie, based upon this or that two-dimensional
projection system ensuring greater or lesser distortion
of various parts of the planet. Only a slightly flattened
globe can present the earth close to its actual shape,
but even a globe has the defect that no one can look
at it all at once, as one side will be hidden. Even
if one stoops to the dodge of a mirror, land-forms
and lettering will be reversed, but even if this were
solved, there would still be problems of cognitive
vision and view-merging inside the brain.
The richness of these images captured me for some
time, and I recall reflecting that the translator
too must look at the terrain as well as the map if
he is to provide a truly accurate translation, though
often his first professional duty may require him
to replicate the map, regardless of the shape of the
terrain. To do otherwise would be to set himself up
as a critic and adversary of the text before him,
as someone who knew better than the original author.
In the long run this would never do, and he would
quickly gain a reputation, regardless of his loyalty
to what he considered the truth, for producing inaccurate
translations Translators are nonetheless placed frequently
in such "double-bind" situations, where
they must choose between loyalty to the original and
loyalty to reality and/or the reader's common sense.
There are no iron-clad rules in such cases, and each
translator must improvise appropriate case-by-case
Further levels of richness and potential confusion
were added when I reflected that a translation might
not even be analogous to a map but rather to the combined
set of grid markings on a map. From this viewpoint,
it is the original author who provides the map, his
or her version of the terrain with its own special
grid marks. It is the translator's task to replicate
this map as best as possible using what would almost
inevitably turn out to be other grid marks, based
on a different standard of grid-setting.
INTERMEDIATE IMAGES & ANALOGIES:
Puzzles, Construction Toys, and Animal Anatomy
Although I am perhaps assigning a logical sequence
to my thought progression which it never possessed,
it would have been an easy step for me to have moved
from maps with their grids to picture puzzles of maps
and their grids, if only because jigsaw puzzles showing
maps have long been with us. But as soon as I thought
of translation in terms of jigsaw puzzles, I realized
the map image was no longer really necessary. It is
perfectly possible to envision the view of life enjoyed
by a particular age or culture as a single picture
of a specific size, shape and subject matter, cut
up into puzzle pieces with a specific style of jig-cutting.
Thus, one can imagine one such picture for French
culture, another for the Spanish world view, a third
for the Chinese, still others for Japan, Mexico, Britain,
the US, etc., etc. But each of these pictures of life
will be slightly different, mirroring different views
of what is felt to be important by different peoples.
Some may well emphasize aspects that others minimize
or ignore. The pictures may even differ slightly in
size or shape. And the style of jig-cuttinghere
let's think of grammar, syntax and the likemay
be astoundingly different. If you come from a culture
where the jig-cutting is similar, it will be relatively
easy to adjust to a new language and culture. If not,
the amount of work may be prodigious, like suddenly
being called upon to assemble a jigsaw puzzle where
all the pieces have multiple straight edges or subtle
sinuous curves. And here already the reader will have
spied my analogy, that when one is asked to translate
a sequence of words from one puzzle to another, it
is essentially like dealing with subsets of the two
cultures, with all the difficulties this may entail.
It is like being asked to transpose the shapes cut
in one style into shapes cut quite differently. If
the strictest technical standards are to be applied,
it is an impossible task. It simply cannot be done
without permitting some "give" in the requirements.
I think my next notion may have arisen earlier, but
I would like to assume I was logical and now moved
from two-dimensional models to three-dimensional ones.
Regardless of the order, my next analogy is construction
toysat some point it occurred to me that translating
from one language to another was like being given
a structuresay a Ferris wheel, a parachute jump,
or whateverbuilt with an erector set and being
asked to recreate it using a Lego set. Or, worse,
a tinker toy. Or vice versa in whatever order. The
reader is free to substitute all existing or imaginable
construction toys. Here too it's important to realize
that the Ferris wheel or whatever was not a real Ferris
wheel but a toy replica of onethus, the translator
was being asked to create a replica of a replica,
using a quite different medium.
This construction toy image has the advantage, aside
from being familiar to many people, of showing the
folly of some would-be critics of translation. Once
one has finished the Lego set replica of the erector
set original, it takes no particular wit to point
out that the plastic copy lacks the "vibrancy,"
"strength," and "purity" of the
metal original. Someone who did not know which came
first might also castigate the metal for lacking the
plastic's "softness," "flexibility"
and "color." Anyone can see that the two
versions are as different as can be, but almost none
of this differencebarring acts of sheer incompetencecan
be the actual work of the "translator."
Almost all of it can be assigned to the differences
between the two media.
It is relevant here to note that there exists an entire
school of translation criticism, which translators
have come to refer to as the "Professor Horrendo"
approach2. Professor Horrendo never catches
on that what he is observing is the effect of different
media, not "mistakes" in translation, and
he rattles on forever about how inadequate the plastic
is to represent the metal or vice versa. Horrendo
also never ceases to congratulate himself that such
insights prove how much he knows about language and
translation, and his work may be found anywhere from
literary sections of newspapers to major scholarly
It may begin to be possible to believe that Americans
have truly learned something about foreign languages
when Prof. Horrendo comes to the end of his reign.
Several decades ago the French held workshops where
skilled French and English authors translated and
retranslated each other's work back and forth many
times between the two languages3. The difference
between "original" and "translation"
in these circumstances soon became truly academic.
Perhaps all consenting Professor Horrendos should
in the meantime be invited to repeat performances
of these workshops to see whether they can really
detect such differences.
My next example comes from the domain of animal anatomy
and was once published as a small part of an article
on the difficulties of translating Chinese medical
texts into English. It relates to a real episode in
my life when my wife and I were living in Italy. At
that time she did most of the shopping to help her
learn Italian, and she repeatedly came home complaining
that she couldn't find certain cuts of meat at the
butchers4. I told her that if she concentrated
on speaking better Italian, she would certainly find
them. But she still couldn't locate the cuts of meat
she wanted. Finally, I was forced to abandon my male
presumption of bella figura and go with her
to the market place, where I patiently explained in
Italian what it was we were looking for to a succession
of butchers. But even together we were still unsuccessful.
What we wanted actually turned out not to exist. The
Italians cut their meat differently than we do. There
are not only different names for the cuts but actually
different cuts as well. The whole system is built
around itthey feed and breed their cattle differently
so as to produce these cuts. So one might argue that
the Italian steer itself is differenttechnically
and anatomically, it might just qualify as a different
This notion of "cutting the animal differently"or
of "slicing reality differently"can
turn out to be a factor in many translation problems.
It is altogether possible for whole sets of distinctions,
indeed whole ranges of psychological or even tangible
realitiesto vanish when going from one language
to another. Those which do not vanish may still be
mangled beyond recognition. It is this factor which
poses one of the greatest challenges even for experienced
translators. It may also may place an insurmountable
stumbling block in the path of computer translation
projects, which are based on the assumption that simple
conversions of obvious meanings between languages
are readily possible.
Just as the idea the earth might be round went against
all common sense for the contemporaries of Columbus,
so the notion that whole ranges of knowledge may be
inexpressible as one moves from one language to another
seems equally outrageous to many today. Such a notion
that Language A cannot easily replicate what is said
in Language B simply goes against what many regard
as "common sense." Something like this question
lies at the root of the long-continuing and never
fully resolved debate among linguists concerning the
so-called Whorf-Sapir hypothesis.
And yet the truth of such a notion is irrevocably
and demonstrably true in the very face of all reluctance
to believe it can be. In the case of Chinese medicine,
for instance, the difference involved could not possibly
be more striking. The relationships concerning illness
the Chinese observe and measure are not the ones we
observe, the measurements and benchmarks are not the
same as ours, their interpretation of such benchmarks
are quite different from ours, the diagnosis these
suggest is not the same, and the treatment and interpretation
of a patient's progress can also radically diverge
from our own. Yet the whole process is perfectly logical
and consistent in its own terms. No one knows how
many such instances of large and small discontinuities
between languages and their meanings may exist, even
among more closely related tongues like French and
English, and no one can judge how great an effect
such discontinuities may have on larger relationships
between the two societies or even on ordinary conversations
between their all too human representatives.
ADVANCED ANALOGIES: Music and Stage Illusion
My next insight, analogy, claimcall
it what you willis far more ambitious and also
considerably more argumentative. It places translators
on a lofty, elevated plane, side by side with practitioners
of one of the highest art forms. Those who are repelled
by the arrogance of such an assertion will be pleased
to learn that translators will be restored to their
humble lot in my final analogy. The present one, however,
starts off tranquilly enough with a calm and commonplace
statement that the primary professionals of music
are composers, performers and those musicians who
improvise. It continues somewhat Socratically by pointing
out that the primary professionals in literature are
writers, novelists, and poets. Similar reasoning is
then extended to the fields of dance, theatre and
film, whose primary professionals are identified as
dancers, playwrights, and film-makers. It is also
acknowledged that all these fields have secondary
and tertiary professionals: teachers, critics, historians,
theoreticians, and those who promote various forms
But who, the analogy continues, can possibly be the
primary professionals in the field of foreign languages?
At this point I raise the stakes somewhat by suggesting
that these primary foreign language professionals
are none other than translators and interpreters.
In a very real sense, I assert, translating is advanced
language learning, the art form connected with foreign
languages. Yet virtually our entire language learning
apparatus is in the hands of what in other fields
would be considered secondary and tertiary specialists,
the critics, the annotators, the historians, the appreciators,
and of course foreign language teachers on an elementary
level. If this comparison turned out to be even partially
apt, then it would represent a significant anomaly
deserving some real attention.
But what of the obvious objection likely to be directed
at such a claim? It is not hard to overhear: how can
anyone possibly compare translators with musicians?
After all, everyone knows that musicians, painters,
writers, dancers are true artists. They do creative
work, while translators, as is well known, are merely
copiers, putterers, and hacks.
But it is this anticipated response, both in its content
and its passion, which truly proves the validity of
my argument, I would hold. In a sense anyone who voices
this response proves thereby that s/he has no deep
knowledge/experience of translation. No one who has
truly translated or even truly communicated in a single
language can deny the real element of art involved
in the act of translation.
This is why I believe that translators can be best
compared to musicians5, in their three
stated varieties: composers, performers, and improvisors
(and, as we shall see, even a fourth kind as well).
Translators and interpreters can be called upon to
play not just one of these roles but all three in
their work, even while translating a single document
(some would say even in a single sentence).
Most outsiders to the profession can at present only
imagine the translator as a musician in the role of
percussionist, someone who has to keep to a rather
strict rhythm & is only noticed when s/he fails.
And a great deal of translation can indeed resemble
this, but the beat is far more subtle than many can
hear, and at any moment the translator may need to
alter this beat, play another instrument altogether,
launch into a prolonged improvisation, or even recompose
a large part of a piece from scratch. In the case
of texts from ancient eras or divergent cultures,
the translator may even be called upon to play a fourth
role, that of historical restorer, of musical archeologist.
Translation is a far more demanding profession than
many are capable of envisioning, which of course determines
many of the profession's problems and challenges.
Just in case we have accorded translators too much
honor, my final analogy, though in a sense even more
ambitious, will now pluck them from the heights where
we have placed them and hurl them down into an abyss
of delusion and sheer nothingness, or at least bring
them closer to the humility and anonymity they are
largely accustomed to.
In this close to final section we will present an
extremely cogent case that all of translation is ultimately
a stage illusion, a conjuror's trick, a shared mass
hallucination without any true basis in acceptable
reality at all. It is held together, and just barely
at that, by the Will To Believe of the Duped. For
all practical purposes translation simply does not
exist. The seeming reality of its existence is sustained
by four totally deceptive elements.
The first of these is the conjuror himself, namely
the translator, who is responsible for the outward
form of the deception. But he is merely one individual,
who happens to stand on the stage and is hence the
most obvious of the conspirators. The stage props,
without which the translator-conjuror is close to
powerless, are provided by the dictionaries and other
source books in the field together with the linguistic
theories justifying the feasibility of translation
to begin with.
The proscenium arch, along with the entire theatrical
architecture underlying the conjuror's tricks, can
readily be likened to the totality of shared cultural
history between the two peoples and cultures being
subjected to such alleged acts of translation. And
the audience for this stage illusion, those desperately
ready and willing to witness the fulfillment of this
fraudulent wonder, are none other than those (often
ourselves) already convinced that such a miracle can
and must take place, those who share a specialized
interest in the subject being "translated"
and are prepared to swear to the success of the conjuring
trick even when it hasby any objective standardsfailed.
The proofs that this outwardly heretical view of translation
is in fact both accurate and ultimately correct are
not hard to come by. There are at least four of them.
For the truth of the matter is this, that if any of
the four preceding elements I have named is either
absent or substandard in any way, the illusion fails
to take place at all or is far less effective. To
spell this out in detail, if any of these four factors
is missing or poorly handled, for instance:
1) If an incompetentread amateur,
inexperienced, overworked, etc.translator
(conjuror/magician) is involved.....
2) If the dictionaries and source books (stage props)
are inadequate or missing.....
3) If the shared cultural history between the two
peoples (the proscenium arch and/or theatre architecture)
is slight or not of long duration (as is the case,
say, between the US & most Asian peoples).....
4) If the audience has little or no previous shared
experience in the process of translation between
the two languages/systems of beliefs.....
In all of these cases the act of translation
and/or the conjuror's trick, stage illusion, mass
hallucination, etc., will simply fail to take place
or will be demonstrably less effective, so unsuccessful
in fact that people will not understand what is happening
and leave the theatre in droves. Or perhaps worse,
if the trick is just barely effective enough to succeed,
people may leave the theatre imagining they have seen
a clever performance, when in fact they have not.
I do not think we need extend this analogy any further.
As outlandish as it may sound at first hearing, we
all know of instances where either the conjuror or
his props, the theatre layout or the audience itself
have been less than less than adequate, so that the
performance came close to being a total flop. What
further proof do we need that we are dealing with
a trick than when the trick fails to work? By all
of these proofs, we have demonstrated what until now
was apparently unprovable, that translation does not
The philosopher David Hume insisted that "the
identity which we ascribe to the mind of man is only
a fictitious one" and reportedly enjoyed believing
that one morning the sun might fail to rise. But nonetheless
even David Hume was obliged to get up and eat his
breakfast each morning. And so we too as translators,
despite my claims that our field may not exist, must
also arise each day, eat our morning meal, and get
to work. I hope these images and analogies can help
us to explain our work a bit better to ourselves and
to others. If so, then I have succeeded in explaining
a difficult subject in somewhat more accessible language
than is sometimes used, which is of course at least
one part of what translation is all about.
1. S.I. Hayakawa: Language in Thought and Action,
pp. 30-32, Harcourt, Brace and World, 1962, (and in
various previous editions as Language in Action).
His actual terms were "language" and "territory;"
a similar idea, using different terminology, radiates
through the works of his semanticist predecessors
The Meaning of Meaning by C.K. Ogden &
I.A. Richards (1923) and an extremely influential
cult book among intellectuals in its time, Science
and Sanity by Alfred Korzybski (International
Non-Aristotelian Library, 1933). A close colleague
further reminds me that in this image the map-maker
is in fact a part of the map and also a part of the
reality being mapped, thus according both writers
and translators a certain degree of responsibility
for the shape of either.
2. Gregory Rabassa assigns the beginnings of Professor
Horrendo to Sarah Blackburn, an editor at Pantheon
Books, and enlarges as follows: "...what I really
mean is what Alastair Reid calls `The Translation
Police,' who go after the details, missing the forest
for the trees, looking for wounds they can stick their
fingers into. Such people often don't have an adequate
knowledge of the original language or are excessively
pedantic, so their critiques are really a waste of
space." (An interview published in Language
Monthly, September, 1984, pp. 16-18.)
3. Such a workshop is described in La Parisienne
(avril 1953, pp. 498-507) and summarized in
Vinay & Darbelnet: Stylistique Comparee du
Francais et de l'Anglais, pp. 195-97, Paris,
4. This paragraph appeared in a different form in
The Challenge of Translating Chinese Medicine,
a discussion between Sandra Celt and the author, Language
Monthly, April, 1987..
5. A different version of the "music analogy"
was presented as a brief section of an ATA panel session,
Gross, Alex: The Challenge of Translating Chinese
Medicine, Language Monthly, April,
Hayakawa, S.I.: Language in Thought and Action,
New York, Harcourt, Brace and World, 1962 (Entitled
Language in Action in previous editions.)
Korzybski, Alfred: Science and Sanity, Lakeville,
Conn.: International Non-Aristotelian Library, 1933.
Ogden, C.K. and Richards, I.A: The Meaning of Meaning,
New York, Harcourt and Brace, 1923.
Vinay, Jean-Paul and Darbelnay, Jean: Stylistique
Comparee du Francais et de l'Anglais, Paris, Didier,
1963, pp, 195-97.
Submit your article!
Read more articles - free!
Read sense of life articles!
this article to your colleague!
more translation jobs? Click here!
agencies are welcome to register here - Free!
translators are welcome to register here - Free!
Please see some ads as well as other content from TranslationDirectory.com: