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Aesthetics & Translation

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1. Introduction

What is translation? As a most nontechnical definition the Webster's New World dictionary define" to translate" as follows:

1 to move from one place or condition to another; transfer; specif., a) Theol. to convey directly to heaven without death b) Eccles. to transfer (a bishop) from one see to another; also, to move (a saint's body or remains) from one place of interment to another

2 to put into the words of a different language

3 to change into another medium or form !to translate ideas into action"

4 to put into different words; rephrase or paraphrase in explanation

5 to transmit (a telegraphic message) again by means of an automatic relay


1. The emphasis is mine;

2. For convenience the discussion in this article is limited to written texts and excludes spoken ones.]

According to this most simple definition, translation is putting (the words of a certain text (written or spoken) into the words of a different language.

But here, as with anything else, comes the issue of QUALITY. Among many existing translations, which are "of high quality" and which are "of poor quality"? In other words, what are the differences between translations which once read are said to be "good" and the ones which are not said to be so? Is it a matter of enjoyability? Literarl beauty? Comprehensibility?

Clearly, we are talking about an evaluation. And any evaluation must be based on some certain well-defined and clear-cut criteria. The scope of such an evaluation is extremely vast because first, there are numerous languages; second, there are several various literary genres and different literary styles; third, it vitally counts that who has written the text and for whom it has been written. And so on and so forth.

Here, however, we are not going to deal with the scope of such an evaluation; instead its criteria are important for us. We are not even intending to elaborate on the criteria as a whole or its various aspects. What we are going to explore here is the relationship between aesthetics and translation. In other words, we want to look into the problem whether aesthetics is by itself a criterion of a quality translation.

2. The problem

What is aesthetics? It is, after all, a basic element of our discussion. The Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines it as follows:

1 : plural but singular or plural in construction: a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste and with the creation and appreciation of beauty

2 : a particular theory or conception of beauty or art : a particular taste for or approach to what is pleasing to the senses and especially sight ²modernist aesthetics³ ²staging new ballets which reflected the aesthetic of the new nation— Mary Clarke & Clement Crisp³

3plural: a pleasing appearance or effect: beauty ²appreciated the aesthetics of the gemstones³

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines it in this way:

"also spelled esthetics, the philosophical study of beauty and taste. To define its subject matter more precisely is, however, immensely difficult. Indeed, it could be said that self-definition has been the major task of modern aesthetics. We are acquainted with an interesting and puzzling realm of experience: the realm of the beautiful, the ugly, the sublime, and the elegant; of taste, criticism, and fine art; and of contemplation, sensuous enjoyment, and charm. In all these phenomena we believe that similar principles are operative and that similar interests are engaged. If we are mistaken in this impression, we will have to dismiss such ideas as beauty and taste as having only peripheral philosophical interest. Alternatively, if our impression is correct and philosophy corroborates it, we will have discovered the basis for a philosophical aesthetics."

We are translators and not philosophers or even linguists; hence we have to apply whatever we learn from Philosophy and/or even Linguistics to solve our own problems i.e. to the TRANSLATION THEORY.

Various translation theorists have defined "ideal" translation differently. I, myself, do not remember to have come across with the following approach in any relevant text:

Had the writer of a text, had a native - like competency in the target language, (i.e. had he/she been a perfect bilingual) and had he/she wanted to rewrite the text he/she had previously written in the source language, in the target language, the target text (TT) he/she would have written, would be the ideal manifestation of the "BEST CONCIEVEABLE (at least, in principle) TRANSLATION" of the original text. (Of course, the effect of interfering factors such as forgetfulness, intoxication, etc. are assumed to be negligible) Each and every assessment and/or evaluation of any given translation should be based on this precious (however, not too far) imaginary model. Any translator should try to translate as similarly as possible to this ideal model. And his/her translation is as "good" as it is similar thereto.

The appearance of what was just said sounded as if it were rather something written about the ideal "translator" and not the ideal "translation".

 The Encyclopedia Britannica, defines "language" as follows:

A system of conventional spoken or written symbols by means of which human beings, as members of a social group and participants in its culture, COMMUNICATE. (Emphasis is mine)

 Combining this definition with what goes on in the mind of the writer, we get to the conclusion that the best or the ideal translation is the one which communicates the intentions of the original writer in the best possible way. I have boldfaced the word "intentions" because it needs elaboration more than any other word in the above definition. Borrowing some terms from linguistics (or rather classical linguistics), I define the word as all the semantic, syntactic and pragmatic aspects of the discourse. And I assume these to be well-defined. Now, it goes without saying that it is not always possible to maintain all of these aspects while transferring the meaning from L1 to L2. This problem exists even in the case where the writer and the translator are the same. Most presumably, however, he/she will do his/her best to work out a compromise between them, his/her goal always being to express the same intentions in the target language. Apart from his/her knowledge of the two languages (which we assume to be native-like), whether he/she succeeds or not to re-express himself/herself depends, for the most part, on his/her aesthetic discernment and mental agility.

We can easily approach the criteria for an aesthetic literary work; but what about a translation? Is a high quality translation (as defined above) always an aesthetic literary work? Let's take the translation of a poem, for instance. Shall the translation necessarily be ironical, moving, expressive, balanced, and harmonious to be assumed as "of high quality"? First, we should make a very important assumption: the original text (poem) possesses such qualities. That is because sometimes it lacks them, in such a case it sounds redundant to talk about the necessity of lack of the qualities in the translation. (Although even in such cases, some translators render the original text into a highly aesthetic one) Second, is transferring such qualities linguistically possible?

No matter what approach to aesthetics we take, no matter if we believe in the translatability of poetry or not, we do agree that artistic beauty is a product of human soul, (or as some put it "black box"; or mind) of which-as The Holy Qoran puts: you don't know much about.

In the case of our imaginary writer & translator (who were the same) this soul (the producer of artistic beauty) is the same, too. So, the aesthetic value of both source text and target text should be the same. However, here another crucially important factor comes into, i.e. the aesthetic capacity of the two languages, which are almost never equal. That is exactly why they say that poetry is impossible to translate, although no theoretical proof has ever been given for this impossibility.

Anyway, in our imaginary case, the aesthetic level of both texts (ST & TT) will be aesthetically as close to each other as possible.

3. Conclusion

Aesthetics by itself is not a criterion of a good translation. Instead, it is the equality of aesthetic levels in both the ST & TT that counts. As far as exact equality usually cannot be achieved, the most desirable case would be "an as closely equal as possible".

4. References

  1. Webster's New World Dictionary (Electronic version)
  2. Encyclopedia Britannica 2003 ( Electronic version)
  3. Merriam Webster Dictionary 2003 ( Electronic version)

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