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The Illusion of Transparency

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Daniel Valles photoThe choices made by the translator during the process of translation are an essential part of producing an adequate target text. They constitute an essential factor in interlingual communication and, effectively, constitute the translator’s voice. However, the search for transparent translations attempts to silence this voice and seems to be clearly linked to the subordinate role translation has traditionally had in the past. This article discusses the concept of the translator’s voice starting with a brief reminder of what translation is and the role played by the translator in this process, together with the influencing factors that are present in any translation. A discussion then follows regarding how the search for transparent translations attempts to silence this voice and the degree to which this is achieved.

A central figure

Before the issue of the voice of the translator can be discussed, it is useful to remember what translation is and the role a translator plays in this process. Hatim and Munday (2004:6) define translation as “the process and the product of transferring a written text from source language (SL) to target language (TL) conducted by a translator in a specific socio-cultural context together with the cognitive, linguistic, cultural and ideological phenomena that are integral to the process and the product”. In a similar way, Lawendoski (cited in Seago 2008:1) sees it as the transfer of “meaning” from one set of language signs to another. Nida (cited in Basnett 2002) explains the process of translation as the decoding of a source text (ST), the transfer of this information and its restructuring in a target text (TT).

In this process, it is the job of the translator to replace “the signs encoding a message with signs of another code, preserving (...) invariant information with respect to a given system of reference" (Ludskanov, cited in Bassnett 2002:25). Newmark (1987) establishes that in the process of decoding and recoding there are a number of factors that need to be taken into account: on the one hand, the style of the writer of the ST, the norms, culture and the framework and tradition of the SL, and on the other hand the reader of the TT, the norms, culture, framework and tradition of the TL. In the middle of these two there is the translator. To this, Nord (cited in Munday 2001) adds the relevance of the role of the translation commissioner, who will give information regarding the intended text functions, the audience, the time and place of text reception, the medium, and the motive for the translation. Nord also emphasizes the role of the ST analysis, which will provide the translator with essential information regarding the subject matter, the contents, assumptions, and composition of text, non-verbal elements, lexic, sentence structure and suprasegmental features. All this information will provide the translator with a number of possibilities as well as constraints when creating the TT, and it is his/her job to transfer the ST into a TT by selecting phrases, sentences and words considering their significance in their particular context and taking into account aspects such as sociocultural environment, genre, field, tenor, mode, etc. (Bassnett 2002).

In some occasions, the changes that a translator needs to make are determined by the linguistic and cultural differences between the SL and the TL over which the translator has no control. In other occasions, adaptation results "from intentional choices made by the translator" (Trosborg 2000:221) in order to produce a more adequate translation. These choices, whether obligatory or optional, is what Hermans (cited in Hatim and Munday 2004:353) calls "the voice" of the translator, that is, the underlying presence of the translator in a TT. O’Sullivan (2003) concurs with this view and argues that this presence is evident in the strategies chosen and in the way a translator is positioned in relation to the translated narrative


A few simple examples should illustrate some of the choices and strategies that translators need to make, which confer them a voice in the resulting translation, together with a brief explanation of the process of selecting a particular strategy. In the localization project of a British software license reselling company introducing their services in Spain, which involved the translation of their website and related documentation, the translator decided to keep a number of IT references in English (software, hardware, type of licenses). In translational terms, this would be seen as a foreignizing strategy, or the use of source text loan words in the target text. However, the translator was aware of the acceptance of some of this terminology by the Real Academia Española (the authority in Spanish language matters) and the perceived preference in Spain of English terms in dealing with IT topics. In the translation of the home page, “Are you taking advantage of the current exchange rate?” was rendered as “ Aproveche la actual cotización de la libra esterlina”. This is an example of transposition, where the interrogative sentence was changed into an imperative one, reflecting a more direct style preferred by Spanish speakers. In another section, the webpage referred to software licensing procurement explaining the process of insolvency of British companies, including terms such as insolvency practitioners and case managers. This required the adaptation not only of the specific terminology but also of the process of company insolvencies in Spain in order to successfully communicate the operational issues involved in the procurement of licenses.

Whether or not the translator choices in these examples are the most appropriate may be open to debate, but what is clear is that the strategies employed to produce the TT would not be visible to the target readers unless they had access to the original ST and could understand the SL. Thus, using Hermans’ definition, the voice of the translator could only be heard through the contrastive analysis of both the ST and the TT, that is through the “comparison of the translation with the original and a verification of correspondences, grammatical, lexical and often phonaesthetic" (Newmark 1991:23). This type of analysis would reveal the strategies translators had to develop to produce the translation, the constraints they faced, and the way they worked around those constraints (Lefevere and Bassnett cited in O’Sullivan 2004). An alternative way to hear the voice of a translator and assess the strategies employed would be through the analysis of retranslations of the ST, particularly useful in translation of classic works in different periods in history, which reflect the changes in tastes and norms of the target culture and, therefore, where the presence of the translator becomes apparent (Hatim and Munday 2004). Of course, it can be argued that the translator’s ‘silence’ is simply an illusion, even if it is perfectly acceptable for that to be the case in certain instances.

In other situations, the voice of the translator becomes more prominent, and the reader becomes aware that what s/he is reading is a translation. A clear example of this can be seen in the translation of a Spanish newspaper literary article, where a translator’s note is added under the title of the book Marinero en Tierra. This note explains that “this is a book by the Spanish poet Rafael Alberti (1902-1999) published in 1924. In this case, this was an optional choice the translator made, as this information could have been conveyed through, for example, a parenthesis in the main body of the text. Nevertheless, it is evident to the reader that these are the translator’s words and that this information did not appear in the source text.

Venuti (1995) suggests another strategy available to translators that would make them more visible to the reader, foreignization. This consists in adopting a "non-fluent or estranging translation style designed to make visible the presence of the translator by highlighting the foreign identity of the ST” (Venuti cited in Munday 2001:147) and would entail a close adherence to the structure and syntax of the ST, the use of calques and archaic structures, among other things. This approach aims to resist the hegemony of English-language nations and is a reaction to the trend of producing transparent and fluent translations, a concept that is further explored below.

One final situation where a reader is aware of the presence of the translator is bad translations. “Por favor, piense en los próximos pasajeros al utilizarlo” is rendered as “Please, think in the next passengers while using it . In this example of reverse translation, it is obvious that the process of recoding suffers from a lack of knowledge of the TL and the reader is well aware that s/he is reading the words of the “translator.”

In all these examples--even in the last one--the purpose behind the selection and application of translation strategies by the translator is to produce a TT that “respects the norms of the target language, that has vis à vis sentence structure, terminology, cohesion of the text and fidelity to the author and his/her intention" (CIOL 2006:16). Venuti (1995), though, goes further and states that nowadays a TT is deemed acceptable by readers, publishers and reviewers when there is an absence of foreign linguistic or stylistic peculiarities and it reads fluently in the TL. The Chartered Institute of Linguists (2006:12) seem to prove this point, as in their criteria for assessing translations “reading like a piece originally written in the target language” is regarded as what translators should aim for when producing a TT. However, Venuti warns us (1995), the more fluent a translation is the more invisible the translator becomes. Schaffner (1999:61) believes that the expectation is that the translator will produce “a faithful reproduction, a reliable duplicate or a quality replica" of the ST that is as good as reading the original, thus rendering the translator “transparent.” This shows a trust in the integrity of the translator and in his/her capability to produce a text that is as good as the real thing and without whom intercultural communication would not be possible (Hermans 1996). Interestingly, however, the expectation also is that a TT is most successful when it is not obvious that it is a translation, requiring the translator not to leave any trace of his work (Schaffner 1999:62). So it could be argued that, on the one hand, the translator is--or should be--regarded as the central piece allowing communication between languages and cultures to take place and that a translation is deemed good when it reads as fluently as if it was written originally in the TL. On the other hand, however, for this to take place it is necessary that the translator stays as invisible and quiet as possible, so that his/her choices and strategies when producing the text are not apparent and the reader is not aware of them. Thus, a translation is good when it does not read like a translation and when it produces the impression of being an original.


This seeming paradox is what is called the illusion of transparency (Venuti 1995, Hermans 1996, Seago 2008). Following from the point made above, a transparent translation guarantees integrity, consonance and equivalence and it is as good as the original; this is why people can claim having read Dostoyevsky and Kafka when what they have read in many cases is a translation of their work (Schaffner 1999). The illusion of transparency is based on two premises: that the difference between languages and cultures can be neutralized and that all interpretative possibilities of a text can be summarized or exhausted in one translation (López and Wilkinson 2003). This illusion, Hermans (1996:5) claims, stems from the status that translation and translators have had historically, there having always been a hierarchical difference between originals and translations, between authors and translators, and translation having always been assigned a lower status. And this has been expressed in stereotyped opposites, "creative versus derivative work, primary versus secondary, art versus craft.” This lower status is also evident in the fact that it was not until the middle of the 20th century that translation started to be considered an academic discipline on its own merit (Munday 2001).

Nevertheless, in this apparent illusion, the work of the translator is still very evident as it is he/she who interprets the voices, perspectives and meanings of a ST, intensifying or diminishing certain aspects of it and guiding the reader through the nuances, style, or irony that may be present (Schaffner 1999, O’Sullivan 2003). In the resulting product, the TT, there are always two voices present, the voice of the author of the ST and the voice of the translator (O’Sullivan 2003), and attempting to erase the translator’s intervention actually implies erasing the translation itself (Schaffner 1999). Hermans (cited in Hatim and Munday 2004) concurs with this view and states that it is only the ideology of translation, the illusion of transparency, that blinds us to the presence of the translator’s voice when reading a translation.


From time to time, it is necessary to remind ourselves of what translation is and the crucial role translators have in the process of decoding a ST, analyzing and interpreting it and recoding it in the TL. The production of the TT has a number of influences, starting from the characteristics of the ST and the TT (author/readership, function, register, SL/TL norms, etc.) and the requirements established by the commissioner of the translation (intended text function and readership, medium and motive, etc.). With all this information the translator becomes the central figure that needs to make a number of choices and develop strategies in order to produce an adequate translation. These choices and strategies confer the translator a voice, as all the options the translation has selected will be reflected in the final TT, and this was illustrated through a number of examples. Some of these examples showed how the presence of the translator can sometimes only be perceived through the contrastive analysis of the ST and the TT, thus reducing the volume of that voice. The present trend that assesses translations depending on their fluency and how close they are to reading like an original in the TL produces an interesting paradox: the translator needs to employ strategies and choices (their voice) to create a text that is a reliable and faithful reproduction of the ST but that at the same time does not read like a translation. Moreover, the translator is trusted to interpret a text in the SL and to recode it in the TL but his presence is not welcome in the final text and needs to remain as hidden as possible. This is what authors call the illusion of transparency, the voice of the translator becomes nearly silent, and the reader has the impression that s/he is reading the original or a replica that is as good as. This has its origins in the historical inferior status of translation. But, however fluent and transparent a TT is and however quiet the presence of the translator may seem to be, their voice can never be absolutely silent, since it is the translation itself, with all its lexical choices, grammatical formations, textual structure, that contains the voice of the translator.

List of References

BASNETT, S. (2002) Translation Studies London: Taylor and Francis

BAKER, M. (1992) In other words Oxon:Routledge

CHARTERED INSTITUTE OF LINGUISTS (2006) Diploma in Translation: Handbook and Advice to Candidates London: CIOL

HATIM, B. and MUNDAY, J. (2004) Translation: an advanced resource book. London: Routledge.

HERMANS, T. (1996) Translation’s other London: UCL

LOPEZ, J.L. and WILKINSON, J. (2003) Manual de traducción. Barcelona: Gedisa. Spain.

MUNDAY, J. (2001) Introducing translation studies. London: Routledge

O’SULLIVAN, E. (2003) Narratology meets translation studies, or the voice of the translator in children’s literature. Meta Vol. 48, No 1-2, pps. 197-207

NEWMARK, P. (1987) Manual de traducción. Madrid: Catedra. Spain.

NEWMARK, P. (1991) About Translation Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters

SEAGO, K. (2008) The voice of the translator London: City University London

SCHAFFNER, C. (1999) Translation and norms Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters

TROSBORG, A. (2000) Discourse analysis as part of translation training. Current issues in language and society. Vol. 7, No 3, pps. 205-228.

VENUTI, L. (1995) The translator’s invisibility New York: Taylor and Francis

Published - January 2013

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