The a reality the profession could ever comprehend/accept. By

The history of translation, as with the history in general, is cyclical. Throughout the centuries what would eventually come to be the ‘discipline’ of translation experienced the ebb and flow of theories and ideals for the production of the most ‘ethical’ translation in a field where the ultimate goal is equivalence. That is to say, we are constantly striving toward an ever-changing end goal which, due to the fundamental characteristics and influences on and of language, may not necessarily be possible.

Our first historical acquaintance with historical translation already shows a distinction between what would become the two main veins of the profession; translation for the equivalence of meaning and translation for the equivalence of form making it immediately obvious that the supposed utopia of simple substitution is not a reality the profession could ever comprehend/accept.

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By the 3rd Century Cicero was already discussing the merits of translating Greek speeches and other culturally superior texts into Latin “non ut interpres sed ut orator”, leaving the task of overzealous word for word translation to the grammarians. Cicero’s intended audience, who were already speakers of Latin and Greek, were not interested in the essence of the Greek language in translation but rather in the enrichment that the source culture could provide. In this sense, although such an attitude may be considered abuse of the concept in modern translation, we might say that Cicero, accompanied by Horace and Longinus, attempted to provide the most fitting translation for their intended audience and thus, their Skopos.

The skopos of a work, that is is translation toward the fulfilment of a purpose (Vermeer 1978), in translation could, and does, greatly influence the translator’s take on equivalence.


Drawing on the above, I would like to pause for a moment to briefly discuss translation in the scientific field and contemplate the fact that while translation of the arts and philosophy remain an ongoing negotiation, scientific academic texts have clearly always been more straightforward in their quest for equivalent meaning and even dry in their resultant translations. Modern day advancements technology and bio-medicine are progressing so rapidly that European, languages now appear to be neck and neck when it comes to creating neologisims and innovating ways of expressing a completely new function. Compare Maltese to German and you will find that it the struggle regarding whether to replace ‘computer’ with ‘computer’ or ‘kompjuter’ have now given way to an apparent tendency for many EU languages to build on Latin based words and Greek suffixes while still infused with the distinct flavour of each language. Eg: Cytokine becomes ?itokina in Maltese, zytokin in German and ???????? (chitokini) in Bulgarian.

While this apparent ease of creation may be thanks to the proximity of these languages within the European Union, it is plausible that other language families, and thus perhaps related culture families, may apply similar processer in order to be cross-culturally understood in. In short, once the tools are in place for precise translation, scientific fact should be translated for ‘word for word’.


In extreme cases, word for word translation has been applied, if experimentally, to works of literature with the surprising result that there appears to be a core of meaning which may be elicited no matter how unfamiliar and graceless the result may be. Historically however we see that the translation of culturally significant, complex texts has usually been made dynamically and the champion example would be the translation of the Bible through the ages.


In the 4th century A.D. Hieronymus attempts to edit the existing Septuagint in order to bring the Latin text as close as possible to the Hebrew and it’s originally intended meaning although his thoughts on the unchangeable, venerable nature of the Scripture is contradicted by his statement that “in Scripture, one must consider not the words but the sense.” Additionally, the fact that the Hebrew texts used were almost 600 years newer, and therefore inevitably different from the texts used by the 72 translators of the Septuagint, means that the intended equivalence of the Latin Vulgate may still have been evaded.


The most frequently quoted ‘inequivalence’ is that of the word ‘virgin’ used to signify an unmarried Jew however another example, albeit with less far-reaching implications, is the translation of the Biblical Hebrew word ?? (yad or yod) which would be most easily translated into English as ‘hand’.  Thus the following examples;


“And they put bracelets on the hands of the women and beautiful crowns on their heads” (Ezekiel 23:42)


“When the camels had finished drinking, the man took a gold ring weighing a half-shekel and two bracelets for her wrists weighing ten shekels in gold, and said, “Whose daughter are you?” (Genesis 24:22)


are likely to have had the same initial wording which has become ‘distorted’ over time, perhaps primarily due to the fact that, at least in English, we do not have a single term to express that particular anatomy. The word may also the concept of strength and support meaning that whenever we now encounter the word ‘hand’ in Scripture, we can never be sure whether the original texts intended this to be literal or not.


Problems such as these present the translator with a dilemma; to always translate ?? as hand or to vary this according to the culture in which it will be received? If the term is varied, the translator should be aware of the risk of over or mistranslation. While these considerations are particularly relevant to sensitive texts such as the Scripture, with the preface to Tyndale’s bible warning that a translation should not stay too far from the original meaning, the concerns are also true of literary translation.


Translating for the sense is carried on throughout the centuries from the Wycliffte Bible (c.1395) which chose to ‘translate aftir the sentence’, Martin Luther’s verdeutschen of the Bible into the German vernacular (1530) and most famously Nida’s theories on Dynamic Equivalence as applied to Biblical Translation, most commonly used in the NVI bible(??). Reader expectations.


According to Schleiermacher, all humans are influenced by the language they speak however ‘forced’ innovations help to enrich it as well as it’s speakers. Interestingly, while sense for sense translation of such texts was not done with the aim of enrichment, the status of these documents often served to boost and enrich the Target language substantially although in the case of English, the advent of the printing press was sure to have propelled it’s status forward. This is also the case for Maltese. While the original texts may not have been entirely equivalent, the long-term, perhaps unforeseen purposes of these translations served to provide a richer language capable in turn of producing better equivalent translations of other complex texts in later years.

A dynamic translation (Nida, 1960), popular in postulations on Bible translation, should have the same effect on the reader of the target text as it did on the receivers of the original. The teachings of the church in translation may be more prone to this adaptable form of equivalence due to the incredible number of cultures it attempts to reach. If “we dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages.” Whorf (1940:213-14)1 and our view of the world is ‘tainted’ by the languages we speak then it is understandable that the only way to keep such an ancient text relevant to the varied modern communities of the day is to aim for ‘equivalent effect’ which is easier for the receiver to relate to, both culturally and linguistically, rather than rigid gloss translation as initially suggested by Hieronymus.

In the case of a a Jesuit priest working in a particularly violent South American community the absence of and fear inspired by many of the males within the community resulted in the priest having to do away with the concept of God as a loving father when teaching the community’s youth. Instead he would emphasise the love of Mary as a mother or rely heavily on the metaphor of the Shepheard. Such examples facilitate the understanding of adapting the message to the culture and it is easy to see how, with the passage of time, such examples may make their way into written texts.

Dynamic equivalence translations requires trust that the translator has been non-prejudicial in his work as many of the decisions of understanding have already been made for the reader.2 It also requires that the translator does not overtranslate the text or unnecessarily stray from the original meaning as this could result in dubious, even misleading texts.  On the other hand, formal equivalence (also formal correspondence) is more concerned with content faithfulness. This Gloss translation is oriented towards allowing the reader to take in as much of the original context as possible although paradoxically, this makes it unavailable to the average reader save for heavily annotated versions. A reader’s preference toward the type of equivalence depends entirely on what function they expect the text to fulfil.

Even with such options avaialable, it has been argued that language is arbitrary in that there is no one-to-one correspondence between the form of the word and the shape of the object to which the word refers (Yule, 1985,18). This is especially true in the case of the abstract words such as advice, meaning, feeling, etc. This means that language is based on conventions.


“The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached” Sapir (1958:69)3


In its most extreme form of linguistic relativity, the Sapir-Whorf theory implies that, due to these differences so intrinsically tied to culture and language, having the same thought with the equivalent meaning, i.e. the exact translation of thought, in two separate language-cultures is an impossibility, and that by extension, even gloss translation should be impossible.


Between these two extremes is the idea that the best translation may be achieved via a negotiation of the two ideas, in which Eco proposes that the translator should respect what the author meant and translate the unchangeable meaning. This means that it is sometimes required of the translator to become unfaithful to the text in order to retain the equivalent meaning4 because while absolute equivalence of lexical terms is non-existent, different sentences in different languages may express the same concept. Translation is not about comparing two languages, but about the interpretation of a text in two different languages involving constant shift between cultures.5 Unlike Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar, Eco suggests that while different syntactical structures in various languages may convey the same meaning, there is no one ‘truth’ language which may do so for a number of languages.


Moving back to literary translation as entirely separate from Bibical translation, these present an entirely different dilemma. As a translator, you should consider your readers’ expectations to be part of the skopos of your work. The relative invisibility of the translator throughout their profession’s history means that on average, one would expect a piece of literature, poetry or any other text to be a transposition of the original work into another language. The reader’s expectation of a text in translation may have a lot to do with the audience being targeted, the context and era the work is being translated in and type of text being translated.

Departing from the utopian assumption that your source text and your target language are equally semantically expressive, and that an exact translation of each word in your source text is available in your Target Language, would you still retain the same form? Or might you consider varying elements such as punctuation positioning and the placement of rhyme or word stress to better suit the cadence of the target language? As translators, we need to decide how far the reader should to travel in order to understand the novel. Berman goes as far as suggesting that an ethical translation is one which has undergone little deformation and therefore, feels more like a foreign text in a local language than a native work in all aspects of semantics, syntax etc…

Attempting to retain both form and semantic equivalence presents the translator with the problem non-equivalence, or lack of equivalence. This problem appears at all language levels starting from the word level up till the textual level (Baker 1992)6 and the translator may find themselves dealing with languages which are not equally capable in terms of grammar and morphemes, thus limiting the ability to express certain concepts or new ideas. This is generally true when translating larger languages to relatively smaller ones although this is also true of smaller languages with very specific lexicons.


Thus in the case of Arabic, which like Maltese is able to condense large quantities of meaning into a word thanks to prefix and suffix morphemes how should we deal with translation into English? According to Bassnett, a source text metaphor, but also idiom or phrase, is semantically novel in the target text and therefore unlikely to have an exact existing counterpart. This must therefore be ‘created’ by the translator using neologisms, loan-words or circumlocutions7. Presented with “??????” 8 should the translator foreignise the translation by borrowing the phrase, transliterating as toqborni and annotating, causing the reader to travel towards the author, or would they prefer them to remain firmly grounded with an easily digestible, but not necessarily equivalent “I would die without you” or “what would I do without you?”


By the 1980s and 90s, equivalence was generally regarded as a theory which was too linguistically oriented and often discarded on the grounds that theory tried to create a symmetry which did not naturally exist between languages.

Taking into account the Sapir-Whorf concept that, to varying degrees, a language directly influences a culture, I believe that it truly would do injustice to the original text, but also to the readers of a literary text in translation, were some elements of the original language-culture not retained. This being said, and bearing in mind that a relationship of equal value is possible to some extent, but unlikely to be possible throughout the entire text, a translation is usually made in order to fulfil a function, and this function must be identified prior to deciding what sort of translation, and therefore what sort of equivalence is possible.9

I believe that a good literary translation should be one which is a good medium between the two extremes of equivalence, maintaining the meaning of the original text with as close to the original meaning as possible, using formal equivalents wherever possible; in short translating “as literally as possible and as free as necessary.”10