Translation Tips

Doing translations is an art. Well, at least that’s my opinion.

When we think of creative writing we most likely think of composing poetry or writing fiction, and would not necessarily think of including translating within this. It would seem that the translator is merely taking the work of someone else and converting it to another language – so where is there the scope in this for expressing one’s creativity? You need only compare different translations of the same text to see how short-sighted this view is.

The fact is that reading a translated work is very much different from reading the original. It is like looking at an image through a coloured lens – you can see it, but not as it truly is, as the filter has an effect on what you see. In the same way, when you read a translation you are perceiving the work of the original author, but through the eyes of the translator. His own personal style colours it, no matter how he would try to avoid it. This is because translating is a subjective process, not an objective one.


2x + 8 = 4

Take a moment or two to try and solve that sum. [1] When solving a problem such as this, there is a set sequence of steps to carry out: you do this, then that, and eventually you get to the answer. It is very formulaic. And although two people might do things slightly differently, in the end everyone arrives at the same outcome. There is no scope for individuality.

For the beginner translator, it is easy and tempting to adopt a similar approach, where you look up the meaning of the first word, then the second, and so on; and then at the end you string them all together. However, doing things this way will not result in a very good translation. At worst it might be nonsensical, and at best it would be quite literalistic and not make for enjoyable reading. Instead, you need to acknowledge and embrace the fact that this is a creative endeavour – it is more akin to writing poetry than to solving a Maths problem. You should be faithful to the original work, while at the same time not shying away from leaving your own mark on it. Acquiring this – the ability to break free from the restrictions of literalistic translating – is one of the hardest but most important lessons to learn.


[1]: The answer is -2, for those of you who don’t do Maths ;).
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2 Responses to Translation Tips

  1. faiza bagiwa says:

    very intresting i like it because now it shaped my conscious when translating especially from arabic to english or hausa

  2. ” This is because translating is a subjective process, not an objective one.”
    Very accurate and true!

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