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Should a Translator Focus on Fidelity or Transparency?
Translation is the conversion of words from one language into another to preserve meaning. The word “translatio” is Latin and literally means “to carry across” or “to carry over.” Translation takes place on paper but it’s similar to the process of actually carrying things across borders, from one country to another. Just as you might take a piece of art from one country to another and introduce it to the people living in the second country, you can take a piece of writing and carry it across through the process of translation.
Most translators will tell you that you can concentrate on one of two aspects of translation: fidelity or transparency. What do these two terms mean?
Sometimes, people focus more on the source language and try to remain as faithful to it as possible. For example, if you watch the TV show Spartacus, you’ll see that the English used in the show is similar to the original Latin. They use phrases such as “break words” when they mean “tell me what you’re thinking.” Plus, they don’t use any articles, like “a,” “an” or “the.” All pronouns, such as “you,” “he” and “they” are also left out of the translation.
This is a translation that is faithful to the source language—Latin. In the case of the TV show, this type of translation makes it difficult to understand but not impossible. It also conveys some of the formality in the original language and its elegance. So there are some advantages to focusing on fidelity when it comes to translation.
Most people will agree that it’s a better idea to focus on transparency. What this means is that, rather than trying to remain faithful to the original, you need to translate in a way that will help people reading it to understand what is being said.
In such a case, you would say, “tell me what you’re thinking” or “speak up” rather than “break words.” If a slang word was being used in the source language, you’d find another slang word that means approximately the same thing in the destination language.
So it’s up to the translator to decide to what extent it’s necessary to remain faithful to the original and to what extent it’s necessary to be transparent to readers. Translation is a delicate art which requires balance.
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