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Translation as Art


5 min read

Written by


Argos Multilingual

Published on

14 May 2020

Translation may not be the first field of expression that comes to mind when you think of creativity, but it should – a good translator is constantly seeking a balance between multiple cultures, languages, and mindsets.

Contrary to popular belief, the job of a translator is not limited to getting the counterpart of each word in another dialect and simply leaving it at that. It requires creativity and understanding to accurately deliver the effect of the source text, whatever that text may be.

In his seminal 1921 essay “The Task of the Translator”, Walter Benjamin proposes that translation is a form of artistic writing, closer in relation to poetry than to a mechanical process of conversion. It’s an idea that has proven to be much closer to the reality of what a translator typically does.

Finding the right approach

The caveat “typically” belongs in the previous sentence because there are a wide variety of approaches to translation, and not all of them call for poetic levels of creativity. According to Anne Schjoldager’s “A Taxonomy of Microstrategies” these are the different approaches to translating:

  • Direct Transfer – Translating something without changing anything
  • Calque – Making a very close translation
  • Direct Translation – A word-for-word translation
  • Oblique Translation – A sense-for-sense translation
  • Explicitation – Making implicit information explicit to explain it in more detail
  • Paraphrasing – Freely translating the meaning of the source text
  • Condensation – Making the translated text shorter
  • Adaptation – Recreating the “effect” of the original text due to references that may not be understood in another culture
  • Addition – Adding to the meaning
  • Substitution – Changing the words used but remaining true to the semantic meaning of a source text
  • Deletion – Leaving out a part of the meaning
  • Permutation – Translating into a different place because of linguistic limitations that require a text to be recreated somewhere else

Different strokes for different folks

Which method a translator uses depends on a few factors, but the type of text being translated is probably the most important. The general consensus among translators is that texts like contracts, financial reports, and patents should be translated as “uncreatively” as possible, with the thinking being that commercial translations are commissioned for a reason and the buyers of such translations often don’t appreciate seeing too much departure from the source.

On the other hand, fiction writers often point out that fiction can be truer to the human experience than factual writing, so a good translator has to find creative ways of getting the original author’s intentions across. Creative translation is often referred to as transcreation – writing something new in a different language while keeping the feeling and vibe of the source material intact. It’s a mixture of brand-new content, culturally adapted content/imagery, and straightforward translation that gives translators the artistic freedom to get the meaning or concept of the source across in highly localized language.

A musical analogy is helpful here – musicians in an orchestra also interpret marks on a page and give them a voice. No two musicians will play a piece in the same way, and their playing will be different on different days and in different settings.

Our approach

When it comes to choosing a translation approach at Argos Multilingual, we stick to one general principle – we ask the client for confirmation of what exactly is intended before anyone lets their creativity run free. We know that texts are not stand-alone entities, and we’re aware that our translations may be used in a different way than the original text. That’s why our approach is to build tailored linguistic teams and processes around each subject and content type, matching your content to the right language professionals.

We require all our linguists to be certified experts in a particular field or industry, and over 95% of them live and work in their target countries. In addition, we organize and host client-specific training sessions for dedicated clients, where linguists can gain “qualified” status and maintain it via consistent high performance. To learn more, contact us.

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