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Criticism of translation

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Traducere și interpretare
© European Communities, 2009

Marc Bloch made the following criticism in The Historian’s Craft:

”It would still be annoying to see historians encumbering their observations with foreign expressions like those authors of rustic novels who, by their use of provincialisms, slip into a jargon which neither town nor country would recognize as its own. To renounce any attempt at equivalence is often to do injury to reality itself. A custom which derives, I believe, from the eighteenth century permits the use of the French word serf, or of closely related words in other Western languages, to designate the Krepostnoi of tsarist Russia. A more unfortunate comparison would be difficult to imagine. In Russia there was a system of attachment to the land gradually transformed into true slavery; with us, a form of personal dependence which, despite its severity, was very far from treating man as a thing deprived of all rights: the so-called Russian serfdom had almost nothing in common with our medieval serfdom. Simply to say “Krepostnoi,” however, will hardly help our case. For, in Rumania, in Hungary. in Poland, and even in eastern Germany, there have been types of peasant subjection closely related to that established in Russia. Must we speak Rumanian, Hungarian, Polish, German, and Russian by turns? Once more, we should miss the essential point, which is to map the underlying connections between the facts by expressing them with an accurate nomenclature.”

For a “smart”, sensible translation, you should forget not the knowledge acquired at school or university, but the corrective standards. Some people want a translation with the touch of the source version, while another people feel that in a successful version we should not be able to guess the original language. We have to realize that both people have right and wrong, and that their only fault is to present requirement as an absolute truth.

Teachers agree at least on this principle: “If a sentence is ambiguous, the translation must also be“, no doubt they want the student to take the opportunity to show his virtuosity.

There is another criticism, less easy to argue, which is based on an Italian sentence with a particularly vigorous formulation: “Traduttore, traditore” [in English, “Translator, traitor”]. According to this criticism, any translation amounts to betraying the author, his text, his spirit, his style … because of the choices that must be made on all sides. The writer Julien Green, perfectly bilingual and who himself has translated some of his works from French into English, declares: that the writer who was translated would certainly have used other words and said different things he had written in the translator’s language.

The translator Pierre Leyris (who has translated the work of Herman Melville among others) responds to this criticism by saying: “To translate is to have the honesty to stick to an allusive imperfection“.

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