What is “literal” translation?

Among questions concerning translation, that of literalness is probably the most fundamental. Everyone knows that one must not translate “literally” – meaning, you should avoid translating word by word. For example, in Spanish there is a commonly used expression, la sangre no llegó al río, which means, referring to a dispute, that it didn’t get beyond an exchange of angry words, or that the matter wasn’t too serious. Of course it would be a mistake on the idiomatic level to translate “the blood didn’t get to the river”, which is what the words literally say, and grammatically it would be even worse to make it “the blood didn’t arrive to the river”. So there are two factors involved here: knowing what the original says, and expressing it well in English.

The problem that results, however, with the eternal repetition of the commandment is that avoiding the literal becomes a general obsession, as theorists begin talking about ”reshaping the text” and “putting your own stamp on it” (Pound). And of course these ideas are not entirely erroneous. Every language has its ways of forming expressions: the translator has to reshape syntax, change a plural to singular or vice-versa, strike out a comma or add one (if the original text follows the standard rules of its language’s grammar), add or subtract a word when rules of usage differ. For example, in Romance languages adjectives are easily transformable into nouns, thus in Spanish, Lo importante es, which cannot be translated “The important is”: one must say “The important thing is” or “What matters is”. But if we take the commandment to its logical or illogical conclusion, we will end up avoiding “Juan went to the door” for Juan fue a la puerta, substituting “Juan walked to the door”, “Juan made his way to the door”, or possibly “Juan shuffled toward the door” if the author has indicated that Juan walks with that sort of movement. Extrapolating to more complex and more subtly nuanced sentences, in my view serious problems often arise.

Let me take an example from a book by Fabio Morábito titled Caja de herramientas/Toolbox, a dual-language edition translated by Geoff Hargreaves (Xenos Books 1996). I choose this translation for no other reason than that I have it at hand, and find it to be, in general, very good, but marked by the sort of problems I’m talking about, in the same way that many are nowadays. That is, I don’t have a grudge against Mr. Hargreaves, nor do I mean in any way to blast him: this will be reserved for another translator whose offenses are not a matter of opinion.

To begin with, the translator does not follow the paragraphing of the original. I find this unjustifiable, because the author will surely have carefully considered where his paragraph ends and the next is to begin, and the change from one language to another doesn’t affect the basis of that decision. The reader may find any particular author’s paragraph breaks odd or illogical, and his editor may ask for changes, but to my mind the translator must  respect his judgement (exceptions to be noted later). This is a minor issue, but I think it arises from the prohibition of the literal.

In this book Morábito attempts to define the hidden metaphysical aspects of various tools. In the discourse on “Aceite”/“Oil” he repeatedly compares oil and water, at one point saying, Mientras el agua dirime pleitos y da a cada cual lo suyo, el aceite revuelve utópicamente (toda revoltura tiene algo de utópico) y ensaya especies y esfuerzos. Es muscular y circense. The translation says: “Where water settles disputes and gives each his own, oil jumbles things up in a utopian fashion. Every jumble contains a trace of utopia and puts rumors and spirited efforts to the test. It is a circus strongman.”

For me the translation of the second sentence is superb. Literally it says “It is muscular and circus-like/circusy”. The word circense is an adjective which is difficult to translate except where it can be made an attributive, as Hargreaves does. His version avoids the awkwardness of the literal and captures the sense perfectly with a visual image.

On the other hand, the English version of the first contains several (for me) questionable points. First, he breaks it into two. This proceeding may on rare occasions be justified, though in general I feel that it is a violation of the author’s intentions. Be that as it may, the alteration in this case is more serious than a simple insertion of a period and a capital letter. The original says, using the translator’s manner, “…oil jumbles things up in a utopian fashion (every jumble contains a trace of utopia) and puts rumors and spirited efforts to the test.”  That is, here el aceite, “oil”, is the subject of the verb ensaya, “puts…to the test”, whereas in the translation it is “every jumble”.  This is clearly an unjustifiable distortion of the original sense, which in addition alienates the pronoun “it” that begins the next sentence from its referent, “oil”.

Hargreaves’ vocabulary also troubles me: for Morábito’s two words revuelve utópicamente he uses seven: “jumbles things up in a utopian fashion”. (This has to do with the temptation, which this translator and many others succumb to frequently, to gloss a bit, or adorn a bit to give the reader a fuller or more colorful idea of what the original says, in the former’s interpretation at least. For me this is the most unfortunate habit of modern translation, which always distends the conciseness of the original writing.)

Revolver has to do with disordering, confusing, and although it is a more ordinary sort of word than “jumble” I won’t quarrel with it on that ground. But is it absolutely necessary to add “things up”? Admittedly, “jumble” is a transitive verb and so needs an object: but then so is revolver. The absence of an object is a cleaner, more abstract use. (This intransitive use of a transitive verb, can be cloying, as when for example a book reviewer says something like “This is the sort of novel that disturbs profoundly”, but is not in itself illegitimate.)  It is also important to remember that from revolver comes revolución, which seems to be an implicit idea in Morábito’s word revoltura as something utopian. And can’t we render his adverb utópicamente with a single English word? True, the OED does not give “utopically”, but no one can fail to understand what it means if the translator produces it. And this is one way that  new words come about: writers invent them, or rather, derive them, and if a translator does this, he is also a writer and is within his rights.

My suggestion then is a more “literal” rendering – in the sense that it attempts to keep the concise manner of the original: “oil convulses utopically (and every convulsion contains a trace of utopia)”. This, besides getting a little closer to the notion of revolution, has the added virtue that it maintains the distinction of words revuelve/revoltura, whereas the use of “jumble” as both verb and noun does not.

To end, I have difficulty accepting the arbitrary addition of the word “spirited” to “efforts”, the literal translation of “esfuerzos”. The author doesn’t qualify this word with any sort of adjective: why then should the translator?

In short, I think there is room and need to pay attention to and employ the literal in a number of senses different from that used in the well-known prohibition.

In posts to come I will come back to this question of literalness, its antithesis and the consequences of both, as well as other matters concerning translation.


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