On Translation
E Bruce Brooks
University of Massachusetts, 5 Dec 2002

Nine Maxims On Translation

E Bruce Brooks

No lecture was presented during a visit to the Translation course regularly taught by Lucien Miller (Chinese 660 = Comp Lit 695) on Thursday 5 Dec 2002, at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The time available went instead to questions by students about our 1998 translation of the Analects. But a lecture might have occurred, and if it had, it would probably have included some points made in a paper given more than a decade earlier for an American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) conference, held that year at the University of Massachusetts, along with several other points encountered in practical translation experience. That lost lecture, plus some illustrations made possible by the Internet medium, might have looked something like what follows. Clicking on a bar Sample Bar Only will take you to an explanation or an example.

Not much that is useful, in a theoretical way, can be said about translation. The basic concept is simple, even though implementing that concept in a specific case can be very difficult. The best discourse on translation is not a lecture; it is a successful translation. But the following nine maxims (some of which contain several subordinate suggestions) may give useful warning of some standard pitfalls, and perhaps suggest some practicable solutions.

1. Definition. A translation is the same text in a different language. Every statement made about the work by a reader of the translation should also be true of the original text. This is not possible. Not with poetry, and not even with prose, where the difficulty is generally assumed to be less. But it is what we aim at. The real thing, with the curtain of language somehow made transparent.

2. Ethical Aspects. Don't lie. You have an obligation to the original, and to your audience. Each of them is relying on you for what it knows about the other. Disclaimers in prefaces don't count; nobody reads prefaces. The audience will invariably take the translation as the real thing. Since it can't be the real thing in all respects, the translator's first duty is to rank the importance of the original's many properties, and put major effort on the properties at the top of that list. One of the points at which this issue comes to a head, and where the question of essential versus dispensable features gets asked, is the question of rhyme To Rhyme in translations of poetry.

3. Your Equipment. There are preliminary steps, before you actually sit down to work on your text. Some of them can involve much time and thought. The perfect translator does not exist, but one can try to be a reputable translator. Here are some background suggestions:

4. Your Text. Much of the literature of translation is not about errors in translation; it is about errors in understanding the original. The task of equipping yourself with the source language, and with the source culture in which that language operates, is here taken for granted. But even with that equipment, it is easy to miss the salient features of a particular text. Here are some precautions:

5. Getting Nuances. Beyond the words and linguistic problems of the text ("as for" is not a durably viable way of rendering topic phrases) are elements of more general atmosphere and contrast. Don't focus on the words to the detriment of these elements. For instance:

6. Avoiding Fallacies. Translation is one of those topics that attract theories. Most theories, whatever their value as ideas, don't help the practical translator very much. Some of them are downright harmful. Here are three to watch out for:

7. Final Revision. For simultaneous translation, the most nerve-wracking of specialties, there is no tomorrow. But if you work in a more leisurely mode, put your work aside when you think it is finished, and go back to it when the passions of discovery and the enthusiasms of ingenuity have had time to cool. Coming to it from outside, a week later, see if it still looks good, reads good (aloud, of course), and intangibly satisfies your remembered sense of the original. This is your last chance to let the original break through your idea of it, and to educate you about itself. Revision brings to a head some of the paradoxes of translation. It makes us choose between virtues. Here are some of the virtues your final product should have at the end, whatever else it may lack:

8. Long Thoughts. The encouraging fact is that we get better at this by doing it. We and our colleagues in translation improve, over the years, by doing it together and by learning from each other, including each other's mistakes. To Learning Experiment The same applies to cultures, as they get more acquainted with each other. Read somebody else's translation of the piece you are working on, but done a hundred years ago. Notice the conceptual and presentational points that were hard to convey to the audiences of that time, the points that were labored over or missed altogether by the translator, but may be routine and easy now. Here is where progress can be felt. This also works in the larger dimension. Translation needs a world of listeners to resonate against, and that world of listeners is learning more all the time. Take the long view. Even if, being mortal, you can participate in only one stage of the long process.

9. Nontranslation. There are some things, such as the interminable cotton candy of Japanese academic prose, that should not be translated at all. Instead, summarize them. Recast them. Cultural contact eventually creates an interculture, above the more local levels at which particular cultures govern and particular traditions dispose. Translation operates within those local levels. But it is perfectly proper to contribute to the emergence of the interculture, along with, or instead of, the work of translation. To add to the interculture's precedents for ways of saying things effectively and efficiently. There is more to the world than the fascination of the past, or the lure of the exotic, or the gestures of the local. There is more to the world than translation.


As was noted at the outset, the University class in 2002 was more interested in our experience translating the Analects than in hearing the above paragraphs of good counsel. Other correspondents have also inquired about our experience, and our presumptions, in approaching that translation. It seems a shame to leave the Analects out altogether. Here, then, are some recent questions on the Analects translation, along with our answers, by way of a personal postscript to the more general hints given above:

The bibliography of translation is endless. Some of it is just literary theory, and literary theory is mostly worthless, though there are some better moments. Missionaries over the years, and around the world, have given much thought to translation, as a practical and not a theoretical subject, and have found practical solutions, or clarified difficult issues, for some of the recurring problems. One window on that world is available here. To Bible Translation Ssite Any local library catalogue, under "Translation," will provide other possibilities. Use your own judgement on what you find there. And good luck to you, in your thinking and your doing.


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