What is a translator?

John Dryden was an English poet, playwright and translator, who was made England’s first Poet Laureate in 1668. As a translator of classical poetry from Latin he had strong views on the role of the translator and used his own poetic skills to add to the translation, rather than just translating word for word.

This is the key question about the translator’s role – should it be a word for word transcription, like a machine, or a more personal, human translation that adds in the life experience of the translator?

From the early 1680s, Dryden translated classics written by Juvenal, Virgil, Lucretius, Horace, Ovid and Homer. He also translated Chaucer from Middle English, and Boccaccio from Italian. He liked to muse on the translator’s role in the prefaces to his translated works, and the questions he raised about what is a translator are still valid over 300 years later:

  • How should the translator best preserve the original work’s distinctive “character” and “spirit”?
  • How faithful should a translator be to the original?
  • How can a translator make the unfamiliar manners, customs, and beliefs in the source text accessible to an audience from another era?

Mason’s essay published in 1991 says that Dryden’s translations are not mere “ventriloquism,” since great translation “requires consciousness of difference for discovery of identity.” Mason says: “It seems to me to be a law of great translation that it can only be brought about if the translator is vitally and personally engaged in the matter which had engaged the original poet”. As Dryden was a fine poet himself he had the capability to immerse himself in the poems in the same way as their author.

Dryden proposed a division of translation into Metaphrase (“turning an author word by word, and line by line, from one language into another”), Paraphrase (“Translation with latitude, where the author is kept in view by the translator… but his words are not so strictly follow’d as his sense”), and “Imitation” (“where the translator… assumes the liberty not only to vary from the words and sense, but to forsake them both as he sees occasion”).

Dryden’s description of the more mechanical “Metaphrase” compared with “Paraphrase” and the unfettered translation allowed by “Imitation” neatly sums up the issues translators still face today. If you need a translator who can preserve the character and spirit of your copy, with accuracy, while making your materials accessible to audiences worldwide Accutranslate can help! Contact us on 0800 466 1335 or info@accutranslate.co.uk

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