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The eternal challenge with translation…

There’s an Italian expression, “traduttore, traditore”, which captures the essential difficulty of translation. The French have a similar expression: “traduire, c’est trahir”. Both phrases are an alliterative play on the similarity of two verbs in their language, which mean to translate and to betray respectively. The phrase compares translation to a betrayal, and captures the fundamental problem of translation – to translate exactly, word for word, is clunky and just sounds odd, but if we move too far from the original words to try to convey the rhythm or the emotion of a piece then we “betray” the original. Translation is a compromise between conveying meaning and minimising loss of accuracy, and the translator has to find the best path between the two.

We don’t have the same neat phrase in English as the Italians and the French. Although we can see that “betray” contains the same root, frustratingly the “tr” is in the middle of our word, and we don’t have an equivalent verb that begins with “tr” to convey the meaning of “betray”. In fact, this phrase is quite a good example of the translator’s problem; if translating from French to Italian or Italian to French it translates beautifully with a tailor-made matching idiom. However, if English is the target language there is no neat solution.

Most direct would be “to translate is to betray”, however we lose the alliteration. Or we could try:”Translation is treachery”, substituting a noun for that missing verb beginning with “tr”, keeping both the alliteration, and the meaning of betrayal. However neither of these can quite convey the idea with the same pithy clarity as the original.

For a translator, whenever a problem arises of a phrase that is clear and concise in one language and has no equivalent in the other, this choice between translating directly or being a little more flexible will arise.

What does an automated translation system make of it?

Putting these two phrases through a well-known translation system, for the Italian it suggests “translator traitor” and for the French it suggests “translate is to betray” – To translate is to betrayin both cases, a real betrayal of the original meaning!

This is when a real human being who lives and breathes both languages is needed to bridge that gap, and to translate with the minimum of betrayal – it’s not easy, and that’s why we love translation!

If you think of an alternative solution to translating these phrases into English, let us know – share on Social Media with your thoughts!