Metaphors for Translation from Ferrymen to Omelettes

Throughout history translators have demonstrated an overwhelming desire to label their task with an endless stream of metaphors, each giving a slightly different reflection of the translation process as well as reflecting a particular author’s views or prevailing attitudes at the time.

Indeed, this need for metaphor is perhaps buried in the very etymology of the term ‘translation’ which comes from the Latin translatus, the past participle of the verb transferre – meaning ‘to carry across’ – which is itself a translation from the Greek metapherein (meta- (over,across) + pherein (to carry,bear)) from which we get the term metaphor. This demonstrates the inextricable link between the two and uncovers why both translation and metaphor imply the notion of carrying over or transferring meaning from one word or phrase to another.

Translator as ferryman

Starting from this etymological source, we find the metaphor of the translator as a ferryman, carrying meaning from one language to another, from one culture to another, with the translator representing a mediator or bridge between the two.

Interestingly, the Italian, Spanish and French equivalents (traduzionetraducción and traduction respectively) come from the Latin transducere (to lead across), assigning a more animate role to meaning.

Yet while the idea of transferring meaning is a fairly simple one that can be easily pinned to translation, there are many more complex metaphors to explore.

Translator as Conqueror

One conception of translation developed during Roman times due to their many translations used as appropriations of ideas with no real regard for stylistic and linguistic features of the original is the idea of the translator as a conqueror (and the text as prisoner) in a manifestation of cultural and linguistic imperialism. This conception also sees translation as a contest, with the original text there to be surpassed in order to enrich expression in one’s own language.

Translation as a woman

This next metaphor is closely tied to its archaic roots which saw it emerge in the 17th Century following the coining of the term les belles infidèles to describe aesthetically-pleasing yet unfaithfully rendered texts in suggesting that translation – like a woman – can either be faithful or beautiful, yet not both, while simultaneously relegating translation to a historically secondary position, something which developments in both terms of equality and translation theory have sought to address in more recent history.


Another common metaphor for translation is that of translation as clothing: translating is like changing a text’s clothes, replacing those of the author with those of the translator. In relation to this metaphor, a much-cited quote comes from Henry Rider:

‘Translations of Authors from one language to another, are like old garments turn’d into new fashions; in which though the stuffe be still the same, yet the die and trimming are altered, and in the making, here something added, there something cut away’

This seems to allow permission for the translator to adapt a text to their own style and allows for different interpretations in different time periods – modernising texts into ‘new fashions’ – a process and a liberty which has been debated in translation scholarship.

Fragments of a vessel

This metaphor for translation was first suggested by Walter Benjamin in his 1923 essay ‘The Task of the Translator’ in which he explores challenges the translation act poses while rethinking the nature of meaning. He sees the text as a living entity for which translation provides an afterlife and his ideas are still widely cited today. As he vividly puts it:

‘Fragments of a vessel which are to be glued together must match one another in the smallest details, although they need not be like one another. In the same way a translation, instead of resembling the meaning of the original, must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s mode of signification, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel.’

In this way, Benjamin emphasises the difficulty and the different ways of capturing meaning between languages,  while highlighting the importance of culture and context in rebuilding this meaning.

A pane of glass

While the idea of translation as a woman is linked with ideas of fidelity, this conception looks at the idea of transparency – which has also been greatly debated – as Lawrence Venuti in particular decries translation methods which see the text appear to a native speaker of the target language to have originally been written in that language as he seeks to preserve the ‘foreignness’ of the text.

The idea of a pane of glass or window is meant to highlight the way in which clarity and transparency are privileged in the assessment of translations while the visibility of supposed imperfections or obscurity – which serve to signal what you are really looking at – are widely criticised and this metaphor works in a similar way to the more humorous idea of translation as contraception – the less it is noticed, the better it seems.

Powdered Egg

Although I had not come across this metaphor before today, it is quite an interesting example from the Brave New Words blog. English poet and translator Alistair Elliot suggests that translating is like having powdered egg and trying to reconstitute it with water to make it resemble something like the original egg. However, as Epstein suggests in his blog (in turning powdered eggs into omelettes), this metaphor conforms to traditional conceptions of translation as an inferior product – an imitation, never equalling the original – something which contemporary scholarship seeks to avoid in assigning equal status and rights to translations with metaphors such as translation as cannibalism or reincarnation which place the translation alongside or even beyond the source text (although not in the same imperialistic way mentioned earlier) building upon Benjamin’s concept of an afterlife.


Overall, despite only dealing with a few of the many metaphors out there, it is clear to see the key role metaphor plays in regulating and updating commonly held notions about translation. It is also interesting to follow how they develop with the passage of time to reflect society around them. If there are any more good ones out there that need to be shared then please leave me a comment below. Until next time.

8 thoughts on “Metaphors for Translation from Ferrymen to Omelettes

  1. Alina says:

    Although all of them are interesting and some are completely new to me, I have to say that my favourite ones are the comparison with a ferryman and the one with clothing.

    • jaltranslation says:

      Same here, those two are really thought-provoking (I like the idea of the ‘cultural sea’ that the translator/ferryman is crossing).
      I was originally going to use this post just to list as many metaphors as I could find but got caught up in exploring where they all came from and couldn’t include lots of other interesting ones.

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