More Metaphors: Smugglers, Smashed Shells and the River Styx

Today’s post represents the continuation of a discussion started a few weeks ago in my post ‘Metaphors for Translation from Ferrymen to Omelettes’ which explored how the use of metaphor within the discipline has evolved in order to update or alter representations of the translation act.

After writing that post, it occurred to me that I was left with a surplus of other metaphors which, either due to self-imposed spatial constraints or them not fitting with the progression I was aiming to achieve, had been neglected.

I find the use of metaphors in this context fascinating and many of these abandoned examples offer an interesting take on translation – many of them I had never come across before – and so I thought it would be worthwhile dedicating a second post to the subject in order to share my research and hopefully provide you all with some interesting examples.

As such, here are another ten metaphors for translation, in no particular order, alongside quotations or brief explanations for your enjoyment:


“In antiquity , for instance, one of the dominant images of the translators was that of a builder: his (usually it was him, not her) task was to carefully demolish a building, a structure (the source text), carry the bricks somewhere else (into the target culture), and construct a new building – with the same bricks.” – Andrew Chesterman


In a translational context, this metaphor stems mainly from Paul Ricoeur’s and Jacques Derrida’s concept of ‘Hospitality’ which was adopted by translation studies scholars alongside many of their other ideas. This idea places the target text as the guest to be welcomed into the source language and, in the same way that a host will accommodate their guest’s needs without ever wholly fulfilling them due to the alien nature of the situation, translation too should aim to welcome (and retain) the foreignness while never being fully able to preserve it in its entirety.

As Ricoeur writes: “Bringing the reader to the author, bringing the author to the reader, at the risk of serving and of betraying two masters: this is to practice what I like to call linguistic hospitality.”

Transfusion, Cannibalism, Vampirism

As B.J. Epstein writes in her excellent Brave New Words blog, Augusto de Campos uses the metaphor of the transfusion of blood. “Translation is for him a physical process, it is a devouring of the source text, a transmutation process, an act of vampirization.”

Furthermore “the images of translation as cannibalism, as vampirism, whereby the translator sucks out the blood of the source text to strengthen the target text, as transfusion of blood that endows the receiver with new life, can all be seen as radical metaphors that spring from post-modernist post-colonial translation theory.”


As Matthew Reynolds writes, “Elizabeth Barrett Browning in 1833 suggests that translations are like mirrors ‘held in different lights by different hands’ and ‘according to the vocation of the artist, will the copy be’. Usually there is an element of dismissiveness in calling a translation a copy. But not here, for Aeschylus’s writings too, like ‘all beauties, whether in nature or art’, are themselves ‘reflections, visible in different distances, and under different positions, of one archetypal beauty’. In this chain of reflections reflected there seems to be at least the possibility that a translator might capture ‘archetypal’ beauty no less well, and perhaps even better, than the first mirror off which it has bounced: a reflection reflected is after all the right way round.’

Shell and kernel
Another metaphor found via Epstein’s blog sees Latham present the idea of preserving the general meaning if not the exact wording of the text with his comment “I used the freedome of a Translator, not tying myselfe to the tyranny of a Grammatical consruction, but breaking the shell into many peeces, was only carefull to preserve the Kernell safe and whole, from the violence of a wrong, or wrested Interpretation.” (as quoted in Venuti’s excellent The Translator’s Invisibility).


This metaphor was originally used in a feminist context as Luise Von Flotow described three main feminist strategies: supplementing, prefacing and ‘hijacking’.
As Oana Surugiu puts it: “It consists of deliberately ‘feminizing the target text’ as in the (much quoted) example of the feminist translator Gaboriau, who translated “Ce soir j’entre dans l’histoire sans relever ma jupe” (literally:
Tonight I shall step into history without lifting my skirt) as ‘Tonight I shall step into history without opening my legs’.”

Charon on the River Styx

This has to be one of my favourite metaphors for translation (perhaps mainly due to my love of the imagery involved – as shown in the previous post…) and one that goes beyond the ideas of the ferryman and the life, death and ‘afterlife’ of the text introduced in my previous post on the subject. Here, Henri Meschonnic elaborates his own concept of translation as the death of the text and uses the image of Charon – the ferryman of Greek Mythology who carries the souls of the dead across the river Styx that divided the world of the living from the world of the dead – to stand for translation as moving from one life to another.


‘So many people consider their work a daily punishment, whereas I love my work as a translator. Translation is a journey over a sea from one shore to the other. Sometimes I think of myself as a smuggler: I cross the frontier of language with my booty of words, images, ideas, and metaphors.’ Amara Lakhous


It is quite common for a link to be drawn between translation and music, and these quotes represent just two different uses of the subject in this manner:

“Poetry translation is like playing a piano sonata on a trombone.” – Nataly Kelly

“A translation is no translation, he said, unless it will give you the music of a poem along with the words of it.” – John Millington Synge


“Love and translation look alike in their grammar. To love someone implies transforming their words into ours. Making an effort to understand the other person and, inevitably, to misinterpret them. To construct a precarious language together.” – Andrés Neuman

So there you have it; as before, I have to add that there are many more metaphors out there – translation as placing a jewel in a different casket, preserving fire, suffering from disease or bringing the dead to life to name a few – yet I feel I have introduced the majority of the most interesting and most widely cited examples out there and hopefully at least one of these representations of translation will strike a chord with you.


4 responses to “More Metaphors: Smugglers, Smashed Shells and the River Styx”

  1. I was so looking forward to this one after reading the previous post. The builder one is for me the most “accurate” (as accurate as metaphors can be), it definitely reflects really well what a translator does. But I also have to like the one with Charon, though I may be biased as a big fan of Greek mythology.

    1. Same here Alina! You’re exactly right, the builder metaphor really captures what translation involves but the ones that involve a bit more poetry (Charon, love, or music) ultimately seem much more appealing.
      So glad you enjoyed it – thanks for suggesting that I write it! 🙂

  2. […] the past I’ve written about my love for metaphor within translation (on two separate occasions no less) and this post roughly picks up from there. Previously, I’ve taken a look at the […]

  3. […] seen when we consider the many metaphors that exist for the activity, something I’ve explored previously on this blog, as these demonstrate the multiple interpretations in […]

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