Translation’s Identity Crisis

In today’s post I want to take a quick glance at the content and usage of some famous quotes from translation history in an attempt to explore the curious way that translation is viewed and views itself.

For so long now translation has struggled with its identity as a supposedly second-rate activity, with its derivative link to writing, the subservient implications of following someone else’s words and the sense of distrust that the process elicits all feeding into a fairly unflattering stereotype.

This being the case, it is only natural that its practitioners would want to address the way their activity is viewed and, as such, so often in talking about translation we see mentions of artistry and the unfathomable complexity of our task. Unfortunately, it seems to me that this is often done in an attempt to gloss over underlying anxieties related to invisibility and unimportance that remain at the heart of the profession.

Looking through a range of the most frequently cited quotes on translation provides the perfect glimpse into this situation; the majority fall into two distinct categories that neatly characterise the state of our profession from a psychological perspective – ultimately verging on the emergence of a bipolar image of translation and a serious inferiority complex.

The first set of quotations (examples in green below) is filled with a sense of grandeur that ensures that  translation becomes the most important thing in the world, overcompensating for underlying anxieties as a means of justifying career choices and supposedly reinforcing professional standing (echoes of this are found in the title of Lawrence Venuti’s recent release – Translation Changes Everything).

The other set, meanwhile, (examples in red below) directly addresses the underlying worries about unworthiness and inability in our activity and ultimately reverts to the insecurities mentioned above. These quotes reinforce the negative image of copying (e.g. translation as ‘an echo’) and emphasise ideas of failure and loss.

While the true image of translation perhaps lies somewhere in the middle, it is fascinating to see the contrast in viewpoints: the impressions given are either hugely impressive or overwhelmingly disparaging, rarely anything less. (One quote that I do feel finds quite a nice balance and gives a valuable image of translation is this from Edith Grossman: ‘A translation is not made with tracing paper. It is a critical interpretation.’)


Translation is one of the few human activities in which the impossible occurs by principle – Mariano Antolín Rato

Writers make national literature, while translators make universal literature – José Saramago

Translators are the shadow heroes of literature, the often forgotten instruments that make it possible for different cultures to talk to one another, who have enabled us to understand that we all, from every part of the world, live in one world – Paul Auster

Without translation, we would be living in provinces bordering on silence – George Steiner

Translation is the circulatory system of the world’s literatures – Susan Sontag

Translation is that which transforms everything so that nothing changes – Grass Günter

Translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture – Anthony Burgess

Translation is entirely mysterious. Increasingly I have felt that the art of writing is itself translating, or more like translating than it is like anything else – Ursula K. Le Guin

Poetry is what gets lost in translation – Robert Frost

As far as modern writing is concerned, it is rarely rewarding to translate it, although it might be easy. Translation is very much like copying paintings – Boris Pasternak

Nothing which is harmonized by the bond of the Muse can be changed from its own to another language without destroying its sweetness – Dante

Translation is sin – Grant Showerman

Poetry cannot be translation – Samuel Johnson

Translation is at best an echo – George Borrow

Translation is the art of failure – Umberto Eco

What is lost in the good or excellent translation is precisely the best – Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel

For me, Eco’s lament perfectly sums up the bipolar view of translation that has dominated history: an overall sense of futility is combined with the elegant label of translation as art.

These days, the positive quotes crop up with great regularity in translation circles and are undeniably pleasant to read. They give us a sense of recognition and allow us to convince ourselves that translation is equal to, or even surpasses, writing. We become ‘heroes’, cultural saviours or super-powered readers who do the ‘impossible’ for the good of the universe.

Beyond their extravagance, however, the main problem here lies in the fact that in using these quotes within translation circles (as is so often the case) we are looking inward in an act of patting ourselves on the back, lauding the fact that we achieve this ‘impossible’ goal on a daily basis while the outside world still doesn’t see the significance of our work.

Translation needs to develop its wider image in order to be seen as a truly legitimate profession and what we need to change is the misguided perceptions that exist of what is involved in our task. Outside of translation the most commonly used cliché is that of things being ‘lost in translation’ and this reflects badly on us. In professional terms, meanwhile, translation is all too often viewed as a part-time activity that anyone with some knowledge of a second language can fit into their spare time to earn a bit of extra pocket-money.

In schools (in the UK at least) we are taught from the very outset that translation is merely a means of ensuring comprehension. When faced with the command ‘translate this passage’ in an exam we are to show that we have done our vocabulary homework – notions of entire contexts or cultures are completely ignored.

Nowhere is it mentioned that so much of our literature, so much of the world around us has undergone this process of translation, leaving us with the implication that it is just a case of swapping one word for another.

I’ve often tried to dispel myths such as these in my blog by demonstrating the complexity of the task at hand but claiming that we are producing works of art or changing the world on a daily basis (as seen above) smacks of overcompensation when given the reality of the situation. Indeed, this in turn feeds into a lack of professional credibility as we can’t expect to be taken seriously if we make such outlandish claims beyond our own community.

Ultimately, ideas such as that of good translation going unnoticed may well be deeply engrained (to the extent of being the ideal by which translations are judged in many professional contexts) but we can still increase awareness of what we do. Unfortunately, in offering up exaggerated accounts of our work’s demands to one-another or wallowing in self-pity, we are going about it the wrong way.

It is clear that translation remains misunderstood by so many people and perhaps what is needed is a focus on consistently and clearly explaining what is at stake to communities beyond the confines of the discipline/profession for them to learn to trust and value translation for what it is.

What is certain for now is that translation needs to be more secure in its own identity. Our inability to provide perfection has gradually led to the development of a profession that can seem to be unduly insufficient. We need to be not only sure of our own value, but also realistic about the value we offer as we look to overcome this professional identity dilemma.


12 responses to “Translation’s Identity Crisis”

  1. Excellent post! The juxtaposition of the selected quotations speaks volume.

    1. Thanks Nancy, really glad you enjoyed it!
      Interestingly, I found that there are plenty of quotes out there that do occupy the middle ground but they’re generally just literal accounts of what translation involves. As soon as the ideas become more abstract and metaphorical, they tend to follow one of the two paths I looked at.

  2. I’m curious why all the quotes are from literary figures. We’ve heard all of these before ad nauseam and honestly in many cases they are uttered by people who are wholly unqualified in every way to make such unflattering pronouncements.

    For example, who gives a crap what Robert Frost thinks about translation? Who gives a crap what ANY monolingual person thinks about translation? It’s like taking seriously what a 5-year-old thinks about quantum physics.

    We make the problem worse by disseminating monolingual dismissive ignorance like this. (Also, Frost is shockingly dismissive of the talents of translators working around the world who fed him and his family. It’s unseemly, honestly.)

    And then of course literary translation itself makes up but a sliver of the profession, and much of the most visible and important advocacy for translators — meaning actually engaging with the media, for example, as a means to promote the crucial role of translation and translators — happen at the top of the commercial side of the market.

    I would personally be interested in an article or blog post devoted to quotations about translation and translators from people who are at least multilingual or not uncharitably and borderline ignorantly dismissive of the amazing skills and talents of people who have appreciably fed their own livelihood.

    So I will start. “Sometimes the original is just a pale imitation of the translation.” Eat that, Frost. 🙂

    1. Hi Kevin, I see you’ve summoned up your inner Borges there (“The original is unfaithful to the translation”) 🙂
      Thanks a lot for your comment, I think you really hit the nail on the head with a couple of points. I did plan on going into the sources of the quotes here but the post had already become a lot longer than initially intended…
      There are plenty of more representative citations out there that focus on the actual act of translation but they tend to be so dry and forgettable that we’ve ended up circulating the likes of the Frost quote you mentioned which, despite coming from a relatively uninformed source, has managed to become extremely well-established.
      The gap between the actual profession of translation, the perceived image of translation and the discipline of translation studies remains a major worry.

  3. Nice post Jal!

    Here’s my favorite quote:

    “Le problème avec les citations sur Internet, c’est qu’on est jamais sûr de leur origine” (Napoléon Bonaparte).

    A task translators must often carry out is to find out where quotes originate from, to find out if previous translations have already been published.

    That’s the problem with popular quotes on the inter web, isn’t it? It’s often difficult to find out if they’re genuine – nevermind their actual context (I suspect that Umberto Eco’s quote is actually a positive one, but that’s difficult to assert without context, right?).

    That said, I think the real problem is the inevitable conflict that arises from comparing source and target – it’s as if we have to find out which is superior and which is inferior, as if they could not coexist without a “rapport de force”.

    I’ve just seen the trailer for the “Hercules” film. Here’s a translation that no one feels any need to compare with its source (Heracles). Yet imagine if they did the same to the likes of Jean Valgean or the Count of Montecristo : John Valging ? the Earl of Mountchrist ? 🙂

    1. Hi there, thanks a lot for your comment.
      Great points. The point about the Eco quote in particular is an interesting one. The quote is undoubtedly positive with its full context, the problem is that when it is used as a standalone phrase it sends out a very different message.
      Here’s a nice article that touches upon the full context a little more clearly:
      I did want to explore the sources of the quotes (who made them, who is still using them, etc.) but the post had already become much longer than I had initially anticipated! Thanks again.

  4. You make some good points Jal and I agree with your conclusions. I think, however, that the literary quotes are close to irrelevant. Your argument would be stronger if you analysed professional non-literary translation and literary translation (and even community translation for that matter) in complete separate fields. Professional non-literary translators are believed to represent well over 90% of the worldwide translation market by value. Comments and quotes by literary translators, famous writers and the like are seldom particularly relevant to what we do and often downright misleading.

    Steve Dyson. Check out my blog on Translating Technical Journalism at

    1. Thanks for your comment Steve, you make a very interesting point. The quotes are undoubtedly a small element of the wider point I was trying to make and I definitely agree about the lack of correspondence between the quotations and the day-to-day profession of translation. However, despite this irrelevance, I still feel that these quotes serve to represent translation as a whole (as much as a quote can, of course). The number of professional non-literary translators and translation associations citing and seemingly endorsing the quotes is quite staggering and I don’t think that the distinction you made is universally appreciated – translation is just translation for many people. Onlookers ultimately receive an inaccurate/exaggerated account of translation from an unrepresentative group of practitioners and that’s certainly a cause for concern…

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