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.

Getting to grips with translation theory: A (very) brief introduction.

Given that my previous post delving into the world of translation theory (5 mini reviews) saw a fair amount of interest, I decided that it would be worthwhile to keep writing on the topic, and what better place to start than from the beginning?!

Translation studies as a discipline, though relatively small, can still appear daunting when first taking the plunge. This is where the introductory literature (much of which was mentioned in my reviews) proves to be useful, but I also wanted to write a brief introduction of my own just to provide a point of orientation for anyone currently lacking the time or inclination to wade into a more thorough exploration of the subject.

While there is an undoubted void between translation theory and practice and an elitism that sees the translation of literature and poetry researched much more than the practical texts which make up the working translator’s staple diet – both of which will no doubt deter many already-established freelancers from making the effort to explore translation theory, arguing that they can work perfectly well without it – I am of the firm conviction that a good understanding of the ground that has been covered throughout the history of translation is extremely beneficial to the practicing translator.

As such, there are a few key progressions that I will briefly detail, followed by suggestions for further reading, and hopefully I will have the opportunity to provide more detailed explanations in the future.

As thought on translation has developed over the centuries, there have always been prevailing ideas of the correct level of translation and correct method of translation and first of all we will cover the level of translation.

The passage from word to culture

From the idea of translating ‘sense-for-sense’ over ‘word-for-word’ put forward by Jerome (the patron saint of translators) which replaces the individual word as the unit of translation with the phrase, dualistic oppositions have often featured prominently in translation theory.

The bipolar ‘free vs. literal’ translation for example, which questions whether a translated text should remain close to the source text or be rendered in flowing prose, is widely known and Eugene Nida’s idea of formal equivalence vs. dynamic equivalence (which roughly equates to retention of original form (FE) against naturalness of expression (DE)) follows along similar lines.

Today, the most widely cited theoretical idea is Lawrence Venuti’s thought based on deviation from domestic norms. This sees him develop a methodology in which he attempts to overturn the standard translation practice of ‘domestication’ – making a text fit in with the dominant norms of the target culture – with a method labelled as ‘foreignisation’ which involves avoiding standard usage and allowing the ‘foreignness of the text to shine through’.

In this way translation theory has moved from the level of the sentence to the level of text or indeed culture as a whole, emphasising context, and this ‘cultural turn’ is the area of preoccupation for many contemporary scholars.

Origins of the discipline and different theoretical stances

The discipline name ‘translation studies’ was first coined by poet and translator James Holmes, who was one of the first scholars to really explore the science of translation. His precocious and comprehensive map of the discipline is still quite widely used in translation literature today due to its wide scope and its accuracy in addressing both practical and theoretical issues. Indeed, his ‘Applied translation’-‘Translation Aids’ designation still provides one of the only links between translation theory and modern translation technology.


Moving on from this general map of the discipline as a whole, scholars have tended to focus their attention on specific areas of translation, each pertaining to certain established schools of thought. There are those who focus on linguistic ideas, seeing the way that language works as the key to understanding the process of translation. Meanwhile, there are others who follow Gideon Toury’s descriptive translation studies with its ideas of polysystems (which is praised for taking social contexts into account) and translation norms, claiming that the methodological study of translations over a period of time and within particular contexts will show patterns that can lead to a better understanding of the translation process.

The other major school of thought in translation theory is that of functional translation which takes a more practical view of the translation task and is most applicable to the work of freelance translators. With its key idea of Skopostheorie developed by Hans Vermeer and Katharina Reiss, which assigns a ‘skopos’ or aim to a particular translation (rather like a translation brief), it forces translators to consider the consequences of their decisions and to carefully think about the purpose of their translation in order to make more informed decisions.

Finally, it is worth considering the increasing influence of philosophical ideas on translation theory with Jacques Derrida’s post-structuralist concepts of ‘différance’ and ‘deconstruction’ widely mentioned in contemporary translation theory. These ideas, which emphasise the pivotal role of context in the act of translation and the unstable nature of meaning, prove to be very attractive to the translation scholar but ultimately tell us very little about how to actually translate.

Overall this can be seen as one of the main issues with translation theory as much research tends asks more questions than it answers and, in spite of all that has been written to date, the question remains to what extent do we really know how to translate better due to theoretical knowledge?

Or, as Eliot Weinberger put it: ‘Translation theory, however beautiful, is useless for translating. There are laws of thermodynamics, and there is cooking.’

Suggestions for Further Reading

One great series which cover most ideas in translation theory is St Jerome publishing’s ‘Translation Theories Explored’ (Nord’s Translating as a Purposeful Activity – covering the functional approach – is a personal favourite)

Meanwhile, for a discussion of more practical topics which apply only the relevant amount of theory, their ‘Translation Practices Explained’ series has many great titles.

The best introductory texts are listed in this blog while Venuti’s The Translator’s Invisibility is an excellent next step.

For linguistically-focused theory try Hatim and Mason’s Discourse and the Translator.

Finally, for descriptive translation studies Toury’s Descriptive Translation Studies: and Beyond is a good place to start while Gentzler’s Contemporary Translation Theories adequately covers this area while also starting to examine philosophical contributions.