Why not just use Google Translate?

A few days ago, I was discussing my work as a translator with a friend of mine. After going through the general details of what I do, he asked: “So, why don’t your clients just use Google Translate?”

It’s a question that I’m sure many translators have faced before, and I doubt it will be the last time I hear it. It wasn’t meant to be an insult to our profession (nor was it taken as one), but rather seems to reflect a common general perception of translation. As it was based on a genuine interest in what I do and highlighted an important issue, I wanted to give a clear, convincing answer.

Naturally, I started out with the typical translator’s response: “It just doesn’t work in many cases, it trips up on verbs, word order, everything really, and it doesn’t take account of the context.” Yet I could see that he wasn’t satisfied, he wanted concrete info.

I continued. “Think of an English word like ‘set’. It can mean so many different things. We can play a set of tennis, we can set up a business, set ourselves up for a long night of translating… Obviously, other languages don’t have the same word for all those meanings and Google Translate can’t always catch the right one.”

Still slightly unconvinced, at this point the conversation drifted onto something else and I went away feeling that I didn’t make my point quite as clearly as I could’ve done. As such, I decided to see if I could come up with a few examples here to demonstrate a few of the limitations of Google Translate.

I’m not going to go to the extremes of using examples that have gone catastrophically wrong, there are plenty of posts that do that. Instead, I want to show that, despite its many strengths and its rapid improvement in recent years, Google Translate won’t be replacing professional translators any time soon.


First up, how about a nice French proverb like “le monde appartient à ceux qui se lèvent tôt” [literally: the world belongs to those who get up early]?

Google gets this literal rendition spot on. But what does that actually mean? Though French speakers will be familiar with the world belonging to them when they get up nice and early, it won’t strike a chord with an English ear. However, if you were to say “the early bird catches the worm”, your Anglophone audience would certainly catch your drift.

Or what about the lovely (if slightly obscure) French phrase “c’est fromage et dessert” [literally: it’s cheese and dessert] that I recently had to tackle in translation?

It seems simple at first glance, it’s just a pair of common nouns. But this wasn’t a translation of a menu or something similar as you might expect. Instead, it was an article on university education in France. In this context, the phrase was used as a play on the old menu choice of “fromage ou dessert” [cheese or dessert] that invites diners to choose one or the other at the end of a meal.

In using “et” [and] instead of “ou” [or], it highlights that, whereas normally you have to make a choice between the two, in this situation you can enjoy each of two normally opposed options.

Putting the phrase through Google Translate, we’re left clueless as to its meaning in this context with a literal rendering of “it is cheese and dessert”. 

When translating the phrase myself I opted for an English version reading “it’s a case of having your cake and eating it”, recreating both this idea of combining two seemingly opposing choices as well as the culinary allusions contained in the French.

Both of these examples highlight a huge problem with Google Translate, it simply can’t handle idiomatic language. The same can be said of rhetoric, style, humour, and many other important facets of language that are tough even for a professional translator.

Finally, here’s an example from another text I worked on a while back. This time I thought I’d go all out and give an excerpt from the French text, a Google-translated version and the published English version to show the discrepancies.

The article in question offered a round-up of the sprinting events at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and the excerpt used is taken from the opening paragraph, which summarises a few of the highlights from the competition.

I’ve deliberately chosen an example where it was possible for the published version to remain very close to the French to show that even when a fairly literal rendering would suffice in English, Google Translate still isn’t up to the task (despite faring pretty well).

The problems are fairly clear to see, but I’ve highlighted a few personal favourites.


French text

Avec un nouveau triplé 100 m-200 m-4 x 100 m, Usain Bolt a définitivement cimenté à Rio sa légende de plus grand sprinter de tous les temps. Le Sud-Africain Wayde van Niekerk a fait sensation en battant un record du monde vieux de 17 ans sur 400 m, Elaine Thompson, la compatriote d’Usain Bolt, a réalisé le doublé 100 m-200 m, tandis que l’Américaine Allyson Felix est devenue la femme la plus titrée de l’histoire en athlétisme.

Google’s version

With a new triple 100 m-200 m-4 x 100 m, Usain Bolt has definitely cemented in Rio its legend of the biggest sprinter of all time. The South African Wayde van Niekerk made a sensation by beating a 17-year-old world record over 400m, Usain Bolt’s compatriot Elaine Thompson scored 100m-200m, while American Allyson Felix became the most titled woman in history in athletics.

Published translation

In the men’s sprinting events in Rio, Usain Bolt claimed three more golds to cement his status as the greatest sprinter of all time and South Africa’s Wayde van Niekerk broke a 17-year-old world record in the 400m. In the women’s competitions, Bolt’s compatriot Elaine Thompson took a sprint double in the 100m and 200m while Allyson Felix of the United States became the most-decorated female athlete of all time.


Ultimately, Google Translate is a great resource for certain purposes. It works pretty well in many cases and you can often get the gist in the examples above.

If all you need is that gist, then that’s fine. However, when you’re looking for a flowing, polished translation that always makes sense, don’t just assume that Google will do the job, get yourself a pro!

All that remains now is for me to print off this post and make it into a neat little handout to give to the next person who asks “Why not just use Google Translate?”

 

 

Starting out as a freelance translator

Hello everyone, hope you’re all well out there in translation land and have some exciting plans to round off the year!

Today’s post is something a little different. I recently gave a talk to the Translation Studies MA students at the University of Hull and thought I’d share my presentation with you here.

As the title of this post suggests, the seminar was all about getting started as a freelance translator, with me sharing tips and advice based on my own experiences within the wonderful world of freelancing.

Hopefully there will be plenty of useful information in there for those of you interested in a career in freelance translation and perhaps there will even be one or two handy snippets for more experienced freelancers.

The presentation touches upon everything from finding and completing your first translation job to a few different ways of developing an online presence using social media.

Public speaking and presentation skills aren’t my strongest areas but they are skills that I’m keen to develop, especially with conference papers, teaching and further presentations on the horizon. As such, any feedback or handy links for developing these areas would be greatly appreciated!

Anyway, here’s the recording of the presentation and the accompanying slides. (Click the images to get the full screen, slideshow version)

Enjoy!

 

P.S. If you’re having trouble with the SoundCloud player, here’s a direct link to the recording: https://soundcloud.com/jaltranslation/starting-out-as-a-freelance-translator

Etymology and a Universal Translation

Hello everyone, after a great guest post last time out, it’s time to get back to some of my own content! While I’ve asked ‘What’s in a word?‘ before on this blog, today I thought I’d strike up the discussion again from a slightly different perspective by looking at what is contained within the most important word in our profession: translation.

Beyond (hopefully) uncovering a few interesting little tidbits about the term by looking at the roots of the word ‘translation’ in several different languages, I also want to explore the various shades of meaning that each one offers us and question whether or not there exists a universal conception of ‘translation’.

An obvious starting point for this discussion is Andrew Chesterman’s 2005 paper ‘Interpreting the Meaning of Translation’, in which he sets out to tackle the very same question and argues that etymological variations signal different approaches to and understandings of translation across the world. As such, I’d like to analyse and expand upon his paper here by looking at several examples from different languages before discussing their overall relevance to one-another.

Starting with the fairly well-known roots of the English term, the word ‘translation’ comes from the Latin translatus, the past participle of the verb transferre. Meaning ‘to carry across’, this term is itself a translation from the Classical Greek metapherein (meta- [over, across] + pherein [to carry, bear]), from which we also get the term ‘metaphor‘.

For Chesterman, a Standard Average European ‘translation’ derived from these roots is therefore ‘etymologically a metaphor, whereby something is, in some sense, something that it literally is not.’

While these Latin/Greek roots are also shared by many modern usages of the term in Romance languages, these languages still display subtle departures from the connotations contained within the English ‘translation’.

The French term traduction, Spanish traducción, Italian traduzione and others all come from the Latin transducere (trans [across] + ducere [to lead]) and therefore see us making the slight shift from ‘carrying across’ to ‘leading across‘ – something that will be discussed further below.

Elsewhere in Europe, despite the fact that many languages of the Germanic and Slavic branches simply calqued their terms for the concept of translation from the Latin/Greek model mentioned above, this process still allowed for several subtly different nuances to emerge as the word moved into new territories. The German übersetzen [literally: to set across] and Swedish översättning, for example, contain suggestions of ‘passing over’.

Beyond this pattern of calquing, meanwhile, the Dutch term vertaling is literally a ‘re-language-ing’, combining the prefix ver- [meaning a ‘change’ or ‘move’ or ‘re-‘ in English] and taal [language] while the Finnish käännös literally means ‘a turn, a turning’, noticeably deviating from the standard European trends.

For Chesterman, the Finnish term ‘highlights difference, a new direction, entering a new context; what is not highlighted is any sense of preserving an identity, maintaining sameness’.

Curiously, käännös also means ‘to steal’ in Finnish slang, adding yet another dimension to the many possible interpretations of what it means to translate.

Even further afield, the Mandarin Chinese word for ‘translate’ is or fānyi with the verb fan having the basic meaning ‘flutter’ – suggesting unstable movement and changes of state.

Finally, in an interesting example from Maurizio Bettini, Igbo – a language spoken in Nigeria – uses the words tapia and kowa to signify ‘translation’. Both words are made up of an element that means ‘narrate‘ or ‘tell‘ and another that means ‘break, decompose‘. For Bettini ‘[i]n native conception, translation thus consists in a practice that “breaks” a certain series of utterances and then “re-tells” them’.

Anyway, enough examples. According to Chesterman, these various etymologies suggest differences in the way that translation is perceived within those cultures and unmasks different approaches to the activity at hand.

Using three separate etymological sources (all included in the examples above – 1. The English term from Latin/Greek roots, 2. The German or Swedish calques and 3. The Romance language ‘leading across’) he explores the way in which the act of transferring the content to be translated (labelled X) is framed differently within each of these usages:

  1. In English: ‘the underlying cognitive schema is of carrying X across; here, the agent is conceived of as moving over together with X, like a messenger.’
  2. In German and Swedish: ‘the agent stands on the source side, putting or setting X across; X is transferred in a direction away from the agent.’
  3. In Romance languages: ‘the agent etymologically leads X across; this suggests that the agent moves in advance of X, and the direction of movement is thus towards the agent.’

Despite conceding that more work is required in the area, Chesterman finishes by hesitantly suggesting that these different paths indicate that perhaps there is no universal conception of translation:

‘At the very least, the present preliminary study illustrates how the notion of translation has been interpreted in different ways in a number of different languages. It shows that not all these interpretations give the same priority to the preservation of sameness which characterizes the words denoting “translation” in many modern Indo-European languages.’

However, while these etymologies and developing meanings are fascinating, any implication that the roots of a word delimit the extent of our understanding of its significance in any way is an obvious oversimplification.

The English notion of translation is not tied to a rudimentary idea of ‘carrying across’ but rather entails everything that translation has come to stand for in the ensuing centuries.

Though the Latin origins of the modern English word perhaps demonstrate how translation was once viewed, our current understanding encompasses nearly all of the various meanings borne out of other languages’ etymologies of translation.

In other words, no matter what path we have taken to reach our current understanding of the term, translation/traduction/übersetzen etc. cannot be reduced to historical appraisals of what they once signified. For me, translation is not about ‘carrying across’, ‘leading across’ or whatever else, but rather all of these and so much more. This is the ‘universal translation’ of today.

Indeed, in my opinion, the ‘universal translation’ is best 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 action.

In English alone we see translation as transformation, building, turning, conquering, theft, cannibalism and so much more beyond the conception its etymological roots initially provided.

Ultimately, just as etymology suggests that translation is metaphor, metaphors for translation show that it is so much more than mere etymology.

Guest Post: Ten common French-English false friends

Today we have a real treat in the form of a guest post courtesy of the team at Textualis, a linguistic services company based in Montreal. So, without further ado, let’s get into the post!


False friends, or “faux amis”, are an obstacle that many of us encounter when we negotiate the vagaries of another language. We may think we are confident of the meaning of a word but often we are sadly mistaken.

So what exactly is a false friend, and what vocabulary dangers do they present? Despite being a Germanic language, English nonetheless has many words in common with French, a Romance language. While words like “intelligence” and “accident” present no issues as they are extremely similar in both languages (minus the nuances in pronunciation of course), this simplicity invites us down a dangerous path as it can lead us to believe that we understand more than we actually do. Indeed, not all words that appear to be the same in French and English actually are and, in many cases, the meanings are miles apart.

How does the false friend phenomenon occur?

The Oxford English Dictionary refers to three types of false friend, two of which are true false friends and one of which is a partial false friend.

True false friends occur either when words have the same root but have taken different paths to adopt non-congruent meanings over the years, or when words have no root in common but look alike by coincidence.

Partial false friends can potentially be even more confusing as they have a common root and some common meaning but other areas of their meaning differ.

What sort of words can present a difficulty?

While there are so many false friends out there just waiting to trip us up, a good place to start is getting to know ten of the most common ones between French and English. Of course, hiring a professional translation company or freelancer can help you avoid any confusion.

Demander – In French this means “to ask for” but in English has very different connotations. If you demand a meeting with someone it suggests a sense of urgency, determination, and possibly a certain amount of ire or concern.

Bribes – This could definitely be a source of some embarrassment as in French bribes means “fragments” while it has very different connotations in English, being something that is given to extort an action or favor. The root of the word actually comes from the French for small amounts of bread that were given as alms.

Fabrique – An English person looking at this word may assume that it means fabric, as in a material from which items such as clothing can be made but in French it’s actually the building within which such creation takes place i.e. une fabrique is a factory.

Chair – You would not be sitting on this in France, unless you want to sit on “flesh” of course. The actual French translation of the English chair is chaise, which is not a million miles away.

Librairie – In summoning up the English word “library” you are not that far away as this means “bookshop” in France. However, you may not fare too well if you try to borrow a book from a librairie without paying… If you want to borrow a book without engaging in criminal activity, you need to find yourself a bibliothèque.

Patron – If you are a patron in France then you are the boss, whereas in England you are a client or customer; completely different ends of the spectrum.

Chauffeur – This word is a partial false friend as it can have the same meaning in both French and English but in French can also mean any driver, whether employed to do so or not.

Porc – If you like your meat then you will recognize the relation between this word and the English version, pork. In France it also means the pig itself and pigskin. Another partial false friend.

Actuel – A very common false friend which in French means current or present, not real or authentic as in the English word “actual”.

Préservatif – The final false friend in this list is one that you definitely wouldn’t want to get confused. If you’re looking at the word and thinking of the English “preservative” then think again. In French if you’re asking for a préservatif you are asking for a condom.

From these examples alone you can see how easy it is for confusion to occur, so always be aware of false friends. Any other common false friends (or more interesting, funny ones!) you’ve come across in French/English translation? Feel free to leave a comment!

What’s in a word? La rentrée in translation

If there’s one word that stands out for me as a French translator when September comes around, it has to be la rentrée.  Literally meaning the return, there’s a surprising amount of depth hidden in this little word and several reasons for its current relevance.

At this time of year, the French term la rentrée is basically used to mark the end of the summer holidays. More importantly, however, it marks the period when the rhythm of day-to-day life in France resumes after a few months of rest and recuperation over the summer.

Indeed, beyond indicating the start of the new school year and people returning to work from their summer holidays, la rentrée also sees the government getting back to business, the much-anticipated literary season getting underway, clothing shops putting new collections in the shop windows and all the restaurants, bars and other shops that were closed for August finally reopening their doors in a dramatic renaissance that comes close to representing a second opportunity to shout ‘Happy New Year’.

While we experience a vaguely similar phenomenon in England with schools being closed and workers in general taking holidays over the summer months, in France they take it to another level entirely and the Anglo-Saxon world doesn’t have anything quite like la rentrée.

For a freelance translator, the relevance of this period of almost total inactivity for many French companies is immediately obvious from an economic perspective as work tends to be a bit quieter over the course of the summer.

However, aside from its economic impact, looking a little more closely at the word’s linguistic presence provides a fruitful topic of discussion for translators in general as the increased usage of the word ‘rentrée‘ in so many French texts at this time of the year presents an interesting challenge.

While the translation of the term isn’t particularly noteworthy within the context of children starting the new academic year – the phrase ‘back-to-school’ is extremely common in the UK and encapsulates this big return – it is in other contexts (I encounter it primarily in a business context e.g. companies welcoming back customers in their press releases, launching new products or offering deals to coincide with la rentrée) that the term’s cultural associations start to pose a few problems.

Initially, it has to be said that la rentrée is an undeniably elegant way to label the period: the word encapsulates so many associations that simply do not exist in English – we don’t experience the same thing so we don’t need a special word for it.

This leaves the translator having to make do with various paraphrases such as ‘after the summer break’, ‘heading into the autumn’, ‘when we reconvene in September’ etc. but none of these selections quite capture the richness of the French source, as discussed below:

‘The back-to-school period’ – While la rentrée can be viewed in a business context as something of a ‘back-to-school for adults’, adopting this solution in a context unrelated to education or the school year can lead to confusion e.g. ‘what is the relevance of children going back to school to this new online product that my business is considering using?’

‘The period after the summer holidays’ – For me, this translation is a slight move in the right direction as it retains something of the sense of renewal contained within ‘back-to-school’ without being overly explicit (the term ‘summer holidays’ is subtly reminiscent of the 6-week school holidays taken by children in the UK). However, this rendering still fails to capture any of the significance of the event beyond alluding to the return to school and work as there is no indication of the increased relevance of the time off or the impact of the return.

‘In the autumn/fall’ or ‘in September’ – Moving even further from the associations with school holidays, this third solution seems slightly preferable to the previous two as the use of ‘autumn’ or ‘September’ neatly rounds off the summer and indicates the start of something new. However, there just isn’t that same sense of impetus contained within a changing of season or month. With la rentrée there’s a feeling of anticipation in the air, a sense of renewal and a recharging of batteries that once again escapes the translator’s grasp…

Ultimately, these few example demonstrate that the most common solutions all leave something to be desired and coerce the translator into conjuring up other (usually equally problematic) potential directions to move in. The temptation to simply retain the French word untouched (accompanied by a translator’s note or a brief explanation) is always appealing but rarely practical while a more literal and inventive rendering such as ‘the big return’ or something similar leaves readers asking ‘the big return of what?’ or ‘who’s returning?’

Thankfully for us French translators, the concept of la rentrée is rarely central to a text and any loss is usually minimal even when employing the solutions mentioned above. However, this example just goes to show that there is a lot more going on in translation than the simple linguistic transposition of text on a page.

The process is so often an act of negotiation and compromise encompassing entire cultures and, while we often necessarily have to leave something behind in reproducing a text in a new language, it is the translator’s job to replicate as many meaningful associations as possible.

Vive la rentrée!

The Fun of Nonstandard Lang-diddly-anguage

Regular readers of my blog will know that I’m a big fan of looking at the creative methods translators have used to tackle specific problems in popular culture and today’s post is certainly along those same lines.
Today’s example comes from the globally-adored series The Simpsons and provides a particularly curious example emerging from the use of (my take on) nonstandard language.
Nonstandard language is often described as being characterized by idiom or vocabulary that is not regarded as correct and acceptable by educated native speakers of a language and Peter Trudgill’s Introducing Language and Society states that nonstandard dialects in English are considered as differing “most importantly at the level of grammar”.
While I don’t want to spend too much time focusing on definitions here, it is worth noting that I prefer to use a more general, neutral understanding of the term than the prejudiced, sociological view put forward by most scholars. In  Linguistics for Non-Linguists, F. Parker and K. Riley define “a standard dialect as one that draws no negative attention to itself” while “a nonstandard dialect does draw negative attention to itself; that is, educated people might judge the speaker of such a dialect as socially inferior, lacking education, and so on” and this characterises nonstandard language in terms of a sociological judgement rather than a linguistic one.
Rather than using a “negative effect” as the defining attribute of nonstandard language, however, I want to look at it as a deviation from our expectations that produces a specific effect. What is nonstandard to me will be perfectly standard to other individuals while the illusory, mythical ‘standard’ is an ethical nightmare as the very claim that there exists a ‘standard’ form of language asserts an ideology of what is and isn’t acceptable. Ultimately, what is certain is that language alters our reading experience in particular ways and it is these effects that must be appreciated by the translator.
Contentious definitions aside, the focus of this post lies in the language of Ned Flanders, a well-known and much-loved character from The Simpsons whose verbal tics have gained a great degree of fame across the globe without ever being discussed in the context of translation (to my knowledge). The closest thing I’ve seen is speculation over what would happen if Google Translate offered ‘Flanders’ as a language.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Flanders verbal tics in English, Ned has the odd habit of attaching “diddly”, “doodly” and other nonsensical phrases to his sentences. This is the result of sublimated anger caused by his upbringing that has no other outlet. He also has the habit of saying “Okally-Dokally” when replying to someone – representing a distorted form of “Okey-dokey” and similarly meaning OK.
In terms of the definition discussed above, when Flanders adds “diddly” to a word, he deviates from our linguistic expectations in such a way to produce a unique, comical effect and this is what needs to be replicated in the translation.
When assimilating these tics to their respective linguistic systems, several European translators opted to use variations of typical expressions (“salut”, “salve” and “hola” in FR, IT and ES for “hi-diddly-ho”) distorted in such a way as to retain the rhyme, alliteration and assonance that characterises the odd, yet distinctive, effect created in the English.
Furthermore, these variations are often developed (similarly to the English) by using suffixes that were themselves initially derived from Romance languages and this aids the translators in producing a natural-sounding yet equally nonsensical end product.

“Hi-diddly-ho neighborino!”
FR: Salit salut, cher voisinou
IT: Salve salvino, vicino
                                                                                                      ES: Hola holita vecinito

“Okally-dokally!”                                                                                   
FR: D’acodac!
                                                                                                                                IT: Certo certosino!

What adds more interest to the situation, however, is the humorous – if ridiculous – fact that Ned’s relatives from around the globe also share his verbal tics. When Ned introduces Homer Simpson to José Flanders  – a relative from Latin America – and Lord Thistlewick Flanders – a snobbish English Flanders – in the episode Lisa the Vegetarian, José uses a Spanish idiom inflected by the English version of the tics and Thistlewick (pressured by Ned) replicates the tics in his exaggerated English accent.
Here is the section in question in English: (the most interesting phrases are highlighted)

Homer: Ned! You’re having a family reunion and you didn’t invite me!?
Ned: Oh, gosh Homer. This is strictly a Flanders affair. I’ve got family here from around the globe. [Points out one relative.] Here’s José Flanders.
José: Buenos ding dong diddly días señor.
Ned: And this is Lord Thistlewick Flanders.
Thistlewick: Charmed. [Ned nudges him in the back.] Eh, a googily… doogily.

While José replies here in an English-based, Flandersian Spanish by saying “Buenos ding dong diddly días señor” – incorporating the English tics into a Spanish phrase – other languages must incorporate their own interpretation of the tics outlined above into the translations:

IT:
Jose Flanders: Buenos dindinondandasdias senor!
Ned Flanders: E questo è Lord Thistlewick Flanders.
Lord Thistlewick Flanders: Incantato. [Ned gli da una gomitata] Ehm… can… tatino, cantatino.
FR:
José Flanders: Buenos dius dios dias senior.
Ned: Et voici Lord Thistlewick Flanders.
Lord Thistlewick: Charmé. [Ned lui donne un petit coup de coude] Heu… How di yi di, how do you do ?

As you can see, the nonstandard Spanish used in the English version cannot simply be retained in the French or Italian as, while the audience is considered to be sufficiently familiar with Spanish to make the inclusion of a basic phrase unproblematic, the joke has to be reframed in the context of the pre-existing translation of Ned Flanders’ vocal tics for it to work.
Interestingly, the existence of a third language in the Italian and French versions (the English of Thistlewick to add to the main language and the Spanish of José) allows Thistlewick’s language to be capitalised upon in a manner similar to José’s in the English. While the Italian audience will undoubtedly be familiar with a simple phrase in English (‘How do you do’ is used in the French) this is an opportunity that the Italian version oddly didn’t take.
(Here’s a link to the Latin American version of the episode in question for anyone who fancies checking out another extremely interesting version… The key scene is at about 3:45)
For me, this treatment of nonstandard language usage provides an extreme example of what translators have to do so often in their work. While dialogue is an area where these kinds of verbal deviations are very prominent as it provides “a powerful tool to reveal character traits or social and regional differences” (Taavitsainen et al in Writing in Nonstandard English), a more subtle version of this phenomenon is always present in a text in the form of a particular ‘tone of voice’.
This is particularly important in marketing translations, for example, where a company may want to ensure that their audience receives a certain impression of their values, standing or professionalism. In order to give this impression, their texts must employ a brand of language that adheres to, and deviates from, our expectations in such a way as to create that particular effect and it is down to the translator to replicate it in the target language.
Ultimately, while Flanders’ speech isn’t simply a tone of voice, his language usage nevertheless serves to demonstrate the amazing effects that slight deviations can produce and points to an oft-overlooked level of awareness required on the part of translators.

The Power of Translation: the Fox and the Grapes

After a bit of a love-in over the Language Lovers competition last time out (don’t forget to vote!), today’s post takes a look at a specific translation example in order to analyse the translator’s role in creating meaning and the potential impact that our decisions can have.

As the title suggests, the text chosen for analysis in this post is the famous fable of ‘The Fox and the Grapes’. First written (or more likely spoken) by Aesop in the 6th Century B.C., the fable has gone on to hold an important place in literary culture across the globe.

The definitive version of the fable as we know it here in England, translated by V.S. Vernon Jones in 1912,  goes like this:

A hungry Fox saw some fine bunches of Grapes hanging from a vine that was trained along a high trellis, and did his best to reach them by jumping as high as he could into the air. But it was all in vain, for they were just out of reach: so he gave up trying, and walked away with an air of dignity and unconcern, remarking, “I thought those Grapes were ripe, but I see now they are quite sour.”

The moral that is most frequently taken from the story these days is that it is easy to take a dislike to something that you cannot have, and we do this in order to rationalise the fact that we do not have it whether or not that feeling is genuine.

Indeed, this moral is made explicit in many of the translations of the text, where authors have added a final remark outlining the fox’s real mental workings. French poet Isaac de Benserade, for example, adopts a thoughtful, moralising tone in his concise version and includes a final quatrain in which the fox admits that the grapes really were ripe but ‘what cannot be had, you speak of badly.’

So dominant is this interpretation of the fable that it is widely held that the English expression ‘sour grapes’ subsequently developed in relation to the usage in this tale. In contemporary English the phrase is used exactly as it is in the fable, referring to the act of pretending not to care for something you want but do not or cannot have.

What interests us from the context of translation, however, is the way in which a specific linguistic choice in the 1912 Vernon Jones translation has gone on to shape our understanding of the fable. As seen above, the grapes are described as ‘sour’ in the final line, yet research into earlier versions suggests that the Greek word employed in the original fables (‘ὄμφαξ’/’omphakes’) actually means ‘unripe’ grapes.

This interpretation is also alluded to in the Roman fabulist Phaedrus’ Latin version of the tale which pronounces: ‘nondum matura es’ [‘you are not ripe yet’], echoing the Greek original.

While initially appearing to be a minor change, upon closer inspection the use of the word ‘sour’ in fact alters the entire complexion of the story. In moving from ‘unripe’ (and therefore bad tasting as a result of this lack of maturity) to simply ‘sour’, we pass from a potential hint at patience and understanding on the part of the fox – he would perhaps return later at a more opportune moment when the grapes are ripe – to the disdainful, envious connotations that we have come to associate with the fable.

However, rather than being a mere slip on the part of the translator, this move represents a calculated choice that was designed to reflect the needs and the dominant ideology of the society into which the text was being translated. Beyond the aesthetic appeal that ‘sour grapes’ holds over the more clumsy ‘unripe grapes’, the term ‘unripe’ would have also contained the sexual connotation of an as-yet unripe woman, something that the author clearly sought to avoid in making his interpretation acceptable to the ultra-prudish audience of an approximately Victorian-era England.

The Greek phrasing not only contains this ambiguity – with the phrase having both the literal meaning of an unripe grape and the metaphorical usage of a girl not yet ripe for marriage – but is likely to have contained these sexual undertones as a fully intentional strand of meaning, with the original text existing in an age where advice against such actions would have perhaps had more pertinence. Given this centrality, the English author’s choice represents a clear attempt to sidestep what he deemed as an inappropriate interpretation.

In the canonical French translation of the fable by Jean de La Fontaine, meanwhile, which predates the English version by a considerable margin (it was first published in 1668) and was thus produced for both a different era and culture having its own different social standards and taboos, the rendering remains closer to the original version than the English does and leaves a greater amount of interpretive potential intact.

In rendering sour/unripe, La Fontaine used the phrase ‘ils sont trop verts’ [lit: ‘they are too green’ – ‘unripe’], and left ample room for interpretation.

Ultimately, in this specific context the example serves to demonstrate the power that translation wields in shaping meaning and exposes the way in which language use can be exploited to fulfil our own ideological wishes. More worryingly, perhaps, it demonstrates the extent to which we are often completely powerless to detect these changes: if we do not understand the language of the original then we are left at the mercy of the translator and take their rendering as the authoritative version.

Despite its continued relevance, the Vernon Jones version undeniably closes off several passages of meaning contained within the original while simultaneously opening up other channels which, while misrepresenting the source text, have nevertheless gone on to deeply ingrain themselves within English language and culture.

The power that the translator holds here is extraordinary: books, songs and films have subsequently emerged based on interpretations that developed from one man’s personal, culturally-bound take on an ancient text and the selection of one little word – ‘sour’.