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.

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’.

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.