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’.

Book Review: 101 Things a Translator Needs to Know

After bringing you a Translation Studies-based post last time out, I wanted to again stick with an exploration of translation literature in today’s entry. The similarities end there, however, as here I give you my thoughts on the recently published (April 2014) 101 Things a Translator Needs to Know – quite a compelling title I’m sure you’ll agree – which provides a light collection of practical tips rather than an in-depth, academic odyssey.

First of all, it is worth mentioning that the book was written by a number of authors (including some fairly big names in the translation community) who are all members of the WLF Think Tank – a virtual body of experienced practicing translators. In a brief introduction the book quickly informs us that the 101 tips contained within come from “a broad spectrum of translation professionals with some 500 years of collective experience” so you instantly know that the advice on offer will be ultra-reliable.

The book’s tips range from practical translation advice (translating numbers or units of measurement in a source text, for example) to thoughts on the professional obligations that occupy a translator (such as the importance of marketing your business or keeping track of your finances).

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of the book is its neat design, with each of the 101 translation tips displayed across two pages (see below for a typical example). On the left-hand page of each tip you find an excellent illustration by  Catherine Anne Hiley while the right-hand page contains a cleverly worded title for each tip as well as a well-articulated, succinct elaboration of around 100-200 words. With a selection of witty representations of the tips they depict and some neat cultural references (be sure to check out #45’s spin on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album cover), the illustrations fit in seamlessly and represented something of a personal highlight.DSC_0658

While I found myself with a few hours going spare and decided to blitz through the entire book in one sitting, the aforementioned style and the easily digested content are perfectly suited to a quick five-minute read when you’re in need of a break.

Less convincing, however, is the assertion that the book is perfectly suited to a wide-ranging readership. The very first page informs us that:

This is a book for beginners. It’s also a book for seasoned professionals, students and teachers. For freelancers and staff translators. For amateurs and experts, generalists and super-specialists – be they certified or sworn, recognised, authorised… or simply tantalised by translation’s potential for a varied and enriching career.

While it is certainly true that the book will appeal to anyone with an interest in translation, it seems to me that the content is primarily geared towards the beginner or student of translation looking to gain a foothold in the profession.

Yet that is not to say that the tips are of no use to a more experienced professional, quite the contrary. While anyone who has been around the translation community for an extended period will have previously read words to the same effect at some point, it is undeniably nice to have these tips gathered together in one place. Furthermore, the fact that the authors touch upon all aspects of life as a translator means that the book provides a handy way for professionals to ensure that they are operating in a well-rounded manner. The tips will either ring true and validate their existing practices or point to areas of their work requiring additional attention.

One minor gripe that I must share was the occasional repetition of certain points made throughout the short volume. Topics like ‘Specialism’ (tips 18 and 27) or ‘Saying No’ (4 and 34) both receive several mentions and, while this was probably a deliberate attempt to drive home specific points for readers who are less familiar with the area (indeed, tip #57 explicitly states the important role of repetition as an emphatic device in translation and this use of repetition is a positive trait for any learning resource), it will nevertheless feel slightly tiring for the more experienced translation professional. DSC_0656

Overall, however, complaints are few and far between. An overarching focus on the human aspect of an often de-personalised profession  provides the crux of an extremely valuable message and makes this book an ideal purchase for the modern translation professional (ideas such as developing effective communication skills, constantly improving and concentrating on the value that you can add as a translator are all prominent). Ultimately, the book summarises the range of challenges facing the modern-day translator and attempts to inspire you to get the most out of your skills.

Written with an understated authority and a sense of humour that makes it a pleasure to read, 101 Things a Translator Needs to Know is a worthy addition to any language professionals’ bookshelf and stacks up favourably alongside other introductions to the profession.

Reading up on translation: 5 mini reviews

There’s something a little different in store for my post today with an attempt to give a little something back: over the course of the last few years, I’ve spent many long hours poring over books of all shapes and sizes to satisfy my need for all things translation and I thought a few mini-reviews of what I consider to be the best introductory texts would be a great way to try to provoke a little bit of interest in the field.

Personally, I find translation theory fascinating and have read much of what translation studies as a discipline has to offer, even to the extent of reading Palumbo’s ‘Key Terms in Translation Studies’ (essentially a glossary of the key terms in the discipline) from cover to cover. If it sounds like a far-fetched claim, it is important to consider that, as a fairly young discipline, the amount of literature on the subject isn’t actually that big and can be covered in a few months of intensive study.

Of course, the list is not comprehensive by any means; despite my constant scouring of the market for new literature, there remain texts that I maybe should have come across and if you can recommend anything I may have overlooked, or anything that you think will be of interest, then please leave a comment or drop me a line on Twitter.

The reviews only scratch the surface of what each of these great books has to offer, but hopefully it is enough to whet the appetite:


Found in Translation – Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche

I thought I would start with one of the more recent additions to my bookshelf, and a book that is currently making waves in translation circles following its release last year and many positive reviews. ‘Found in Translation’ is a collection of anecdotes on the subject which are both accessible and hugely entertaining. Anyone with even a passing interest in languages or translation will find it fascinating and it is the perfect place to start if you want to indulge a potential interest in the area. While the bold claim in the blurb describing it as ‘by far the most meaningful book on the subject of translation that I have ever seen’ may be going a bit far, this book takes steps to put translation on the map and that is exactly what the profession and the discipline need.

Is that a fish in your ear – David Bellos

This book pre-dates ‘Found in Translation’ by a year or two and is written to largely the same end goal: another collection of anecdotes which aim to inspire interest in the field, and it is one that really delivers. Written with a sense of humour that makes it a joy to read, Bellos provides an insight into how translation has shaped the world we live in and how it affects our daily lives. Criticised as being slightly inaccessible for the uninitiated while also lacking adequate substance for more academic tastes, it may not be as suited to testing a tentative curiosity as the previous book, but the author’s style and the content actually make this my (marginal) pick of the two.

In Other Words – Mona Baker

Rather than a collection of anecdotes on the subject, this book is more scholarly in nature and stands as an invaluable companion to the budding translator getting to grips with the subject. There are other introductions to the discipline out there (Susan Bassnett’s ‘Translation Studies’ is the go-to book for many people looking to get into the field and has an excellent, detailed history of the discipline) and other introductory textbooks (Peter Newmark’s ‘Textbook of Translation’ and Jeremy Munday’s ‘Introduction to Translation Studies’ among the best known) out there, but Baker’s coursebook is an amalgamation of the best aspects of each of these and provides a substantial guide to the challenges that translation offers, all coupled with practical examples which serve to help the new student orientate themselves in an alien discipline full of terms and ideas that can otherwise seem overwhelming.

The Scandals of Translation – Lawrence Venuti

The name of Lawrence Venuti has become one that goes hand in hand with translation studies as a discipline, and it is his work that forms the core of the canon. While Baker’s book ventures into more scholarly territory, Venuti’s goes far beyond the outskirts and represents the heart of scholarship. This can make it heavy-going for readers looking for something more accessible but with that said, there are very few authors who have managed to show the extents of translation’s power in the globalised world, and this book is absolutely fascinating for anyone interested in the humanities. ‘The Translator’s Invisibility’ is a similarly absorbing read which further develops his theoretical ideas, but I feel that ‘Scandals’ provides just a little more accessibility to merit its inclusion here.

Can Theory Help Translators? – Chesterman and Wagner

The last of the books on the list is a bit of a departure from the others as it doesn’t represent an introduction to the area at all. However, it addresses a question that causes ongoing debate in the field, and a question which I personally have tried to find answers to. There is a clear vacuum between translation theory and practice; many (maybe even most) freelance translators have very little or no knowledge of theory and still manage to do their job to exceptionally high standards, calling into question the necessity of theory. As such, this book throws a theorist and a professional together in an attempt to ascertain whether or not one can help the other and, while ultimately posing more questions than it answers, it is a must read for anyone curious of the link between the two and the benefits of theoretical knowledge.

As mentioned before, please get in touch with suggestions for books that I may have overlooked or books you have enjoyed, I’m always looking for new reads in the area!

The Magic of Translation

After recently posting on issues that don’t relate directly to translation in the traditional sense, I wanted to try to write something firmly on topic while still being accessible and targeting popular culture.The area of discussion in this post is literary translation which, while evading the majority of professional freelance translators, is still a huge part of the profession.

While much of the current focus in Translation Studies hinges on the acceptability of the prevailing strategy when working with literary texts which, due to a prioritisation of commercial interests, is to ‘domesticate’ the foreign text – to make the text read fluently so as not to pose difficulties to the reader and, ultimately, to give the impression that what you are reading is not a translation (one great metaphor I’ve come across likens translation to contraception in the way that the less it is noticed, the better it seems!) – I wanted to look at a quick example to try and simply demonstrate the extent of creative re-writing involved in literary translation in order to offer a small indication of the challenges posed by attempts to transfer meaning.

And what better example to use than the biggest of the big bestsellers: the Harry Potter series.

This series of books poses a huge range of translational obstacles and the overall aim of the translations is to try to reach the foreign audience with as much as possible of the many levels of meaning still in tact.

Features of the original such as the creation of new words, the repeated use of rhymes, anagrams, acronyms and cleverly formed names are just a few examples of such challenges and, by taking a few examples of wordplay and showing how they were dealt with, hopefully the strength of the translations – which ensured that the series became a global bestseller – will be clear.

As briefly mentioned above, names in the book often contain small plays on words and descriptions of the very character they name, with the example of Mad-Eye Moody being one prominent case in point. The French translation as Fol-Oeil Maugrey (with ‘maugréer’ meaning to grumble) manages to replicate much of the sound of the original while also maintaining this semi-hidden characterisation. Similarly, Madame Pomfrey (sounding like ‘frais’ meaning ‘fresh’) is neatly translated as Pomfresh in the French. Further still, the Sorting Hat of the original is cleverly renamed as La Choixpeau Magique (cleverly linking ‘chapeau’ (hat) and ‘choix (de) peau’ (choice of skin) to produce a magic skin choosing hat!)

One final, excellent example of the creativity in the translation lies in the key anagram of Tom Marvolo Riddle and ‘I Am Lord Voldemort’: the French translation of his name as Tom Elvis Jedusor initially seems rather strange, until you realise that this is an anagram of ‘Je suis Voldemort’. Then, when you add in the fact that Jedusor sounds like ‘jeux du sort’, meaning ‘games of chance’ and paralleling the English surname Riddle, you have an extremely clever translation.

Of course, certain languages have been left with versions that are less successful (the Italian ‘Cappello Parlante’ (‘talking hat’ for Sorting Hat) is much less effective, and Madame Poppy Chips (for Pomfrey) is simply bizarre) and I can’t come close to even scratching the surface of the vast range of interventions that have been made throughout the entire series, but hopefully with these few examples I have managed to hint at the amount of linguistic gymnastics involved in transferring even small aspects of meaning that we take for granted from one language to another.