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.

Translation as Music

In the past I’ve written about my love for metaphor within translation (on two separate occasions no less) and this post roughly picks up from there. Previously, I’ve taken a look at the metaphors that have been formed over the years in an attempt to shed light upon the (supposedly impossible) task that we, as translators, tackle on a daily basis. This time around, meanwhile, I aim to delve deeper into one particular connection that is frequently made – that of translation and music.

As a keen musician when I’m not translating, this link is something I love to explore (I wrote a post looking at applications of translation within music a while back) and first off here are a few famous examples of the two being drawn together:

“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

“Music, ‘the universal language’, is what poetic writing aims to be.” – Suzanne Jill Levine

“All writers aim to be musicians.” – the narrator in Infante’s Inferno by Cabrera Infante

Yet rather than aiming to merely recount occasions when a link has been made between translation and music, this post intends to take a preliminary look at a new potential means of viewing the relationship between the two. While translation is so often considered a secondary, derivative task, there is an interesting thread to follow within musical metaphor making that may help us to challenge this subordination.

If such a strong link exists between translation and music, then why not see translation as a cover version of a track? Covers share the same status as a translation: they are an interpretation, a reading of anoriginal. Just like translation, the fact that they cannot stake a claim to utter originality is also without doubt, but that doesn’t mean that they cannot equal, or even surpass, this original.

As cover versions often go on to seal their place in a different style and era, translations too can breathe new life into a text and come to represent something beyond their source. This value is subjective of course, but the possibility seems undeniable.

One nice example that demonstrates the potential existence of a superior cover/translation is the 1967 Bob Dylan track All Along the Watchtower. While Dylan’s original recording is a classic in its own right, the song is almost overwhelmingly identified with the version Jimi Hendrix recorded for Electric Ladyland (below) just six months after Dylan’s track was released. Hendrix’s cover went on to become a Top 20 single in 1968 and was ranked 47th in Rolling Stone magazine’s ‘500 Greatest Songs of All Time’, making it by far the more successful of the two.

Indeed, when describing his reaction to hearing Hendrix’s version, Dylan himself said: “It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there.”

Furthermore, Dylan subsequently took to basing his own performances of the song on Hendrix’s version, something he openly admits: “[Hendrix] probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.” Now, when listening back to later live performances of the track, it is clear how much Dylan’s own take on the song has been influenced by Hendrix’s cover.

When considered in the context of translation, this example calls to mind the famous quote by Salman Rushdie: “It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling obstinately to the notion that something can also be gained.”

In overturning the dominant view of translation as a secondary task that struggles in vain to live up to an immovable original, this metaphor serves to provide a stronger image of the task at hand and the profession as a whole. While it still reflects the inescapable fact that a translation is not an original production, the image of translation as a cover version demonstrates the power that translation can nevertheless wield and the immense value that it offers. Ultimately, alternative meaning and originality complement each other – neither makes up a whole on its own.

What are your thoughts on the subject? Are there any other musical metaphors you’ve come across? To finish of with, here’s a fitting quote from Paul Blackburn that takes us back to Dylan’s 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home:

In your view, what is a translator?
A man who brings it all back home. In short, a madman.

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.

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.