Translation’s Identity Crisis

In today’s post I want to take a quick glance at the content and usage of some famous quotes from translation history in an attempt to explore the curious way that translation is viewed and views itself.

For so long now translation has struggled with its identity as a supposedly second-rate activity, with its derivative link to writing, the subservient implications of following someone else’s words and the sense of distrust that the process elicits all feeding into a fairly unflattering stereotype.

This being the case, it is only natural that its practitioners would want to address the way their activity is viewed and, as such, so often in talking about translation we see mentions of artistry and the unfathomable complexity of our task. Unfortunately, it seems to me that this is often done in an attempt to gloss over underlying anxieties related to invisibility and unimportance that remain at the heart of the profession.

Looking through a range of the most frequently cited quotes on translation provides the perfect glimpse into this situation; the majority fall into two distinct categories that neatly characterise the state of our profession from a psychological perspective – ultimately verging on the emergence of a bipolar image of translation and a serious inferiority complex.

The first set of quotations (examples in green below) is filled with a sense of grandeur that ensures that  translation becomes the most important thing in the world, overcompensating for underlying anxieties as a means of justifying career choices and supposedly reinforcing professional standing (echoes of this are found in the title of Lawrence Venuti’s recent release – Translation Changes Everything).

The other set, meanwhile, (examples in red below) directly addresses the underlying worries about unworthiness and inability in our activity and ultimately reverts to the insecurities mentioned above. These quotes reinforce the negative image of copying (e.g. translation as ‘an echo’) and emphasise ideas of failure and loss.

While the true image of translation perhaps lies somewhere in the middle, it is fascinating to see the contrast in viewpoints: the impressions given are either hugely impressive or overwhelmingly disparaging, rarely anything less. (One quote that I do feel finds quite a nice balance and gives a valuable image of translation is this from Edith Grossman: ‘A translation is not made with tracing paper. It is a critical interpretation.’)


Translation is one of the few human activities in which the impossible occurs by principle – Mariano Antolín Rato

Writers make national literature, while translators make universal literature – José Saramago

Translators are the shadow heroes of literature, the often forgotten instruments that make it possible for different cultures to talk to one another, who have enabled us to understand that we all, from every part of the world, live in one world – Paul Auster

Without translation, we would be living in provinces bordering on silence – George Steiner

Translation is the circulatory system of the world’s literatures – Susan Sontag

Translation is that which transforms everything so that nothing changes – Grass Günter

Translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture – Anthony Burgess

Translation is entirely mysterious. Increasingly I have felt that the art of writing is itself translating, or more like translating than it is like anything else – Ursula K. Le Guin

Poetry is what gets lost in translation – Robert Frost

As far as modern writing is concerned, it is rarely rewarding to translate it, although it might be easy. Translation is very much like copying paintings – Boris Pasternak

Nothing which is harmonized by the bond of the Muse can be changed from its own to another language without destroying its sweetness – Dante

Translation is sin – Grant Showerman

Poetry cannot be translation – Samuel Johnson

Translation is at best an echo – George Borrow

Translation is the art of failure – Umberto Eco

What is lost in the good or excellent translation is precisely the best – Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel

For me, Eco’s lament perfectly sums up the bipolar view of translation that has dominated history: an overall sense of futility is combined with the elegant label of translation as art.

These days, the positive quotes crop up with great regularity in translation circles and are undeniably pleasant to read. They give us a sense of recognition and allow us to convince ourselves that translation is equal to, or even surpasses, writing. We become ‘heroes’, cultural saviours or super-powered readers who do the ‘impossible’ for the good of the universe.

Beyond their extravagance, however, the main problem here lies in the fact that in using these quotes within translation circles (as is so often the case) we are looking inward in an act of patting ourselves on the back, lauding the fact that we achieve this ‘impossible’ goal on a daily basis while the outside world still doesn’t see the significance of our work.

Translation needs to develop its wider image in order to be seen as a truly legitimate profession and what we need to change is the misguided perceptions that exist of what is involved in our task. Outside of translation the most commonly used cliché is that of things being ‘lost in translation’ and this reflects badly on us. In professional terms, meanwhile, translation is all too often viewed as a part-time activity that anyone with some knowledge of a second language can fit into their spare time to earn a bit of extra pocket-money.

In schools (in the UK at least) we are taught from the very outset that translation is merely a means of ensuring comprehension. When faced with the command ‘translate this passage’ in an exam we are to show that we have done our vocabulary homework – notions of entire contexts or cultures are completely ignored.

Nowhere is it mentioned that so much of our literature, so much of the world around us has undergone this process of translation, leaving us with the implication that it is just a case of swapping one word for another.

I’ve often tried to dispel myths such as these in my blog by demonstrating the complexity of the task at hand but claiming that we are producing works of art or changing the world on a daily basis (as seen above) smacks of overcompensation when given the reality of the situation. Indeed, this in turn feeds into a lack of professional credibility as we can’t expect to be taken seriously if we make such outlandish claims beyond our own community.

Ultimately, ideas such as that of good translation going unnoticed may well be deeply engrained (to the extent of being the ideal by which translations are judged in many professional contexts) but we can still increase awareness of what we do. Unfortunately, in offering up exaggerated accounts of our work’s demands to one-another or wallowing in self-pity, we are going about it the wrong way.

It is clear that translation remains misunderstood by so many people and perhaps what is needed is a focus on consistently and clearly explaining what is at stake to communities beyond the confines of the discipline/profession for them to learn to trust and value translation for what it is.

What is certain for now is that translation needs to be more secure in its own identity. Our inability to provide perfection has gradually led to the development of a profession that can seem to be unduly insufficient. We need to be not only sure of our own value, but also realistic about the value we offer as we look to overcome this professional identity dilemma.