Notes

The Myth of Literal Translation: “Why do so many translators feel a need to shoot it down?”

David Bellos, “The Myth of Literal Translation,” Is That a Fish in Your Ear: The Amazing Adventure of Translation

[A]rguments against literal translation go back almost as far as written translation itself. … ¶ [F]ew commentators on translation have ever come out in favor of a literal or word-for-word style. Literal translation is precisely what translators in the broad Western tradition don’t do. But if literal translation is not a widespread practice, why do so many translators feel a need to shoot it down — often with overwhelming force?

I wonder why, too.

Octavio Paz… stated the standard view in more recent times: “I’m not saying a literal translation is impossible, only that it’s not a translation.”

How far back does it go? … Cicero… Horace… but a long sentence written by St. Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin … can be taken as the first full formulation of the lop-sided dispute between “literal” and “free” …: “… apart from translations of sacred scriptures from the Greek, where even the order of the words is a mysterium, I express not the word for the word but the sense for the sense.” …

To put it in a slacker style, “I only translate word for word where the original — even its word order — is completely impenetrable to me.” That is of course what translators have always done. For the most part, they transmit the sense; where the sense is obscure, the best they can do — because unlike ordinary readers they are not allowed to skip — is to offer a representation of the separate words of the original. …

The expression “literal meaning,” taken literally, is a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron and a nonsense. ¶ What we probably meant in the distant past when we asserted something was “literally true” in order to emphasize that it was really true, true to a higher degree than just being true, was that it was among those rare things that were worthy of being “put into letters,” of being written down. …

“Literal” isn’t “Word Magic” any more, it’s just a hangover from the past. The terms of debate about translation and meaning need to be updated, and the long-lasting scrap between literal and free should now be laid to rest. …

[A]ll that is actually meant by calling something a literal translation is a version that preserves meaning in grammatical forms appropriate to the language of the translation. It’s just a translation — a plain, ordinary, actual translation of the source. … The left-side player in the long and frustrating game of squash between “literal” and “free” doesn’t really exist.

I cringe when I listen to Bible translators speak strongly against “literal” translation. I’m interested to hear their argument but disappointed when they give poor examples of word-for-word translation of their own making. The other side of their argument is a straw man.


Bellos also describes a good occasion for actual “word-for-word” translation: in school. Literal translation helps students learn to read and write foreign languages. But he suggests the use of another term to describe this important process: “wording.”

Wording translations and facing-page translations (which almost always uses matching sentence length) are not “bad” ways to translate. They are language operations with specific finalities, serving communicative and educational purposes proper to them and to nothing else. Translation is not just one thing; how best to do it depends on what you are doing it for.

No Bible translation in use is a “wording” of Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew. Even if it were, it would have a purpose, particularly for students of biblical languages, such as Bible translators.