Issue 2 | ,

Equivalence and fidelity in literary translation

by on February 12, 2015

We are often enchanted by the great classics of world literature, but rarely do we spare a thought for the process that these literary works undergo to reach us. Who amongst us has not spent time reading Dostoyevsky’s great classics, the celebrated works of Greek philosophers, or the equally fascinating stories of Oriental literature? Would we have had contact with such immortal and landmark works of human history if not for the art of translation? With this in mind, I consider the issue of fidelity in translation, and reflect upon the issue of textual equivalence in a translator’s work.

A discussion of equivalence

If we were to look up the word ‘equivalence’ in the dictionary, we would likely find this definition: “quality of that which is equivalent”; that is to say, when two facts or situations are compared, they are symmetrical to each other if they present a relationship of logical equality, in such a way that one of them is only true if the other is as well. However, in applying that etymological definition to the domain of translation, we come across one of the greatest areas of ongoing discussion among specialists in translation, and even linguistics in general. This is because some pragmatic factors are involved in the attempt at achieving unity, homogeneity, and equivalence (in its literal meaning) between the translated text and the original.

According to translation scholar Katharina Reiss, it is possible to approach the ideal of equivalence in two ways: formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence. Formal equivalence permits the symmetrical transmission of a source text (or original) into a translated text. Here, the most important criterion is the preservation of the canonical form of the textual genre and the literal translation of the words. On the other hand, dynamic equivalence is preoccupied with retaining not only the linguistic proximity of the structure and of the words, but the feeling of the message as well; not hesitating, for example, to modify and adapt where necessary. It could be said that the translator’s role is thus transformed from one of ensuring textual equivalence and grammatical accuracy into that of a co-author.

Taking these factors into account, it becomes necessary to analyse these two forms of equivalence in translation. Firstly, one cannot deny that all translations performed by a competent translator remain faithful to the original text in some way, whether by means of formal or dynamic equivalence. The quality of the translation will therefore depend on what path of equivalence the translator chooses to follow in the execution of his work: either to substitute textual material in one language with denotatively equivalent material in the other; or to create correspondence between the linguistic units, independent of any idea of content.

Faithfulness to the text, faithfulness to the meaning

Yet surely, if translation is thought of as a process of rebirth or transformation, how can one even speak of fidelity? Firstly, one must be aware that the role of the translator is, above all, that of co-authorship. He, with his life experiences, with his worldly knowledge, with his command of the topic, will reveal, in a language different from the original text, the content of the original. It is important to maintain this view of fidelity as the preservation of the original idea and topic, but nothing can impede the manner by which the translator expresses the idea in the target language (language to which it will be translated), even if it is dynamic and variable.

We know that, frequently, in the translator’s work, direct and significant intervention is not only advisable, but sometimes ever so necessary. However, depending on the genre of the source text, some attempts at translation are largely ineffectual in their efforts to allow for full reader comprehension, such as those relating to poetic texts and idiomatic expressions (including popular sayings or other regional and folkloric particularities, many of them peculiar to an individual culture). Some claim that it is impossible to translate Camoens’ Lusiads or Dante’s Divine Comedy into a Slavic or Oriental language without betraying the ideas that the authors intended to convey, categorically affirming that good translations of the works need necessarily to set the translator free of the author’s words. And if the translator does not fully grasp the author’s thoughts, the words she chooses will not accurately express the original idea, thereby turning the translated work into a failed and faulty attempt, and the translator into an accomplished traitor.

But what is fidelity then, if changes, sometimes so significant, are permitted? Fidelity in translation is not simply “equivalence” between word and text, but an attempt at making the target text work in the target culture in the same way it works in the source culture. Because of that, translators are often said to be faithful so long as they provide what their clients seek.

Taking all this into account, there appears to be no way to define the work of literary translation except that it is a deftly constructed art and is one that should be honourably recognised, because translators, far from being traitors, are competent professionals who dedicate their time and energy to communicating faithfully in another language, the essential meaning of the source text, while simultaneously addressing the cultural realities of both reader and author. And, even if, eventually, some direct changes are necessary in the source text, they are always made with the intention of preserving that most important element of the text: meaning.

Without these “traitorous” translators, how many immeasurable riches would have been lost to humanity over all these centuries of writing? Although there have been a few remarkably gifted individuals in history capable of reading in various languages, they cannot possibly consume literature in every single language. What would become of the literary culture of a people, or the construction of their critical thought, if they did not have the undeniable and laudable aid of literary translations?

Throughout this reflection, we consider a translator a professional in the art of translation who carries out her work with responsible freedom and fidelity to the most essential part of her text: its meaning. This translator should never be seen as a traitor if the context of the translation demands direct and significant intervention—and in many a case, it does. Similarly, in the end, fidelity should never be taken in the sense of literal equivalence, nor the choice of the most consummate words, nor even stylistic imitation, but in the preservation of the original meaning that is the essence of the text and which, above all, should be protected by the translator.

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