Approaches to Translating


I am currently reading an essay called “Translating Medieval European Poetry” by Burton Raffel. As far as I can tell, Raffel seems to be a fan of completely rewriting the words so that they express the same sentiments elicited from the audience of that era. For example, if a poem refers to something that was common knowledge back then but may no longer be common knowledge now, he, as a translator, will not translate it exactly. Instead, he will either explain context within the poem or change it completely. He uses Beowulf as an example. There is a section of the poem that directly translates to:

“Often… he took away (deprived) of their mead hall seats crowds of enemies, many tribes (people, nations)”

…which can literally mean:

“More than once, he pulled seats in the mead-hall out from beneath troops of his foes, tribe after tribe”

Although we may come to understand what that means in context, we don’t get the same rhythm and cadence of the original poem, nor do we get the full brunt of the meaning. Depriving a free warrior of his rightful seat in the mead hall means you are depriving them of their freedom (turning him into a slave), and that is usually done in battle, war. That is what the audience of that time would have gotten – something frightening and awe-inspiring rather than something that feels weirdly worded. So the author translates it as:

“He made slaves of soldiers from every/ Land, crowds of captives he’d beaten/ Into terror”

Completely different, but gives the audience the same feeling that the old audience might have felt.

Raffel also says using exact translations is not faithfulness to the text but rather pedantry and “poetry’s deadly enemy” which made me laugh. Translators are so dramatic. Perhaps he is correct.

Another translator, Lydia Davis, takes a different approach to translation. She believes in straying as little as possible from the original text. From her introduction to a translation of Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert in “Some Kind of Beautiful Signal”, it can be induced that many translators take a “re-writing” approach in order to convey the irony, the type of vocabulary, the level of diction and order of elements, the overall style of the work. However, she believes that translating it truthfully will bring out the irony or the style just as it is brought out in the original work. She does concede that a literal translation is not a well-written one, but gifted writers who add phrases and amplify or recombine sentences of the original work often lose the essence of that which they are translating. She compromises the two approaches then – a well written yet faithful translation.

I think the approach one takes to translation depends on what one is translating and what languages are involved. Perhaps it is easier to stay faithful and convey the meaning of more contemporary works compared to more archaic ones. In any case, most translators seem to believe that translation is a compromise and will not always be the same as the original. Perhaps it is like how a movie adaptation is never quite the same as the book. What makes a good adaptation however, is whether the movie captured the spirit of that book.


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